Ogham: Secret Celtic Language

The Ogham alphabet. Image by de:Benutzer:Filid (German Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ogham alphabet. Image by de: Benutzer: Filid (German Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chances are you’ve heard that the Celts passed all of their knowledge on orally, which is one of the reasons why we know so little for certain about their beliefs. This is true, but the Celts did have a system of written language, called Ogham.

The earliest inscriptions we have in this language date to somewhere in the 4th century, mostly in Ireland, Wales and Southern Britain. But some historians and archeologists believe it dates back much further than that – even as far back as the Sycthians, who may have been the Gaelic Celts’ ancestors dating to about 1300 BC (Laing 22). Ogham is mentioned often in ancient Irish myth, where it is said to be used for poetry, Druidic spells and even political challenges (Ellis 164-165). There is also evidence that Druidic books existed before Christianity, although we don’t know in what language they were written because they were burned. (Ellis 165).  The 4th century evidence we have mostly takes the form of Celtic tombstones (Laing 167-168), or as Matthews theorizes, tribal boundary markers (196). The main source of written knowledge about Ogham is a 14th century manuscript called The Book of Ballymote, now housed in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy.

Why Ogham?
Ogham was named after the Celtic god Ogma (Irish) or Ogmia (British), the god of literature and eloquence, who supposedly invented the script (Ellis 126). We know with relative certainty that the Druids corresponded with one another in Greek, and due to the extent of the Roman dominance over their lands, they knew Latin as well. But some people theorize that Ogham was developed as a secret language known only to those they trained (Matthews 196). However, some inscriptions have been found in Wales that include both Latin and Ogham (Alcock 241), so perhaps hiding knowledge from the Romans was not the only intent. Other people believe Ogham was developed by early Christian communities in Ireland as a sort of shorthand to aid in transcription of documents.

Written
Ogham can either be written or used as a kind of sign language (you’ll see both in my second book). Written, it appears to the modern eye like a series of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, the number and shape of which indicate the letters (Matthews 198-199). The alphabet had 20 characters, arranged in series of four. Later, five additional characters were added. Explaining what each letter looked like, was called and may have represented is beyond my expertise, so if you’re interested, check out this article on Wikipedia.

Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone (image is public domain via Wikimedia commons)

Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone (image is public domain via Wikimedia commons)

As Sign Language
The use of Ogham as sign language is very controversial and certainly not accepted by all historians. As hand signals, the fingers of the hand and certain locations on the palm represent letters or phrases. A person signing this way would use the placement of fingers across the shinbone, nose, thigh, foot or on the palm or fingers of the opposite hand to indicate a letter, word or phrase. Matthews even goes so far as to suggest that the sign language may have come first and been written down much later (199-200).

Other Uses
You may hear people refer to Ogham as the “Celtic tree alphabet” and call it a form of divination, but there is no historical evidence to back this up. Some modern groups cite Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess (p. 165 – 204) as the basis for these “facts.” While his book is a fascinating look at mythology, it’s not known for its reliability. Graves is the one who aligned the letters of Ogham with the “seasonal calendar of tree magic” and also re-ordered the letters. The divination that is associated with this comes from Tochmarc Étaíne, a tale in the Irish Mythological Cycle. In the story, the Druid Dalan takes four wands of yew, and writes Ogham letters upon them. Then he uses them as tools for divination. Based on this story, Graves associated each letter with a tree or other plant, with meanings are derived from their properties. But again, these ideas (which he says are based in on a 17th century book called Ogygia) first appear in his 1948 work, not in ancient sources.

Have you ever heard of Ogham, in fiction, history or maybe movies? It’s even popular on jewelry. What do you think about it?

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Sources
Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock
The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
Celtic Britain and Ireland by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing
Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews

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