The Ogham Alphabet

by | Apr 26, 2017

The Ogham writing system is a topic that comes up occasionally in connection with Gaelic and Irish tattoos, so I want to share some information about what Ogham is, how it’s related to Gaelic, and what you have to watch out for if you’re going to use it in a Gaelic or Irish tattoo. Ogham is not my area of specialization, so I interviewed my friend Dr. Conor Quinn, a linguist and polyglot.

Conor has studied a wide range of languages (Indonesian, Sundanese, Mandarin, Quechua, Somali, Basque, Hmong, Icelandic, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Arabic, among others), and has worked most closely with the indigenous speech communities of the current-day U.S.-Canadian Northeast: Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, and Mi’kmaw. Alongside a variety of other ongoing revitalization work with those groups, he is currently helping complete a dictionary of the Penobscot language, and is now also developing immigrant/refugee ESL curricula that directly leverage learners’ first/primary language(s) as active resources for more effectively learning English.

Following is my interview with Conor about Ogham. After reading the interview, if you still have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Chambers_1908_Ogham_By Rev. Thomas Davidson 1856-1923 (ed.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language

Via Wikimedia Commons – Entry for Ogham in Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, 1908, Rev. Thomas Davidson. This diagram shows the first two aicmí reversed (i.e., the H set is before the B set).

EM: Can you give us a basic description of Ogham?

CQ: Ogham is essentially a twenty-letter alphabet (with five letters added later), apparently developed for “Primitive Irish”, the ancestor to the better-known Old Irish, which is effectively the ancestor of all three contemporary Gaelic languages (Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic).

EM: Who invented Ogham?

CQ: No one really knows for sure. There are at least two separate stories. One is tied to the legend of Irish itself being created by Scythian king Fenius Farsa and his scholars after the Tower of Babel as – surprise surprise – the selected best of all the languages of the time, with Ogham as its writing system. The other associates it with the hero Ogma (Mac Elathan) of Old Irish literature, who some have attempted to relate to the mainland Celtic god Ogmios, though the sound-correspondences between those superficially similar words don’t match up tidily enough to satisfy most Celtic language scholars.

EM: What was Ogham writing used for?

CQ: All we know directly for certain is its use in writing personal names, in possessor form (So-and-So’s…), on the edges of standing stones and the like, as memorial (and possibly as territory/boundary) markers. But references in Old Irish (and later) literature also have characters writing Ogham on sticks to send messages, to record information, and to do magic.

EM: What languages was Ogham used to write?

CQ: Primitive Irish and its descendants, possibly Pictish, and later on, sometimes even Latin. And in revived form, I’ve seen English written in it, e.g. a rainbow P-R-I-D-E for Pride, etc.

EM: Where has it been used, geographically speaking?

CQ: Mostly Ireland (especially in the southwest) and Wales (especially in the areas of significant Irish settlements around the 3rd century onward), but also on the Isle of Man and Scotland as well.

EM: This is the question everyone probably wants to know: how exactly does Ogham work?

CQ: Ogham, quite delightfully, is one of the few alphabets written and read vertically from the bottom to the top. Its twenty letters, called feda (= ‘trees’), group into four aicme (= ‘family, tribe’) of five letters each. Each letter is simply a cluster of one to five straight lines, scratched along the (usually) vertical edge of a stone.

The first family (B – L – V/F – S – N) has lines drawn to the right of the edge-line (so one line is B, two lines is L, five lines is N, etc.). The second family (H – D – T – C – Q) has lines drawn to the left. The third (M – G – NG – ST – R) draws its lines diagonally across both sides of the edge. And the fourth family (the vowels A – O – U – E – I) is drawn either as short marks on the edge itself, or straight across both sides of the edge.

Hence the classic description:

It e a n-airdi : deasdruim, tuathdruim, leasdruim, tredruim, imdruim. Is amlaid imdreangair crand ·i· saltrad fora frem in croind ar tus ⁊ do lam dess reut ⁊ do lam cle fo deoid…..

‘These are their signs: right* of the back [back = the edge-line], left of the back, athwart the back, through the back, around the back. It’s how one climbs a tree, namely, treading on the root of the tree first with your right hand before you and your left hand after…..’ (pp. 70-72, Auraicept na n-Éces)

(*Technically, ‘right’ here is the same as ‘south’, and ‘left’ is ‘north’, thanks to the ancient tradition of orientation by facing east, which is literally what “orientation” itself refers to.)

This is Ogham as known from the earliest stone markers. A much later manuscript tradition adds in a fifth aicme called forfeda – where for- is the direct cousin to the English (well, sort of English) super- and hyper- prefixes – that uses more complex symbols to write a mix of consonants and vowels/diphthongs from the much later Old Irish period. (Hence the fifth group after “right-left-athwart-through” in the quote above). Only one of the forfeda letters (the simplest one, basically an X across the edge-line) is ever found in the earlier inscriptions, however, and often has a significantly different use than the manuscript tradition suggests.

