Monday, March 17, 2014

The Ogham Alphabet

Ogham, Image credit:
vrindavana / 123RF Stock Photo
Today is March 17th, Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland, which got me thinking about their ancient alphabet, Ogham.  I didn't know much about it before I researched it for this post, but it does seem to share more similarities with Runes than the Theban Alphabet does. However, what makes this alphabet most interesting to me is its link to trees.

Just as Berkana represents the birch, so too does the 'b' in Ogham.  In contrast, while Isa, the 'i' Rune represents ice, the Ogham's 'i' is the yew tree, which is Eihwaz in Runes.  For a full listing of Ogham names, you can check out this link.  I should also mention that the use of Ogham for divination purposes relates primarily to these meanings and is referred to as the 'tree Ogham'.

With potential origins ranging from being a secret code used by Irish Christians to an invention of Druids in Gaul, the Ogham's origins are shrouded in uncertainties. It is believed that Ogham was modeled after another script, with the Runes listed as one potential source, but Latin and Greek are also listed as possibilities.

Another uncertainty is the timing of its onset.  The range I found begins with the Gaulish Druids around 600 BCE through the 4th Century, although the earliest inscriptions that remain date to the end of that time frame - the 3rd or 4th centuries.

Whereas 'Runes' tend to be related to similar meanings, such as 'whisper' or 'secret', Ogham's potential meanings present another similarity to them.  They include a reference to the Irish god Ogma and an Irish phrase that means point seam, which is the seam made by a sharp weapon.  Both of these do have potential.  As much as the Runes are associated with Odin during his famous sacrifice hanging on the tree for nine days, before snatching them up, so too, in Irish Mythology, Ogma is credited with creating the alphabet named after him.  However, the idea of the seam carved by a weapon carries equal if not more weight given that (as we shall see shortly) Ogham is written along seams on stones.

Both Runes and Ogham are carved into natural fibers, such as wood and stone.  Moreover, just as many Runestones are carved in honor or memory of someone and establish lineage, so too do Ogham inscriptions, with most having a formula like - X son of Y.  Although Runic inscriptions are found in a larger geographical area, from Italy to Greenland and Sweden to Russia and Romania, they share ground with Ogham inscriptions in Scotland, England, and on the Isle of Man and Ireland, the latter being where Ogham dominates.  Within these countries, nearly 400 Ogham inscriptions have been found.

However, where Runes are carved on the face and/or sides of stones, Ogham is carved at the edge; this relates to the 'weapon seam' noted above.  For example, the figure to the right, shows what my name would look like carved or written in Ogham.  On a stone, it would be carved vertically along the edge from bottom to top.  In a manuscript, it would be horizontal from left to right.  The vertical version would have been carved into stones and is referred to as the orthodox version.  Due to its manuscript format, the horizontal depiction is called the scholastic version.

As we celebrate St.Patrick's Day today, it should be noted that while the earlier Orthodox version of Ogham would have no longer been used in Saint Patrick's time, the Scholastic Ogham would have.  In fact, it was used until the 16th century.

No comments:

Post a Comment