Ogham as Oracle - An Introduction (Part 1)

The authors personal Ogham set corresponding with the proper tree.

Ogham (pronounced OH-um), the eccentric Irish “alphabet of the trees” as it is commonly known, consists of letters known as “feada” (wood) or what we call in English “fews.” The feada are compiled into four groups known as “aicme” (set of five) with one to five tally marks each known as a ”flesc” (twig) which crosses or joins a central line. There are also five “forfeada” (extra fews) that make up sounds (letters) that were not part of the original Ogham.
The very words feada and flesc show a connection to trees in their meaning of wood and twig. Even the Gaelic name for the consonants “taebomnai” means “the side of a tree.” Thus, the “alphabet of the trees” seems fitting.

Origin of the Ogham

Celtic mythology is clear on the originator of the Ogham as one of the Tuatha Dé Danann -Ogma Grianaineach (Ogma Sun Face). Ogma was also knows a Cermait (Honey-Tongued) at times, and also Ogmios to the Gauls.
It is said that Ogma taught the Tuatha Dé Danann writing and was considered a shining poet (hence his name as “Honey Tongued”. It is interesting to note that the Roman Lucian of Samosata in the second century CE made written reference to Ogma as a form of Hercules (Herakles) stating:

The Celts call Herakles Ogmios in the language of their country, but the image they paint of the god is quite strange. For them he is an old man at the end of his life, with his hair receding and what hair he has being white, and with his skin being rough and sunburned... This old Herakles is represented as pulling along behind him a mass of men all kept together with gold and amber chains through their ears... The painter has perforated the god's tongue so that it appears to be pulling along the men, while the god turns smiling towards them1

If one were to spend time researching Ogma, one would find that indeed he was named as 'the strongman of the gods.' Thus, to be painted in such a manner is understandable. Lucian Samosata missed the greater message however as he presupposed this painting was of Hercules. What was revealed within the painting was the secret to Ogma's strength -his tongue!

His tongue is symbolic of sacred word. The gold and amber of which the chain is made symbolizes the precious value of such words, while the chain itself is representative of the binding nature those words have upon humanity (which also links humanity to the gods (and goddesses). Therewith, the gold and amber chain through the ears of men indicates that Ogma's strength was the ability to speak precious wisdom and direction with his honeyed tongue, captivating and illuminating humanity with sacred word! (Is this not the very heart of the Bard? -but I digress.)

Such a high view of Ogma makes much sense when viewing such a painting in light of ancient Celtic culture. For poetry was regarded in the highest regard and of the greatest power. So much so that even kings would bow in respect to the filid (poets) out of respect, and also fear that the filid (who's words carry the power of the god's and goddesses) would compose an aer (satire) which could not only destroy a kings reputation, but also curse one to the extreme of physical harm.

Another descriptor of Ogma one should consider in relation to Ogham is 'woodsman of the gods.' For it is this descriptor that one can easily find connection with the Druids. The link between the 'Oak Men' (Druids), and Ogma as 'woodsman' is an easy connection for one to make. Furthermore, Ogma as 'woodsmen of the Gods' leave one with the thought as to why Oghamfews were of the trees.

In our basic understanding of Ogma as a powerful poet, keeper of sacred word, teacher to the Tuatha Dé Danann in the art of writing,having a deep connection to the trees, one can begin to understand why Ogma is the originator of Ogham.

There is lore within Celtic tradition as to how the Ogham came to the masses. According to legend, “It was a woman, Creirwyn, daughter of the Welsh mother goddess Cerridwen, who discovered the ogham when the letter-names were presented to her as a riddle by Ogma Sunface, a god equated with the Roman Hercules. Creirwyn is called (as are many) “the most beautiful girl in the world.” It’s possible that in this case, “beautiful” refers not only to appearance, but also to accomplishment. It may be that Creirwyn was filidh, skilled in verse, prophecy and solving conundrums.2 In solving this riddle, Creirwyn made the Ogham available to everyone in the form of writing.

The lore of Creirwyn solving the riddle of the Ogham accords directly with Celtic oracular language as noted by the Roman Diodorus Sicilus when referring to the Celts: “They express themselves in riddles...3 We shall discuss the riddles of the Ogham later in this multipart essay.