To top it all off, the medieval-era Irish being the nostalgia-nerds they were, they also went out and made their own stone inscriptions, based both on what had been passed down and on what had been newly created within the manuscript tradition. Thus making a stack of extra work for archaeologists and historians.

Four groups of five also means that Ogham lends itself well to representation with fingers (and perhaps toes). And there are indeed suggestions of its use as a (literally) manual code of that kind: across the shinbone, or across the bridge of the nose, and possibly even as the palm rapped against wood in different positions.

The medieval manuscript scholars went quite wild with the ready re-codeability of those four groups of five. The Lebor Ogaim (‘the Book of Ogham’), closely associated with the Auraicept na n-Éces (‘the Scholars’ Primer’), is our prime source for manuscript Ogham, and it lists nearly a hundred different graphic/glyphic ways to re-code these twenty letters: all kinds of cipher-substitutions, reversals, and inversions; along with endlessly inventive alternatives to the simple draw-some-straight lines approach: curved lines, crosshatched lines (called snait[h]i snimach = ‘interwoven threads’), glyphs that look like little trees, others like little shields, and even one called nathair fria fraech (‘snake through heath’), that you’ll have to see for yourself. [EM: In the image at the bottom of this post, this is the Ogham-type visible at the start of the fourth line up from the bottom (above the diagrams), the one with a snakey line winding its way between all the individual feda.]

So if you do want to do Ogham-based designs, consider also the possibilities beyond the basic five-scratched-line approach. In that core tradition, however, one quite beautiful Ogham artifact is the Buckquoy spindle-whorl (found on Mainland Orkney), which has a circular loop of a text that has been interpreted by Katherine Forsyth to read BENDDACT ANIM L ‘a blessing on the soul of L’.

Source: Forsyth, Katherine (1995), “The ogham-inscribed spindle whorl from Buckquoy: evidence for the Irish language in pre-Viking Orkney?”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 125, pp. pp 677-96. http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_125/125_677_696.pdf

Source: Forsyth, Katherine (1995), “The ogham-inscribed spindle whorl from Buckquoy: evidence for the Irish language in pre-Viking Orkney?”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 125, pp. pp 677-96.

EM: Speaking of using Ogham in the present day, is it pronounced “ogam” or “oh-am” or what?

CQ: The tricky thing here is that the sound spelled “gh” in Modern Irish/Scottish Gaelic was in Old Irish generally just spelled “g”. (This is actually still the case in Spanish.) So “Ogam” and “Ogham” represent the same basic “gh” pronunciation, just different points in the development of how it gets spelled.

A further complication is that in many dialects of Irish now, the “gh” sound itself, if it is not at the start of a word, has usually mushed into a vowel or diphthong – so that in Modern Irish itself, “Ogham” is typically just pronounced as if it were spelled “Óm” (like “Ohm”).

EM: I suspect people get Ogham and runes confused sometimes. Is Ogham a type of runic writing?

CQ: Not really: it bears no known direct relationship with the runic alphabets used to write Germanic languages (though there is a perhaps contact-related tradition of rune-ciphers comparable to the trip-tastic wildness of Ogham cipherage).

Also, the Celtiberian languages (Celtic languages formerly spoken in the central/eastern parts of what is now Spain) are in fact known from inscriptions in a set of rune-like alphabets, but these too bear no recognizable resemblance to Ogham.

Interestingly, though, Norse and Celtic languages both share the “rune” word: Old Norse had rún, and Irish has rún ‘mystery, secret; intention, purpose, resolution; loved/dear one’ (see also Welsh rhin ‘secret, charm, virtue’). And from that, one of the umpteen Ogham-types listed in In Lebor Ogaim is runogam na Fian ‘the secret Ogham of the Fianna’.

EM: What should someone do if they want to write English in Ogham? Should they get it translated into Old Irish or modern Irish first? What are the limitations?

CQ: Ogham in its earliest form was designed for Primitive Irish, and so it notably lacks the letter P – which is essential to Old Irish spelling as we normally know it. (One early Ogham text writes the P of an early Welsh name, written on the same monument also in Latin letters, using the Ogham C.) Later on, manuscript scholars created a P-letter, two in fact: first an adapted use of one of the forfeda, then again in the form of a modification of the B that is the first letter of the Ogham alphabet.

So translating something back to Old Irish for “authenticity” is still a bit tricky, since Old Irish as we know it was almost entirely written with the Roman alphabet. And if you think finding someone to translate something reliably and accurately into Modern Irish or Scottish Gaelic is hard, well, finding a translator for Old Irish is even harder, and if you perhaps want to go back to the Primitive Irish of the actual original inscriptions themselves, then you have a very, very small number of qualified scholars who might be able to help you. [EM: And they are not generally available for doing tattoo translations or reconstructions!] About the only evocative, well-established Primitive Irish form we know of in direct inscriptional form – beyond a variety of personal and familial names – is VELITAS ‘of (the) poet’.

So writing English or even a modern Gaelic language in Ogham is always going to be a tricky judgement call on how you want to re-use the Ogham letters for present purposes. It doesn’t help that at least one letter, the “ST” given above, isn’t actually that firmly known even in the original inscriptions, so no one is 100% sure exactly what its sound is/was.

