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WRITING - OGHAM

Ogham Alphabet
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  • The ancient Celts had a form of writing called ogham (pronounced OH-yam). It was the writing of Druids and Bards. Ogham is also called 'Tree Alphabet' because each letter corresponds to a tree and an associated meaning. The letters were, in fact, engraved onto sticks as well as larger standing stones.
  • In keeping with Druidic concepts, each of the Ogham's twenty letters bears the name of a tree. A-Ailim (Elm), B-Bithe (Birch), C-Coll (Hazel), for example. The Celts had an oral tradition so it was not used to write stories or history as these were memorized.
  • The Ogham alphabet contains twenty letters and is read from the bottom up. The letters are constructed using a combination of lines placed adjacent to or crossing a midline. An individual letter may contain from one to five vertical or angled strokes. Vowels were sometimes described as a combination of dots. The midline was, most often, the edge of the object on which the inscription was carved.
  • Ogham was named after the Celtic god of literature, Ogma. It was used on the edges of burial stones and boundary markers. They usually held the name of a person. Examples exist to this day.
  • It was also used on rods or strips of wood that were fastened together at one end. These wands were opened and closed to present stories or poems.  Since these wands were made of wood, none survive today. Only the messages on stone survived.
  • The wooden sticks with the Ogham marking were used for divination similar to the way Runes were used by Norse peoples. Only the Druids and Bards understood the system and could have great influences on their people when they demonstrated its power.
  • There are 369 verified examples of Ogham writing surviving today. These exist in the form of standing stones concentrated in Ireland, but scattered across Scotland, the Isle of Man, South Wales, Devonshire, and as far afield as Silchester (the ancient Roman city of Calleva Attrebatum).
  • Similar markings have been found on standing stones in Spain and Portugal. The markings in Spain are believed to be much older than the ones in Ireland, perhaps dating from 800 BC. It is from this area of the Iberian Peninsula that the Celts who colonized the British Isles may have come.
  • Ogam can still be seen inscribed on hundreds of large and small stones, on the walls of some caves, but also on bone, ivory, bronze and silver objects. The Ogam script was especially well adapted for use on sticks. Sticks are part of the Basque word for "alphabet": agaka, agglutinated from aga-aka, aga (stick or pole) and akats (notch). The meaning of the word agaka therefore isn't so much "alphabet" as "writing", a stick with Ogam notches conveying a message. The name Ogam likely comes from oga-ama, ogasun (property, wealth) ama (Priestess, mother) property of the Priestess, which indicates that the script was originally designed for use by the clergy of the pre-Christian religion.
  • Ogam was adopted and further developed by the first monks in Ireland. Our earliest information indicates that they were not sure as to where Ogam came from. According to the "Auraicept" the origin of Irish and Ogam must be sought in the Near East: "In Dacia it was invented, though others say it was in the Plain of Shinar" (line 1105-06). A "made in Ireland" version is recorded in "In Lebor Ogaim" in which the inventor is "Ogma mac Elathan who is said to have been skilled in speech and poetry and to have created the system as proof of his intellectual ability and with the intention that it should be the preserve of the learned, to the exclusion of rustics and fools" ( McManus 8.4).
  • The script was used by the monks as a monument script between 450 and 800 A.D. and they used it for literary purposes between 650 and 900 A.D. Every time the script was inscribed in stone it must have been used thousands of times on sticks, for which medium the script was obviously designed. Over 500 Ogam inscriptions are known from Ireland (collected by R.A.S. Macalister), some 40 from Scotland ( A. Jackson) and a growing number from the east coast of North America.
  • The fact that not a single one has been successfully translated is not so much the fault of the monks who wrote the texts, as of our linguists, all of whom assumed that the language of the script was Gaelic. However, this assumption appears to be without foundation, because the syntax of the Gaelic language in no way lends itself to be written in traditional Ogam.
 
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