The Ogham link to Trees

The basis for linking the Oghamfews with specific trees is found in a medieval document known as the Auraicept na N-Éces (Scholars Primer), an Irish treatise in the Ogham alphabet. Within it, the author states:
Quot sunt genera [Whence is the origin] of the Ogham? Not hard. I shall speak firstly of the woods of the trees whence names have been put for the Ogham letters. ...it is from the trees of the forest that names were given to the Ogham letters metaphorically.4

Therewith, according to the ancient document, Oghamfews originate their names after trees relating to these letters metaphorically. Thus, any correspondence to the Oghamfew is metaphorical and not literal in nature. This is not surprising considering the host or lore pertaining to trees within the larger Celtic tradition. For a deeper look into early uses of Ogham, the reader my wish to consult the following:
  • Auraicept na N-Éces (Scholars Primer)
  • De dúilib feda na forfid (The Values of the Forfeda)
  • Lebor Ogam (Book of Ogham)

Ogham and the Druids

It is a historical fact that the Ogham was indeed a part of the syllabus of Druidic colleges of old. One can imaging the breadth of the Ogham practicum that each student would have had to embrace -the Ogham's literal, metaphorical, and magickal interpretation (which were the source of the twentyfive magickal Ogham artes).

The use of Ogham by the Druids for magickal purposes has been passes down through the generations. One such story is of Cuchulain's warning. “In the Tain Bo Cuailgne, `the Cattle-Raid of Cooley,' the mythical Ulster hero Cuchulain left a warning for the approaching army of Connacht in the form of an oak-sapling, twisted into a hoop and secured with a wooden peg, on which he carved Oghams. He then placed the hoop around the top of a standing stone. He did all this standing on one leg and using only one arm and one eye, a posture frequently adopted by Otherworld beings and Druids in Irish literature. When the Connacht army, led by Cuchulain's childhood friend Fergus mac Roich, found the hoop, Fergus read the message on the peg. It said "Come no further, unless you have a man who can make a hoop like this with one hand out of one piece. I exclude my friend, Fergus." Fergus then showed the hoop to the Druids of Connacht and chanted:

"This hoop: what does it mean to us?
What is the riddle of the hoop?
How many men put it here?
A small number? A multitude?
Will it bring the host to harm
if they pass it on their way?
Druids, discover if you can
the reasons it was left here."


The Druids answered:
"It was a great champion made it
and left it as a trap for men,
an angry barrier against kings
– one man, single-handed.


The royal host must come no further,
according to the rule of war,
unless you have a man among you
who can do what he has done.
This is the reason, and no other,
why the spancel-hoop was left
."5

Cuchulain later left a similar Ogham message on the fork of a tree, which he cut with a single sword-blow and planted in the middle of a river. On this occasion, the message was reinforced by having the severed heads of four Connacht warriors hung on the fork of the tree.

Another story of Ogham magick is the protection of Lugh's wife. “The first written message in Ogham was said to have consisted of seven strokes, each representing the letter B, carved on a single birch rod. As we have seen, the letter B is called beith in Irish Gaelic, meaning `birch'. This message was for the God, Lugh of the Long Arm, who interpreted it to mean that his wife would be carried off seven times into Sidhe mounds, or into another country, unless she was protected with birch.6

The use of Ogham by the Druids for divination has also been recorded. For instance, in the “Tochmarc Étaíne” (The Wooing of Étaín) the king is searching for his lost wife, and a “Druid named Dallán learned by means of Ogham carved upon wands of Yew, that she was hidden under Miders sidh (earthen mound) of Bri Leith...7

In another version of the same story, “Codal of the Withered Breast took four rods of Yew and wrote Oghams on them and through his enchantments he found out that Étaíne was in Midhir in Brí Leith.8

Conclusion

There is no lack of evidence that the Ogham was indeed utilized for writing, divination, and magick. Furthermore, there is no lack of evidence that the Druids certainly utilized and taught the Ogham in their syllabus.

In the next part of this series we will look at the individual correspondences to each Oghamfew (to include the riddle it presents).
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1Markale, Celtic Civilization, p. 257
2On the Edge of Dream: The Women of Celtic Myth and Legend
3Markale, Celtic Civilization, p. 50
4Auraicept na N-Éces (The Scholar's Primer) ed. and translated by George Calder, Edinburgh, John Grant 1917.
5Thomas Kinsella (trans.), The Tain, p.69ff
6Sean O'Boyle, Ogam: The Poet's Secret, p.13.
7Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend, p. 151-152
8Gregory, Irish Myths and Sagas, p. 110