Ogham is an alphabetical script used originally for inscriptions in an archaic form of Irish, consisting of 20 characters (plus 5 added later). Each character consists of one or more strokes or notches for consonants and/or vowels cut across or upon a central line on a stone or piece of wood. Ogham is sometimes referred to as the "Celtic Tree Alphabet", although this is a modern interpretation.
The 'Ogham' spelling, is more modern than the 'Ogum' or 'Ogam' spelling; and in modern Irish is pronounced OH-um or OH-am, and in old Irish is pronounced og-uhm or aw-guhm.
(For audio pronunciation guide, click here).
ORIGINS OF OGHAM
The 'Auraicept na nÉces' ("the scholars' primer") is one of our three main sources of the manuscript tradition about Ogham, the others being 'In Lebor Ogaim' and 'De dúilib feda na forfed'. A copy of 'In Lebor Ogaim' immediately precedes the 'Auraicept' in the 'Book of Ballymote', but instead of the Bríatharogam Con Culainn (word ogham of CúChulainn) given in other copies, there follows a variety of other secret modes of Ogham.
The 'Auraicept na nÉces' is a 7th century work of Irish grammarians, written by a scholar named Longarad. It was copied into the 14th century 'Book of Ballymote', and scribed by Solam Ó Droma, Robertus MacSithigh, and Magnus Ó Duibgennain. The 'Book of Ballymote' was named for the parish of Ballymote, County Sligo, Ireland, and was written in 1390 or 1391.
In 'Lebor Ogaim' ("the book of Ogams"), also known as the Ogam Tract, is an Old Irish treatise on the Ogham alphabet. The Ogam Tract also gives a variety of some 100 variant forms of writing Ogham (92 in the 'Book of Ballymote').
In the legendary account, the 'Ogam Tract' credits Ogma mac Elathan (believed to be cognate with the Gualish Ogmios) with the script's invention. Ogma, a champion of the Túatha Dé Danann, was according to this text, skilled in speech and poetry, and created the system for the learned.
Click link, to more about The Ogham
Tract - Auraicept na N-Éces.
THE OGHAM ALPHABET
The Ogham alphabet consists of twenty distinct characters (feda), arranged in four series aicmí (plural of aicme "family" or "group"). Each aicme was named after its first character (Aicme Beithe, Aicme hÚatha, Aicme Muine, Aicme Ailme, "the B Group", "the H Group", "the M Group", "the A Group"). Additional letters were later introduced in manuscript tradition, the so-called forfeda.
The letter names are interpreted as names of trees or shrubs in manuscript tradition, both in the Auraicept and In Lebor Ogaim. The Auraicept itself states that not all names are accurately transcribed as known tree names, saying: "Now all these are wood names such as are found in the Ogham Book of Woods, and are not derived from men", admitting that "some of these trees are not known today". The Auraicept gives a short verse for each letter, identifying the plant. Only four of the twenty primary letters have names that the Auraicept considers comprehensible without glosses, namely beith "birch", fearn "alder", saille "willow" and duir "oak". All the other names are glossed or "translated" with a plant name.
There were 20 original Oghams. Then 5 more were added much later, representing vowels, or diphthongs. There are inconsistencies among these additions, which include additional tree associations, and new-age interpretations.
The briatharogams are literally "word ogams" - two word sequences of kennings (in the Irish language) from which the names of the ogam letters can be derived. (The assignation to all tree names seems to have been a mistake by medieval glossators and perpetuated by "new age" neopagan approaches to ogham lore. The bríatharogam kennings do not point to all tree names).
The Word Ogham of Morann Mac Main (that he devised for himself), has been included as one example of Word Oghams, on each of the seperate Tree Pages of this website. I thought it of interest, that the kennings as a poetic phrase, were used as an aide in the recollection of the tree that each phrase represented.
TREE CLASSIFICATION UNDER BREHON LAW
Trees were so important to the Irish that they were even classified into different 'ranks' under Brehon Law, the legal system of the early Irish. Injury or illegal felling of such trees could result in Legal measures taken against the culprit, with a fine according to the 'rank' of the tree and the severity of the damage.
Translated by Professor Fergus Kelly, from the 'Bretha Comaithchesa' (Law of Neighborhood), an 8th Century Law Text:
"Kelly (Fergus): The Old Irish Tree-List
In Celtica 11 (1976) pp. 107-124.
