Celtic Tree Ogham
Ancient Bar Codes
I have seen the claims that the Celts invented bar codes centuries ahead of the techno-boffins of today, and I am willing to give a nod to this notion. But to reduce Ogham to level of a simple alphabet is to do a great injustice to the philosophy and culture behind a very complex symbolic language.
Hang on to you hats. As with all things connected to the Celts, understanding Ogham will take a little time and patience.
The Celtic world of our ancestors was a magical and spirtual one where reality existed on three levels simultaneously; the physical, the mental and the metaphysical. Ogham (or in Scot's Gaelic oidhean meaning idea or hint) is not just an alphabet made up of letters called feda(fay-dah) meaning wood placed along a flesc (flay-shk) meaning twig but is a form of practical magic used by priests and healers. "Oghma invented Ogham for signing secret speech known only to the learned."-- i.e. healers, headmen, and priests. It was a sort of Celtic Order of Masons whose members could decode the hidden subtexts in the speech. The symbols had magical powers for a spirtitually evolved person.
Many of you are probably familiar with the simple Ogham (bar code) used on the standing stones of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Spain, Portugal and along the Iberian peninsula (circa 500 BC). This simple cuneiform is the symbolic representation of a form of tree Ogham that is of a practical use in the physical world where stones are hard, and straight lines are more easily carved than cursive letters. It probably came about because of an ancient version of keeping up with the Jones, or, in this case, with the Romans who were busy exporting war, religion and writing to many peoples, the Gaels included. Not to be outdone, they invented a written language to supplement their oral tradition.
It has been noted that this standing stone Ogham is a highly impractical language for textual writing or poetry-- which is very true. But it was never intended to do more than record a name or a simple inscriptiom on a standing stone (read vertically from the bottom up), which it does admirably. Different oral and written forms of Ogham were used for the practice of religion, healing and song. This is where the abstract symbolism of the tree, color and bird Ogham comes into play. Memorizing entire familial histories required stylized memory aides-- sort of like the ABC song we teach children to help them learn our alphbet.
There are several manuscripts that describe ancient forms of Q-Celtic Ogham (Aurcaicept Na nEces-- The Scholars Primer, De Duibh Feda Na Forfid-- Values of the Forfeda, Lebor Ogam-- The Book of Ogham, and Book of Leinster are all twelfth century. The Annals of Clan macnoise was written in 1328, The Book of Ballymore is from 1391 and The Book of Lecan in 1416). Unfortunately, many were written decades-- even centuries-- after the writing had fallen into disuse and deal more with grammar than with the spirtitual meaning of the language. And as for the Ogham stones done in the Pictish (P-Celtic) language, we have no understanding at all. Also, finding copies of these rare texts is about as likely as stumbling upon those proverbial hen's teeth, so researching them is difficult.
It isn't hopeless though. Because of a rebirth of interest in this religion, there are several modern sources for reading. My favorite readily available reference is Celtic Tree Mysteries by Steve Blamires available through Llewellyn Publications. This will give you a much more comprehensive explanation of the symbolism and practice of this religious language than I am able to cover here.
You will notice on the table below that I have included bird and color Ogham, but there are many more (hand, foot and nose Ogham, for example). You will also be surprised at some of the colors listed. They aren't the kind we find in a standard crayon box. In fairness, our ancestors would be just as amazed at our color names like ultramarine, hot pink, and neon blue.
If you ever visit Aros on Skye, you can see a living Gaelic alphabet forest planted by Forest Enterprise. It is also possible to see many of these trees at your local nursery.
Slainte, sonas agus beartas (Health, wealth and happiness on you)!
Tree Name Gaelic
Tree Name English
withered trunk, silvered skin
delight of the eye, friend of cattle
shield of the heart, guarding of milk
hue of the lifeless, strength of bees
sodath (fine colored)
flight of beauty, flight of women, disruption of peace
pack of wolves, difficult night, whitening of the face
hadaig (night raven)
shining work, craft work
iron bar, fire of coals, chariot wheel
temen (dark grey)
sweetest of woods, a nut
shelter of lunatics, force of man
quair (mouse colored)
wolves with spears, condition of slaughter
pleasing oil, size of a warrior
healing, robe of the physician
sloe, drifting smoke, increasing secrets
blush, anger, punishment
rocnat (small rook)
groan of disease or wonder, beginning of answers
fiercest of warriors, gentlest of work
heath, the grave, growing of plants
distinguished man, a friend
color of old age, abuse of an ancestor
irfind (pure white)
Last Modified 7/9/2002
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