In any case, writing other languages besides Primitive Irish in Ogham is just that, re-purposing the letters. If you want to treat Ogham as just a direct cipher for English letters and sounds, then it is what it is. But if you still use the Ogham letters with their original values, it’s then that it gets sticky.

For example, if you wanted to spell out the English word ‘peace’ in Ogham, letter-by-letter, the end result would look like this:

ᚚᚓᚐᚉᚓ

But it would not be pronounced like ‘peace’ at all. It would be pronounced more like ‘pay-ah-kay’ or ‘pay-ah-keh’.

Ironically it’s stickier still for Irish, given that Ogham isn’t much used for Old Irish, and using Ogham to write Modern Irish is even more clunkadelic, since you have to write a million “h”s everywhere, and add tons of extra vowels to mark broad/slender consonants in the modern way…and on top of that, “e” and “i” are the main marker vowels of that kind – and just so happen to be the two longest Ogham vowel letters. So it’s doable, but a bit of a mess.

EM: I have seen Ogham “translator” websites – given what you’ve just explained about how Ogham works, are they legit?

CQ: They generally give simple mappings of English letters to the Ogham set, like the previous example, plus or minus the forfeda add-ons. My name, for another example, would probably come out reasonably enough, since all of its letters directly match existing Ogham ones:

ᚉᚑᚅᚑᚎᚊᚒᚔᚅᚅ
C O N O R Q U I N N

For non-Ogham letters, it gets tricky. The one such online system I’ve actually seen maps C and K both to ᚉ, and F, V, and W all to ᚃ: these are all reasonable substitutions, but can work out a bit awkwardly: consider that VICKY comes out FICCI (or WICCI, according to your taste). P then maps to the manuscript-tradition-created P ᚚ, for what it’s worth, and Z to ᚎ, whose sound value, as mentioned before, is not clearly known, but pretty likely not actually English “z”.

For some inexplicable reason, however, the system that I looked at simply doesn’t translate J or X to anything. I’d probably suggest mapping J to I, and X to C-S, if the X involved has that “ks” sound. Finally, it maps Y to the Ogham H, possibly due to there being one scholar suggesting “y” as the actual/original sound of that letter. Otherwise, Y might also probably be better off as Ogham I.

Like comparable online “translators” for Mayan writing, or even Chinese, these are fun to play with but not rigorously accurate or precise, so you most likely do not want their unchecked and unconfirmed outputs permanently etched in your flesh.

EM: On to another popular Ogham-related question, what is the “tree alphabet” and what is it connection to Ogham? How much of that is invented woo and how much is verifiable fact?

CQ: It appears that the inventing of woo goes pretty far back. The letters themselves are indeed called ‘trees’ (the word fid, plural feda is actually a direct cousin to English “wood”, and Cornish gwedh, Breton gwez ‘trees’), and a number of the letter-names seem unambiguously to come from tree-terms, e.g. beithe ‘birch’, fern ‘alder’, sail ‘willow’, dair ‘oak’… but then more than half do not. This, however, seems to have been enough to inspire a manuscript-scholar tradition of claiming that all the letter-names are in fact tree-names – a tradition vibrant enough that until recently, the Roman letters used for the Irish alphabet were also all given tree-names.

Perhaps relevant here is that in the manuscript tradition, numerous other categories (like saints, dogs, arts, and cows) are also listed (as Ogham-types: i.e. there is saint-Ogham, dog-Ogham, art-Ogham, and cow-Ogham) according to members beginning in B-, L-, F/V-, S-, N-, etc.

EM: It sounds as though medieval manuscript writers enjoyed messing around with Ogham too.

CQ: Overall, Ogham is lots of fun: even as it still remains partly shrouded in mystery, it has also richly fed more than a millennium of nearly nonstop ciphers-and-alphabets geekery. If you want to learn it yourself, the references in the relevant Wikipedia articles are a good place to start, and you can get a copy of the (transcribed and translated) Auraicept na n-Éces online at archive.org – again, the various alternative graphic versions (“scales”) are wild and beautiful – and you can even look at the original manuscript at Irish Script on Screen (look for “The Book of Ballymote” in the Royal Irish Academy collection’s list). It is not the world’s most efficient script to write – but as an alphabet you can easily scratch into the edge of a stone, it certainly has passed the test of time.

EM: Mìle taing a Chonchobhair!

P.S. Affiliate links that help support this blog: Thinking of getting a tattoo in Irish? Before you ink, read The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook by Audrey Nickel, available from Bradan Press. Thinking of getting a tattoo in Scottish Gaelic? Check out my book, The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook!

fol. 170r of the Book of Ballymote (AD 1390), part of the Auraicept na n-Éces, explaining the Ogham script.
The page shows variants of Ogham, nrs. 43 to 77 of 92 in total, including shield ogham (nr. 73), wheel ogham (nr. 74), finn’s window (nr. 75). Public domain.

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