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Ogham Writing

Updated on December 3, 2014
CuAllaidh profile image

Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

Are you familiar with Ogham

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Ogham stone from the Isle of Man
Ogham stone from the Isle of Man | Source

Old Irish Scratches

Ogham is an old form of writing, often equated to Norse Runes. Some Neo Pagan beliefs even go so far as to attach magical meanings to the letters as they also do with Norse Runes. While these strange scratchings appear mystical, especially since they were often scratched on stones that were apparently in the middle of nowhere, or on wooden staves, a religious meaning is easy to infer. The simple, and somewhat dull fact is, Ogham is simply a form of writing used primarily to write in Old Irish.

Most of the extant examples are grave markers and boundary markers. This is why they often seem to be in odd places with nothing else around. There is nothing specifically mystical about the Ogham script, but it is interesting, and fun to learn how to write using the Ogham script.

Ogham inscribed stones have been found throughout the British Isles, but they have been primarily found in Southern Ireland and almost all are in an Old Irish dialect. As I mentioned most of the finds have been boundary and grave markers.

No one is quite sure where or why Ogham originated, Latin script was known in the area at the time. Some scholars believe it was a deliberate attempt to confuse Roman's and others, sort of an early attempt at cryptography. Other's believe it was an attempt to form a unique alphabet, not to keep what was written secret, but because Old Irish dialect does not translate well into Latin script.

A Sample of Vertical Ogham Script
A Sample of Vertical Ogham Script | Source

Reading Ogham

Ogham script can be written horizontally right to left, or vertically top to bottom. The form of writing is the same with a line through the middle of the text and lines on the top and/or bottom (or left and/or right) to indicate what the actual letter is. There are 25 characters, plus one, historians believe there was no "P" in the original Ogham alphabet, but it was added at a later date. The 25 characters are divided into 5 sections called Aicmes. The horizontal alphabet is shown below, and a sample of the vertical form is shown on the right, as you may notice the horizontal form is just the vertical form turned 90 degrees clockwise.

Decorative Ogham

One of the great things about Ogham is how versatile it is a decorative script. It works well on objects with corners using the corner as the centre line. Ogham also need not be written in straight lines, it works well in circles and spirals and just generally winding around things.

The Full Ogham Alphabet (Horizontal)

The Ogham Horizontal Alphabet
The Ogham Horizontal Alphabet | Source

The Tree Alphabet

Ogham is sometimes described as the Celtic Tree Alphabet. The reason for this is the name of most of the letter corresponds to the name of a species of tree in Irish Gaelic.

Modern Letter
Ogham Letter Name
Tree
B
Beith
Birch
L
Luis
Rowan
F
Fern
Alder
S
Sail
Willow
N
Nion
Ash
H
Uath
Hawthorn
D
Dair
Oak
T
Tinne
Holly
C
Coll
Hazel
Q
Ceirt
Apple
M
Muin
Vine
G
Gort
Ivy
NG
Ngeadal
Reed
Z
Straif
Blackthorn
R
Ruis
Elder
A
Ailm
White Fir
O
Onn
Gorse
U
Ur
Heather
E
Eadhadh
Poplar
I
Iodhadh
Yew

An Example of Some Extant Ogham Stones

© 2014 Jeff Johnston

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    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 2 years ago from Alberta Canada

      Greetings... yes CuAllaidh mean's Wild Hound or Wolf in Irish Gaelic. As for Ogham being older than Futhark, hard to say... Some believe that Ogham dates back to Before Christ.... The truth is no one really knows, while Ogham saw a resurgence in the 14th century no one really knows for sure what the original purpose of the language was let alone when it started being used. Most of the extant pieces (ignoring the 14th century surge) date from the 4th - 9th century CE but I have seen some claiming that some of the extant rocks were carved in the 1st century BCE.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again CuAllaidh (does that have a meaning or is it purely a 'name' name?)

      Is the Ogham alphabet older than the Futhark? According to John Haywood's book "Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age" a 24 letter rune alphabet was in use from AD 150-750. It was replaced at the height of the Viking Age by one of 16 letters. Two sets of alphabets were used, a 'long' Danish version and shorter West Norse-Swedish 'twig' alphabet.

      There is some Runic graffiti on an upstairs balustrade in the Hagia Sophia - previously the Greek Orthodox cathedral Sta Sophia to the effect, "Halvdan was here".