We know that trees were important in Irish history and folklore - so important that a law system was created using the trees. Trees were seen as sacred in Ireland, so it would make sense that there is also an ancient written alphabet of Irish that is based on different trees.
This alphabet is called Ogham [OH-um] - and it isn’t a spoken language. Each figure in the Ogham alphabet has a meaning and is tied back to a sacred tree or shrub. Something that not a lot of people know is that the alphabet itself is more accurately referred to as Beithe-luis-nin after the order of the first letters (2). The word Ogham actually refers to the method the script is written in. However, since most people know it is Ogham, that is what I will be calling it.
Let’s have a look at what the Ogham looks like.
You can see in the image that each letter corresponds to a different symbol that is made up of a backbone or stemline and different dashes. Not every symbol is known for sure because ancient history is hard to decipher sometimes.
"The characters are made up of between one and five lines or scores relative to a stemline, generally vertical on stone using its natural angle or edge, with two of the groups distinguished by the orientation of the scores to the stemline. The third group transverses the stemline diagonally and the fourth group consists of one to five scores or notches on the stemline. " (1)
Carved up the left-hand side is a dedication to an Irishman: MAQQI DECCEDDAS AVI TURANIAS, ‘belonging to Mac Deichet Uí Thorna’. The final two words identify this man as a descendant of Torna, which is possibly a reference to a long-gone local dynasty. (3)
How was it used?
As you can see, this method of writing is not very practical. Ogham writing was traditionally read vertically from bottom to top! I couldn’t imagine writing like this, let alone reading it. Historically, this method of writing was used for the inscription of names on gravestones. This is why we often only see Ogham on stones.
Image Credit: Spirit of Old
What about today?
In modern practice, Ogham can be used to inscribe words on candles, carvings, are creating sigils. There is also a method of divination that uses Ogham staves, similar to that of casting runes. Since each Ogham letter has a meaning on its own, this makes it an ideal divination tool.
Did you know you can write your own name in Ogham? Click here and put in your name, then share the picture with us! Here’s mine