Celtic Well


From: "Skip Ellison" sellison@twcny.rr.com
Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2006 08:54:15 -0500
Subject: RE: ~Celtic Well Ogham

In response to: The Ogham was created because of a need to write things down, such as people's names, specifically on grave markers. Recommended reading: Damien McManus "A Guide to the Ogham" That was pretty easy. -- Tearlach

I agree that was the primary reason, but we can document from the source material at least five additional uses of the ogham. They are: as a normal alphabet, as secret writings or codes, as a mnemonic list to memorize important information, as a gesture language, for divination and for magical purposes.

As to why it was invented, I've always like the way Damian McManus put it on page 150 in "A Guide to the Ogham", ""The inventor here is Ogma mac Elathan who is said to have been skilled in speech and poetry and to have created the system as proof of his intellectual ability and with the intention that it should be the preserve of the learned, to the exclusion of the rustics and fools."

I think one of the keys parts to this is this, "proof of his intellectual ability and with the intention that it should be the preserve of the learned, to the exclusion of the rustics and fools." In other words, he *could* do it and only people as smart as he was would be able to read it ;-) This ties in with several of the other uses for the oghams.

To talk about those other uses in the order I listed them above, for the alphabet, along with the records we have from the various ogham stones, there are at least 2 records in the primary sources that talk about the ogham being used to write things down, one in "The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal," found in verse 66 here and the other in 'In Lebor Ogaim' in the Book of Ballymote.

As secret writings or codes, there are 3 of the 'other oghams' that are specifically referred to as 'cipher oghams' and there are 38 more that are obviously used as ciphers in that they are written using the original letters but in 'mixed-up' fashion. And then there are a further 43 types of oghams that are created using completely different letters. I go into greater detail on all of these in my book "The Druid's Alphabet," but will be happy to discuss the uses of any of these specifically.

In the use as a mnemonic list to memorize information, we have 11 oghams that use the names of birds, churches, river pools, food, herbs, etc to represent the letters. It is from these lists that many of the 'associations' used today with the tree ogham come from. One should also bear in mind that some of those 'modern' association lists are *NOT* based on the initial sound value in Old Irish as the original lists are, and so do not reflect anything the original uses of the oghams would recognize.

For the use as a gesture language, there are the foot ogham, nose ogham, shin ogham and palm of hand ogham which are recorded as being used as a form of sign language. By this I mean that the part of the body they were named from was used as the stem line and the letters formed with the fingers over it. They could be used in a public setting and people not familiar with the language wouldn't be able to tell what was happening.

Now for the 2 most controversial uses, divination and magic. Although many people think that ogham was used in the past for divination, there are really very few references to it. One of the oghams, boy ogham is specifically used to divine the sex of an unborn child. McManus gives a quote to a reference of a 'Druid using oghams made from yew' to find the location of Etaine in Tochmarc Etaine, The Wooing of Etaine, but I have a problem with it because I can't find those words in the English translations online today or in the original Old Irish text. There is one other divination method quoted frequently online that I have also had trouble tracking down in the primary material. That is the 'crannchur', the "casting of the woods" to determine quilt or innocence in trials. So for divination we do have at least one recorded use, even if others may not be so accurate, or I just haven't found enough proof to satisfy my curiosity ;-)

And for magical uses, here we are on a little better ground. On pages 56 & 57 in "Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum," R.A.S. Macalister shows a sheep bone that is inscribed with ogham and other symbols that cannot really be translated into any words. He speculates that it may have had a magical or divinatory use. He also talks about a healing talisman, an amber bead inscribed with ogham, that has been used for generations in one family that is now in the British Museum. There is also a slab of rock on Mount Eagle in County Kerry, that bears markings similar to the ones on the amber bead, that has a local reputation of being used for healing.

So all in all, a little more than just to write things down ;-) -- Bright Blessings, Rev. Skip Ellison

From: "Stiof MacAmhalghaidh" calraige@eircom.net
Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2006 14:19:44 -0000
Subject: RE: ~Celtic Well Ogham

In response to: I'm remembering reading an article somewhere that made the comparison between the ogham and roman tally marks. Keep in mind that it was a late 19th cy. article written by an Englishman, and much of the thrust of the article was the primitive, and therefore, backward nature of the ogham and the Irish in general. -- Mark Cantwell

There are so many theories as to the source - Roman, Greek, Phoenician, Scandinavian... Some people even think that the Irish actually came up with the script all on their own. Mad, eh?

The earliest examples are from Ireland, most are from Ireland, those in Britain are from areas known or reputed to have been subject to Irish settlement...Coming at it with an open mind it looks very much like the script originated in Ireland. The idea that the Roman alphabet was an influence is plausible as it is a script in common use in the island next door, and used presumably by traders also. However, the business of where the actual system of marks used came from... well, it is more or less a unique system. There is no precedent outside Ireland as a *script*, and as the system of marks is highly ordered and made up of simple marks, it looks to me like exactly the sort of system one would create if one was inclined to ordered, logical thinking. A D mission time... I spent several years a long time ago playing languages - inventing languages, grammars, scripts etc. - with a group of equally nerdy people as part of an equally nerdy co-operative fantasy society development thing - map-making, developing philosophical systems, histories, literatures etc. Fun but pointless. Pointless... but fun 8-)

The thing is, when designing scripts people have this strong inclination to base their 'alphabet' on systems they are familiar with. Thus, many attempts we came up with initially assumed structures and/or symbols not unlike those familiar to us. This became obvious fairly quick, followed by extensive research into non-European scripts and sets of phonemes & their relationships. The results were at times very pretty scripts. Really, really beautiful (especially mine, of course!). However, what this has shown me, and it is something I think of every time I read McManus' discussion of the origins of ogam, that if the Roman script and its associated phonemes were the true direct, strong influence on ogam, we should expect the set of phonemes to match the Roman, with those found in Irish and not in Latin being tagged to the end of the list, and more importantly, we should expect the ordering of symbols in the ogam 'alphabet' to coincide quite well with the Roman, and most important of all, we should expect to see many of the symbols of the Roman script turning up in ogam. On this last point, we can say with confidence that the Roman script had no influence at all (though that might be a conscious decision on the part of the creators of ogam). The other matters of the choice of phonemes and their ordering do seem to have resulted in some way from Latin, though th various schemes outlined in McManus all fail ultimately to provide a satisfactory result. McManus himself has this to say, with which I cannot but agree:

"It becomes increasingly obvious, therefore, not only that the creators of Ogam were of an independent frame of mind, but also that they did not intend the alphabet to function as a mere cipher to the Latin alphabet. ... The evidence suggests that they had a language with a phonemic inventory of its own in mind, that the creation was accompanied by a careful analysis of the sounds of that language, and that the alphabet was designed as a vehicle for them." -- McManus, A Guide to Ogam, 31.

I would echo others here in highly recommending McManus to anyone interested in appreciating ogam properly. It is one of those rare books that creates on its own a real shift in how people approach a subject - it is not possible to properly study ogam without this book. Other than this, R.A.S. Macalister's Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, vol. 1 is very useful as it is the 'founding text' for modern studies on the matter. Cathy Swift's Ogam Stones & the Earliest Irish Christians develops a careful analysis of the relationship between the earliest Christian inscriptions in Ireland and the ogam inscriptions within the context of the early years of Christianity in Ireland. It is built, overtly, on the basis laid out by McManus (especially his chronology) and should be considered important in itself, but more so for people here as it addresses head-on the relationship between use of ogam and religion. Almost everything else worth reading about ogam is found in journal articles or as single discussions tucked into large collections, and an awful lot of it is hardcore linguistics stuff which can be like reading mathematical equations if you're not used to it. -- Stiof

From: "Morgan Beard" morbeard@gmail.com
To: Celtic-Well@yahoogroups.com
Date: Mon Feb 26, 2007 17:16
Subject: Re: ~Celtic Well - tree Ogham

In response to: Thank you very much for this. However, if it means "neck' what is it doing in the list of trees? Everything else in the list is at least a plant or an herb. Now I am really confused.

Actually, if you read the word oghams in the original "Auraicept na nEces", you'll see that they're not really tree-lists at all. Most letters have trees associated with them, but not all; some have more than one; sometimes the same tree is associated with two or more different letters. And that's within the same list; forget consistency between different lists! It's only with Graves' "The White Goddess" that we get the idea that the ogham is a single tree list and that each letter has one specific tree associated with it.

As an example, here's a couple of word-lists from the Auraicept. (Note: for the sake of time and brevity, I'm including only the words associated with each letter, not the full text.)

Word-list of Fenius:
beithe = birch
luis = elm
fern = alder
nin = maw of the spear, nettles
uath = test-tree or whitethorn
dur = oak
tinne = holly or elderberry
coll = hazel
quert = holly, or quicken tree, or aspen
muin = vine, mead [from it]
gort = cornfield, fir
getal = broom
straif = willowbrake
onn = furze or ash
ur = thorn
edad = yew
ida = service tree
ebad = elecampine
oir = spindle tree
uilleann = ivy
pin = pine or gooseberry
ifin = "secundum alios is the name of that letter"
emancoll = witch hazel

The Word-Ogham of Mac ind Oic:
(again, giving the listed meanings of the letter only, not the kennings or their translations, which are different from the letter itself)

b = birch
l = quicken tree
f = alder
s = willow
n = ash
h = fear
d = oak
t = holly
c = hazel
m = a man's back
g = ivy
str = sloe
r = sap of the rose, or elder
a = first expression
o = stone
u = heath
e = aspen
i = service tree
ea = aspen
oi = heath
ui = woodbine
io = gooseberry

The Auraicept na nEces is a great resource, as is McManus' "A Guide to Ogam". McManus in particular devotes many, many pages to the linguistic derivation of each letter and the name of each letter, going back to the Indo-European roots. I can't recommend either of these books strongly enough for anyone seriously interested in ogham. - Morgan