As I sit down to pen a commissioned piece – a chapter entitled Reinventing the Obituary File for the Digital Age in a book aimed at library professionals – I’m mindful of how much we take reading and writing for granted. Up until the fourth century AD, The Gaels relied on oral traditions to pass on wisdom from one generation to the next. It was around this time that ogam (“ogham” is the modern spelling – pronounced approximately like UGH-um), the original Gaelic alphabet, was developed as a mystical means of communication among the bards. Its creation was attributed to the god Ogma, who was the god of language and eloquence. Based upon the Latin alphabet, the ogam system consisted of 20 letters, made of strokes and notches etched over a center line, and was designed for inscribing on stone or wood.
“The blank ‘page,’ most often a pillar stone, was first inscribed with a center line, the fleasc, as a rule, vertical, like a tree. Each character or letter was then carved along that line, generally from bottom to top….According to the Scholar’s Primer, Auraicept na nÉces, ogham is to be read as a tree is climbed. This metaphor of text as tree is reinforced by the fact that each of the essential ogham letters bears the name of a tree. For example, the letter ‘b’ beith means ‘birch’ and the letter ‘d’ dair means ‘oak.’” (Meagher & Neave, 2004, p. 32).
Today ogam survives in 369 stone inscriptions, the majority of which are found in Ireland, with the remainder in Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. Most of these ogam stones seem to be boundary markers, indicating tribal territory, although some appear to be memorials. Examples of magical formulas have been found on loose objects, such as the amber bead belonging for generations to a family of Ennis. The inscription has been transliterated: ATUCMLU (Thorsson, 1992, p.19).
Caitlín Matthews’ Celtic Wisdom Sticks is a delightful example of a hypothetical method of divination using ogam-carved staves. It’s easy to imagine the ancient druids making use of such tools. Matthews refers to ogam as “an encoded language in the hands of poets who were already accustomed to speaking the dordacht, or the ‘dark language’, to each other, obscuring what they were saying from the uninitiated” (2001, p. 14).
Some have suggested that the alphabet doubled as a calendar, while others, namely musicologist Sean Boyle, have pointed out that ogam could have served as musical notation for the harp. There is also evidence that the bards used ogam as “a five-finger sign language, such as is still used today, where the fingers of one hand in various combinations are laid against the palm of the other” (Barclay, 1999, p.15).
Sharp-eyed Star Trek fans will notice an ogam-like script used for the Vulcan language, especially in episodes of the Enterprise tv series. Who would have thought the wisdom and creativity of the ancient Gaels would reach across the universe! Or was it the other way around? Did the Vulcans visit fourth-century Ireland? You decide.
Barclay, G. (ed.). (1999). The peoples of Scotland: Picts, Vikings, Angles and Scots. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Matthews, C. (2001). Celtic wisdom sticks: an ogam oracle. London: Connections Book Publishing.
Meagher, R.E. & Neave, E.P. (2004). Ancient Ireland: an explorer’s guide. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books.
Thorsson, E. (1992). The book of ogham. St. Paul: Llwellyn.
Vulcan Script as seen in Star Trek Enterprise: The Seventh.
Star Trek fans may also enjoy my blog devoted to the works of Surak, in which I explore the Dzhaleyl script: