The Ogham is a form of alphabet, used from the 4th Century and mainly by Irish Bards. It is based on numbers, rather than letters, yet was used for writing and was commonly found on grave markers and tally sticks. Unlike most ‘traditional’ alphabets, the Ogham was not read from left to right, but from the bottom right to the top and then back down on the left. Because it lacks the letter-equivalents of J, P, V, W, X and Y, Ogham sounds truly unique when read aloud. However, Ogham is still used today for divinatory purposes; what is its heritage and what are the powers attributed to this peculiar style of writing?
From bard to verse
Ogham, like runes, was believed to be the source of magical power. Primarily, this may have been because anyone who could read or write in the 4th Century was thought to be privy to some secret knowledge. Irish Bards, who closely guarded their songs, wrote them in Ogham so that no one else could repeat them. Poetry, songs and stories were a source of income for many wandering minstrels and they would go to great lengths to prevent their home-grown recitations from falling into the wrong hands. However, they also developed a form of Ogham notation, which allowed them to write lyrics and music, so songs could be sold, if the price was good enough.
In addition, Bards used the alphabet as a secret code, placing marks on boarding houses and taverns to mark them as either places that were good to visit or places to avoid. Again, this might be why the letters were perceived to have some magical abilities. Taverns bearing a particular mark would be shunned by travellers, giving them no news of the outside world and no entertainment through which to break up the daily grind. Bards were revered during this time and were often looked to for information beyond songs and poems.
However, it seems that its origins as a cryptic alphabet may well have predated the Bards. There is a school of thought that believes Ogham’s original purpose was as a form of communication between the Irish, so that the invading Romans would have no idea of what was being said. It is believed that the original set of marks was created by druids and scholars, so that political, military and religious communications could be sent with impunity. Once the Roman Empire fell, this was absorbed in to the Irish culture and continued by the Bards as a form of secret notation.
Ogham and divination
Because of the association with magical powers, Ogham stones were soon popular as a tool for divination. Ogham stones, much like the rune stones used by the ancient Nordic races, were stones bearing the marks of the Ogham alphabet; each stone bore a single letter. In addition, like the Elder Futhark of the rune stones, each letter had a powerful association or story attributed to it. The Ogham’s letters are viewed as the names of trees or shrubs, which have powerful, natural associations that were interpreted to represent the characteristics of the querent or to reveal their past, present or future. The divinatory meanings of Ogham stones were known only to a handful of initiates and wise-men, who were seen as people possessed of magical ability.
Wood was also used in place of stones and, because of the association with plants, may have been viewed as a more potent form of Ogham magic. According to an ancient Irish legend, The Wooing of Etain, a druid named Dalan used a method of divination to uncover where the god, Midir, had taken Etain, an Irish princess. Dalan made four wands from the branch of a yew tree, on which he inscribed three Ogham letters. Using these, he was able to discover that Etain had been taken to Midir’s home of Breg Leith.
Today, the most widely-used method of Ogham divination is called ‘Coelbreni.’ However, because there are no hard and fast guidelines as to how the Ogham was originally used, there are variations to the theme and many diviners use slightly different methods. Between 20 and 25 sticks or stones are used, each bearing a letter from the Ogham alphabet. The reader will be familiar with the associations or ‘kenning’ of each letter and throw the sticks onto the ground. Interpretations are made from the way in which the Oghams fall.
Some readers draw three circles on the ground, to represent the past, present and the future or, alternatively, the three planes of land, sea and sky. The circles may be separate or interlock to show how each influences the other. As with before, the Oghams are cast into the circles and their meanings interpreted accordingly.
There are roughly 400 Ogham inscriptions surviving in Britain today. These are found on stone monuments throughout Ireland, Wales and parts of western England, although the majority have been discovered in southern Ireland and tend to be of personal names, rather than anything else.
A personal journey
Ogham’s journey from cryptic alphabet to a form of notation for minstrels and its ultimate use as a form of divination is a mysterious one. Although there are various schools of thought about its origins, there are no definitive answers. Similarly, there are no absolute authorities in how it was used for divinatory purposes. However, the fact that this form of writing has endured through centuries is testament to the power it harbours.
Today, Ogham sticks and stones are used by pagans and Wiccans alike, many of whom have adopted it as a way through which to represent their beliefs and ideals. With its strong associations with nature and a set of symbols whose meaning is shrouded, it is now a flexible form of casting, allowing people to add their own associations and kennings as they go. What may once have been a much regimented form of communication is now a very personal and flexible form of divination, allowing readers to help querents expand their personal awareness, using ancient methods in a modern world.