The Ogham

The Origin of the Ogham

When is the Ogham one? Not hard: the whole of it. When is it two things? Not hard: vowels and consonants. When is it three things? Not hard: vowels, diphthongs and consonants. When is it four? Not hard: the three groups of consonants and the ten principle vowels. When is it five? Not hard: vowels, diphthongs and three groups of consonants. When is it six? Not hard: the three composit letters of the Ogham nG, Sr, Qu. When is it seven? Not hard: the three additions to the Primer, Ho, Forsaid and Arnin.

- The Book of Ballymote

During historical contact with the Celts of Gaul, Caesar found that the Druids had an apparent taboo against the use of writing, a characteristic that Caesar remarked upon when he wrote: "They commit to memory immense amounts of poetry...they consider it improper to commit their studies to writing...lest it should be vulgarised and lest the memory of scholars should become impaired". On those occasions when it was necessary to correspond or maintain public records, the Gauls used Greek letters instead of their own.

The Celtic alphabet known as Ogham was invented, according to the medieval Irish Book of Ballymote, by Ogma Sun-Face. It comprises three sets of five consonants and one set of five vowels, a total of twenty letters. In actuality, the manuscript refers to more than one hundred types of Ogham, each with unique names and notches.

Ogma, or Ogmius as he was known in Gaul, was described in the second century by the Greek writer Lucian as the Gallic god of Eloquence. He was variously described as "honey mouthed" and "eloquent". The golden speech of Ogmius was recorded in Gallic artwork in the form of a fine gold chain linking the tip of his tongue to ears of a group of followers.

In the Book of Ballymote, written in 1391, the invention of Ogham was achieved when "Ogma Sun-Face raised four pillars of equal length", and it was upon these pillars that the characters of the letters were etched.

Ogham, and the mysteries associated with it, were kept a strict secret among the scholar/priest druids. Mider's abode on Man was guarded by three cranes who called out to all who approached "Enter not! Stay away! Go on by!" Arawn king of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld, and whose name also means Eloquence, guarded his realm of secret knowledge with his pack of hounds.

The Book of Ballymote indicates that there were a number of secret ways in which Ogham could be used to communicate non-verbally. Finger ogham equates the five letters of each pillar with the thumb and four fingers, such that the first letter of each pillar (B, H, M, A) are found from the tip to the base joint of the thumb, and so on. Other 'oghams' include a shin ogham and a nose ogham.

It was not until the druidical colleges and their mysteries began to decline that public displays of Ogham began to appear, most of which appear on monuments together with the corresponding Latin. These are mainly found in Ireland, which remained relatively free from the influence of the Romans, and date from the Christian period.

The Tree Alphabets

The Book of Ballymote contains two lists of tree alphabets, which are often discussed separately from the Ogham. Although the initial letters of each tree and their order are the same as the letters given for the Ogham notches, these lists are intended to stand separately from the Ogham script itself.

The two lists are nearly identical, with some slight grammatical differences in the use of letters. They have provided the basis for many references to the Tree Ogham. We no longer have any idea what, if anything, the differences in the lists actually mean.

According to legend, this alphabet and the order of its letters was composed by Fein’s Farsaidh, with the assistance of Goidel mac Etheoir and lar mac Nema. As the story goes, Fenius was in the Holy Land at the time the Tower of Babel was being constructed. The Bible states that, at this time, there was a single common language spoken by all the peoples of the earth. When this language was changed and corrupted by God as his punishment for the building of the tower, Fenius sent seventy-two scholars out into the world to learn every new language. When the scholars returned to the tower after 10 years had passed, Fenius selected the best of the world’s languages and created in Berla tobaide, the ‘selected language.’ The name given to this new language was Goidelic, named for Goidel mac Etheoir. This was the precursor to Gaelic.

List 1

Letter Name Tree
B Beithe Birch
L Luis Rowan
F Fearn Alder
S Saille, Sail Willow
N Nuin, Nion Ash
H Huathe, Huath Hawthorn
D Duir Oak
T Tinne Holly
C Coll Hazel
Q Quert, Queirt Apple
M Muin Vine
G Gort Ivy
nG NGETAL, nGetal Reed, Broom
Ss, St Straif, Sraibh Blackthorn
R Ruis Elder
A Ailim, Ailm Silver Fir
O Ohn, Onn Furze
U Ur Heather
E Eadha White Poplar
I Ioho, Ido Yew
EA Ebhadh Aspen
OI Oir Ivy
UI, PE Uilleand Honeysuckle
IO Iphin Gooseberry
CH Koad Grove

List 2

Letter Name Tree
B Beithe Birch
L Luis Rowan
F Fearn Alder
S Saille, Sail Willow
N Nuin, Nion Ash
H Huathe, Huath Hawthorn
D Duir Oak
T Tinne  
C Coll Hazel
Q Quert, Queirt Apple
M Muin Vine
G Gort Ivy
nG NGETAL, nGetal Reed, Broom
P Pethboc  
Ss, St Sraiph Sloe
R Ruis Elder
A Ailim, Ailm Silver Fir
O Ohn, Onn Furze
U Ur Heather
E Eadhadh Aspen
I Ioho, Ido Yew
EA Eabhadh Aspen
OI Oir Ivy
UI, PE Uilleann Woodbine
IO Iphin Gooseberry
AE Amhancholl  

Additional Letters

Letter Name Symbol
CH Koad Grove
TH Oir Spindle
PH Phagos Beech
XI Mor The Sea

The Celtic Tree Ogham has been and is still used as a tool for divination. To try an online version of the Tree Oracle, visit the Voice of the Woods.


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Revised: November 17, 1998.