“But I can’t read tally marks!” – Fun with Ogham

“But I can’t read tally marks!” – Fun with Ogham

As a warning, this blog post will veer slightly from my usual style, focusing more on personal experience rather than sights or folklore.  I’ll return to talking about those things on Tuesday, but for this extra weekend update, I’d like to talk about an ancient alphabet, Ogham.

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From The Book of Ballymote.  Image Credit:  Omniglot

Ogham (pronounced “AHG-m” or “OH-ehm”) is also known as the Celtic Tree Alphabet, as each of its original 20 letters were associated with a given tree held sacred by the druids. An additional aicme, or group of five letters, was added later as the script transitioned from stone and wooden property markers to use in manuscripts and texts.  It can be written vertically or horizontally, depending on its medium, but follows the same structure.

Writing begins with an eite (feather, ) and ends with an eite thuathail (reverse feather, ).  These two characters are connected by a solid line, around which letters are formed.  The original four aicmi consist of lines drawn above, below, diagonally through, or straight through this central line.  Letters within a given aicme differ merely in the number of lines present, as shown below.

The fifth aicme represents special letter combinations and is more complex than its predecessors, holding to no pattern from one character to the next.

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Ogham’s 25 characters with Latin alphabet equivalents.  Dots are occasionally used in place of lines in the fourth aicme.  Image Credit:  Omniglot.

The oldest remaining stone carvings easily date to the 4th century, and the script endured for centuriesThe Book of Ballymote, written in the 10th century, is one of the last Irish manuscripts to include Ogham. However, it’s possible the alphabet is even older, with some characteristics suggesting it originated as early as the 1st century.

Multiple theories exist to explain Ogham’s origins, ranging from speculation it was used to send cryptic messages in Old Irish to the possibility of an old sign language among druids before its commitment to paper.  But when the script’s namesake is even debated, it’s unlikely we will ever truly know how the alphabet came into being.

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Churchclara Ogham Stone in County Kilkenny.  Image Credit:  Megalithic Ireland.

I’ve made note of Ogham stones near sites I’ll visit in June, and have considered going out of my way to see one or two of them.  And like most things that guide my travel plans, Ogham holds a deeper personal interest for me than would be expected, mainly because my friends and I decided to incorporate it into our fantasy roleplays.

Fairly early on in our campaigns, we realized we needed a stand-in writing system for an ancient language one of our characters speaks, as the party stumbles upon runes multiple times. As these characters are all from our respective novels and storylines, it made sense to root our runes in a culture – Irish – that inspired multiple world elements. And so Ogham became our stand in script, ready to leave our characters scratching their heads for a while.

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Roleplay excerpt.  Balthos and Cael belong to Sarah Parris, the Kait belongs to me.

But we also began using Ogham away from our stories, mainly to joke around on campus. We’d write innocent things – character names, answers to questions, little notes – on notice boards in the dorms, leaving no clues to help the next person puzzle out what the lines meant.

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A cheat sheet from one of our message board replies, Fall 2015.

We kept our identities secret, too, only leaving our messages when no one else was around, even if it meant sneaking around at four in the morning to scrawl a few lines.

I continued leaving messages even after my friends graduated (especially when Sarah would visit for weekend dorm sleepovers), but finally gave up the ruse around graduation – I used Ogham to decorate my cap.

Cap

Each side contains a single word, to represent a different part of me. Some had to be tweaked to fit the small space, but I hold them close all the same.  Starting from the bottom, going clockwise:

Eolai. Gaelic for scientist, derived from knowledge. I dedicated three and a half years to studying biology and chemistry, and hope to dedicate many more to medicine in the years to come. I can’t be me without accepting I am a scientist.

Druid. My nickname. Even though I’m a science major, I’m fascinated by the fae and mythical qualities of the world around me and strive to bring them both into balance with each other.

Bard. For my love of crafting stories. Without my writing, I feel incomplete. I need something to balance out the methodical, sometimes cold logic science requires, something that allows me to breathe free. Writing accomplishes that.

Cara. Gaelic for friend.  A title I hope I’m worthy of accepting from those closest to me.

secret ogham

I still sign letters as Druid in Ogham, occasionally writing notes or song lyrics along the sheet’s perimeter in the ancient script. It’s a small, silly thing, but something my friends and I can easily recognize, even if it might take a while to write and read.

Has anyone else played around with Ogham or another ancient script? I’d love to hear about it!


Additional Links & Resources:

Ancient History Encyclopedia: Ogham

Ancient Scripts: Ogham

Omniglot:  Ogham

The Ogham Stone

Ogham Transliterator

Megalithic Ireland: Ogham Stones