Identifies the 28 trees and shrubs listed in the eighth-century legal tract Bretha Comaithchesa, which are divided into four groups of seven:
1. airig fedo ‘nobles of the wood’: daur ‘oak’, coll ‘hazel’, cuilenn ‘holly’, ibar ‘yew’, uinnius ‘ash’, ochtach ‘Scots pine?', aball ‘wild apple-tree’;
2. aithig fedo ‘commoners of the wood’: fern ‘alder’, sail ‘willow’, scé ‘whitehorn, hawthorn’, cáerthann ‘rowan, mountain ash’, beithe ‘birch’, lem ‘elm’, idath ‘wild cherry?';
3. fodla fedo ‘lower divisions of the wood’: draigen ‘blackthorn’, trom ‘elder, bore-tree’, féorus ‘spindle-tree’, findcholl ‘whitebeam?', caithne ‘arbutus, strawberry tree’, crithach ‘aspen’, crann fir ‘juniper?';
4. losa fedo ‘bushes of the wood’: raith ‘bracken’, rait ‘bog-myrtle’, aiten ‘gorse, furze’, dris ‘bramble, blackberry’, fróech ‘heather’, gilcach ‘broom?', spín ‘wild rose?'.
Also includes brief discussion of lecla and aín, variant names for ‘rushes’, and native trees and shrubs not included in the four classes".
Ogham is an ancient Irish alphabet, it is thought, first used by seer poets and Bards to pass coded messages, many of which were hidden in poetic form, and to write "in memoriam" messages on standing stones. The inscriptions were carved into stone, with the markings made in cross-section to an axis line, and were usually written vertically from bottom to top. It is also proposed that oghams were written on wooden staves, and some authors suggest that it could also have been used in signing with the hands and fingers, though this has not been proven.
The main evidence for use of ogham comes from the inscriptions of names, carved on standing stones sometime between the 5th & 6th centuries, whereas the ideas of signage or secretive code use is not as easily verifiable. There are variations in this type of script, and many types of Ogham (relating to people, places, and things), but the most well-known Ogham is associated with trees.
Because much of the ancient knowledge was passed down orally, this resulted in variations of the information when written down, hundreds of years later, by different scholars. This is why there are various (and sometimes conflicting) versions of the symbols, associated trees, the letter of the Irish alphabet it represented, and their sequential order in the alphabet in the case of the forfeda.
Ogham has also been used in divination. The inscriptions are typically carved onto seperate wooden staves (each stave is called a 'few'), representing each different corresponding Ogham letter/tree. The 'fews' are cast (tossed), and interpreted. Recently, "New Age" tarot-style card sets have become popular, with card-spreads used to divine the "wisdom of the trees".
ESOTERIC ASSOCIATIONS - AS THEY RELATE TO THE OGHAM TREES
THE TIME OF YEAR
There are numerous and varied modern interpretations of how the trees/shrubs of the Ogham relate to the time of year, and seasonal festivals. There are also differences in the sequential order of the trees, as well as the time of year, depending on which source the various authors have used. There is no evidence historically, that ogham was ever linked to a "tree calendar". This notion was proposed by the poet and writer Robert Graves and has been expounded upon by many modern writers.
I have researched numerous authors and their ogham esoteric descriptions, which include various reasons about what time of year each ogham tree represents. So I decided to include the associations that I personally feel comfortable with, (since they are open to interpretation, and neither 'right nor wrong').
Basically, the year begins with Birch. Some authors suggest the Celtic New Year begins at Samhuin, the eve of October 31. (I feel comfortable with this). Other authors suggest the New Year begins at Winter Solstice, December 21, when the days get longer (daylight hours lengthen). It seems to be a personal preference, and the Time of Year I use, is just a suggestion.
OTHER ESOTERIC ASSOCIATIONS
The Ogham Meanings, Colors, Deities, Animals, Birds, Planets, and Gender, are all once again, interpretations. I have tried to include many of the most commonly used associations, derived from many sources: of peoples' personal experiences, intuition, and historical data available in medieval tracts which describe the various forms of script and associations of the ogham characters, as they relate to the various ogham trees/shrubs or other objects. For verifiable name interpretations, old Irish studies in linguistics are required.