The Celtic Ogham: An Ancient Tree Alphabet that May Disappear Before Showing its Roots
In secluded fields, on the walls of churches, and beneath construction sites, stones have been found with intricate markings that rise from the lower left up to the center and then down to the lower right. This is the ancient Celtic Tree Alphabet known as Ogham (pronounced owam). Archaeological linguists have managed to translate the symbols, yet no one knows for certain how or why this language came into existence. Efforts are being made to preserve the relics, however, the stones are weathering and crumbling at an alarming rate.
Attempts to Preserve the Unique Inscriptions
There are roughly 400 stones known to contain Ogham markings, 360 of which are in Ireland. The rest have been discovered scattered across Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The oldest relic is believed to date back to the 4th century AD, but one must assume that earlier examples existed on perishable mediums, such as wood, possibly as far back as the 1st century AD.
Ogham stone located within a 12th century church at Ardmore Co Waterford. (mike65ie/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
For the most part, the messages contain names of people and places, perhaps to demarcate boundaries and property. These old, weathered rocks are covered with lines and slashes, cut directly into the stone. Before the realization that Ogham was a distinct language, many believed the cuts to be merely decorative.
One of the major problems facing archaeologists in their attempts to preserve Ogham stones is the unique physical style of the inscriptions. "Most inscriptions on stone are in the face of the stone," said Nora White, an archaeological linguist studying Ogham. "But with Ogham, it wraps around the angled edge of the stone."
Ogham stone, Aghadoe church, County Kerry. (Jeremy Keith/CC BY 2.0)
This unique reading experience is part of the allure of the Ogham writings, however, it makes it very difficult to capture the inscriptions for posterity - an ordinary photograph or drawing cannot capture an entire passage. Fortunately, recent technological advances have allowed researchers like White to create three-dimensional scans of the stone pillars. 3-D models of the known stones are quickly being captured and preserved as part of the ‘Ogham in 3-D Project,’ an initiative sponsored by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies’ School of Celtic Studies.
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Celtic Respect for Trees
The ancient Celts worshiped trees as spirits or as objects inhabited by spirits. Much of the Celtic mysticism revolves around the magical properties of different trees. For example, the birch tree is often considered the primary tree. A feminine power, the Druids believed that the magical properties of the birch included protection of children, creativity, and purification. Another important tree was the mighty oak. A masculine power, the magical prosperities of oak were linked to security, strength, and loyalty.
‘The Druid Grove.’ (Public Domain)
The Celtic respect for trees affected many aspects of their lives and is considered to be fundamental to the Ogham script. The markings center along a long vertical reference line, the ‘stem,’ which is then crossed by characters comprised of lines or slashes known as ‘twigs’. The first letter in this alphabet represents the ‘B’ sound and is made with a single straight line perpendicular to the stem on the right side. The name of this character is Beighe or birch tree and would look like this: I
Legends Behind the Language
Of the 20 characters that make up the Ogham alphabet, five are made up of straight-line twigs on the right side of the stem. In addition to Beighe, there is Luis (II), Fern (III), Sail (IIII), and Nin (IIIII). These characters represent, respectively, the letters L, W, S, and N; the names of the characters translate to herb, alder, willow, and letters.
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Although researchers have been able to decode Ogham, there is still a great deal of debate over the reason behind its invention, especially because the Latin script, and to a lesser extent Greek script, were in common usage at this point in time.
Legend has it that the language was first arranged as a result of the fall of the Tower of Babel. The great Fenius Farsa, King of the Scythians (Scythia is the classical Greek name for the Central Asian dominions) heard the fate of Nimrod’s people and came at once. In the King’s retinue were 72 scholars who hoped to study and make sense of the confused languages.
The Ogham alphabet. (Anárion/CC BY 1.0)
Unfortunately, by the time they reached the plain of Shinar, the cursed people had all dispersed. King Fenius thus sent his scholars out to the far edges of the known world in order to learn the multitude of languages. The search lasted for ten years and Fenius remained near the ruins of the Tower the whole time, waiting for his loyal servants to return with their findings. Once the search was complete, the King created a special language known as Bérla tóbaide. It was made up of the best elements of each of the confused languages. He also devised the Beithe-luis-nuin, a perfect writing system to accompany the new language. This script was commonly referred to as the Ogham.
‘The Tower of Babel’ (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch. (Public Domain)
This fantastic tale is not the only legend that exists to explain Ogham. Modern researchers also have a plethora of beliefs to explain the language’s purpose, and while they are not as extraordinary as the Legend of Fenuis Farsa, they are equally disputed.
Some scholars argue that Ogham was created so that the Irish could communicate without the British knowing what was being said (the Brits were the Celts’ enemy, even in the first centuries AD). Another hypothesis argues that the alphabet was composed by early Christian missionaries in Ireland because they found it difficult to capture the sounds of Gaelic with the Latin alphabet. Still another posits that Ogham was originally a secret hand signal language of the ancient Druids that ultimately made its way into permanence by being carved into stones. This idea rests on the similarity between the groupings of one to five twigs for a sound and the five fingers of the person passing on messages in a secret sign language. However, few academics believe this last hypothesis to be credible.
Ogham alphabet, Plumbridge. (Kenneth Allen/CC BY SA 2.0)
Archeologists continue working to find as many Ogham stones as possible and to create digital copies of them. Once the preservation of Ogham is secured, the business of comparing the messages with other ancient texts and symbols will begin in earnest in order to unveil the secrets behind the mysterious Irish tree language.
Ogham stone in the ground of Ratass Church in Tralee, Co. Kerry. (Jaqian/CC BY SA 3.0)
Top Image: Ogham sticks (A Walk Around Britain / Flickr)
Ager, Simon. "Ogham" Ogham Alphabet. Omniglot, 2016. Web. 09 July 2016. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ogham.htm
Giaimo, Cara. "Preserving Ireland's Ancient, Mysterious Tree-Based Alphabet." Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 19 May 2016. Web. 09 July 2016. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/preserving-irelands-ancient-mysterious-treebased-alphabet
Joelle. "Celtic Tree Calendar - Ogham Alphabet." Celtic Paths. Joelle's Sacred Grove, 1998. Web. 09 July 2016. http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/Celtic/tree.html