Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ancient Irish alphabet & books: Ogham

This early medieval Irish alphabet has become quite popular in modern Celtic Pagan and Druid circles, mostly as a means of divination, but also for other magical purposes.
As I said, the alphabet is early medieval Irish. It might have been developed when the first Christians came to Ireland and brought the concept of writing with them, but there is no actual proof of that. We have about 400 known inscriptions on stones, most of them names. The functions of these stones is unclear, but most researchers are of the opinion that they mark borders. Other uses of Ogham have been found in manuscripts, and these provide more insight.
Contemporary information on the Ogham is sparse; what has been written about it can be read in high medieval and late medieval manuscripts. These manuscripts are:
The Book of Leinster (12th century)
The Book of Ballymote (1391)
The Book of Lecan (1416)
These manuscripts refer to older sources: The Scholar's Primer, The Values of the Forfeda and the Book of Ogham.
The Scholar's Primer says that Ogham was only to be used by learned men - would they be monks or druids? The act of reading and writing was very elite in the early Middle Ages, so we can be sure that the average Irish farmer wouldn't have been very familiar with Ogham.
The exact origin of Ogham isn't known, but there some interesting myths and stories have been written down.
In one of the manuscripts we find a legend about the origin of the Ogham: it was developed by Fenius Farsaidh, with the help of Goidel Mac Etheoir and Iar Mac Nema and a whole host of scholars. After the destruction of the Biblical Tower of Babel, Fenius went to search for the letters all over the world that together would make the most perfect language. Each letter was named after a linguist who best devoted his time to this task. Note that 'Gaelic' or 'Goidelic' (the name of the Irish language) comes from Goidel Mac Etheoir, one of the scholars that developed Ogham.
Apart from this legend, another link has been made by modern scholars with the Celtic Irish god Ogma, who may be compared to the Celtic Gallic god Ogmios. The names of these gods seem connected to Ogham (which, by the way, means something like 'idea' or 'notion'). The Romans liked to compare foreign gods with their own gods and they dubbed Ogmios the 'Celtic Hercules', or at least an older version of their Hercules. According to these Roman sources, Ogmios was depicted as an old but strong man with one end of a chain through his tongue, the other end being attached to the ears of an eager public. This has been explained as the power of eloquence, or the power of words, in which the strength of this god lies. There is no direct connection between Ogham and Ogma/Ogmios, but could there be a divine element to the development of Ogham, keeping this part of mythology in mind?

Purpose and meaning
The ancient Celts were mostly an illiterate people. It was the Roman world, and Christianity after that, that brought the written word to those parts in Europe that apparently had no use for it before. This is also the reason why we use the letters we have today instead of systems like the Ogham. Our letters are derived from Roman scripture, and more directly from the letters in medieval manuscripts (especially those made under Charlemagne). To be honest, Ogham isn't a very practical script - so what was it used for?
Based on where the Ogham has been found, it appears that this alphabet had a few specific uses. First of all, as has already been noted above, Ogham has been found on standing stones, or monoliths. They are said to mark borders, and by doing that they also marked someone's property. This might also be the reason why mostly names and short phrases ('of the clan of x', etc.) are found on these stones, instead of actual texts. There could also be some cryptic message in all this, since not many people were actually able to read Ogham, even in that time - but as far as I know this has been lost.
Ogham that has been found in manuscripts seems to have a different function. It has mostly the purpose of learning, remembering and making connections.
But there are also certain stories in which the Ogham has a more magical purpose. From these old sagas we learn that Ogham was not only written down on stone, but also on wood. This is a material that doesn't last, so there is no physical evidence, but it seems plausible that this was actually done in reality. There is even one instance where Ogham is written on metal. In the Book of Leinster we find an medieval legend in which an Ogham text on an iron ring around a stone says: 'Whoever comes to this meadow, if he is armed, he is forbidden to leave this meadow without requesting single combat.' The only thing stopping someone from simply leaving the meadow without a fight is the text itself - therefore it must hold some magical power. The semi-divine hero Cú Chulainn has another solution; he throws the stone away, with ring and all. In another instance, Cu Chulainn gives a small wooden spear to the king of Alba (Scotland) inscribed with Ogham - it says that the king is allowed to take Cú Chulainn's seat at the court of Ulster.
There is slight evidence of the use of Ogham as divination in Irish myth, and this is what Ogham is used for today by many Celtic Pagans and Druids. In an Irish legend, a druid writes down Ogham letters on yew sticks and then uses them for divination, but it gives no further details.  Nowadays, what is most popular is to make a branch for every letter and then use this set of branches in several ways. This can be done by blindly drawing one or several sticks and then interpret the meaning of the letter(s). Another way is to throw the branches on 'Finn's Window' (based on the round diagram that can be seen on the parchment page from the Book of Ballymote here depicted) and draw a meaning from how the branches fall.

The 'Tree Alphabet'
So what about the name 'tree alphabet'? Actually, the Ogham was also a bird alphabet, colour alphabet, river alphabet, etc. It appears that there were many systems that were used for remembering the letters of the Ogham alphabet. Of all these systems (several hundreds, they say), the tree system has been most popular since early times. So, every letter got a tree attached to it, and by memorizing the trees, one was able to memorize the letters. A mnemonic aid of some sorts. Then again, we can't rule out a deeper, perhaps even magical, meaning for using such a system.
The meaning of the letters connected to the trees was further developed in the uses of kennings, or phrases, known as the Bríatharogham. Three of these lists are known:
Bríatharogham Morainn Mac Moín (who was a human judge)
Bríatharogham Mac Oengus (god)
Bríatharogham Cú Chulainn (semi-divine hero, we've already noted him in connection to the Ogham)
The translations of these kennings can be found below, under each individual letter. [...]

The book of Leinster 

The Book of Leinster (Irish Lebor Laignech), is a medieval Irish manuscript compiled ca. 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin, under the shelfmark MS H 2.18 (cat. 1339). It was formerly known as the Lebor na Nuachongbála "Book of Nuachongbáil", a monastic site known today as Oughaval. Some fragments of the book, such as the Martyrology of Tallaght, are now in the collection of University College, Dublin
Nothing certain is known of the manuscript's whereabouts in the next century or so after its completion, but in the 14th century, it came to light at Oughaval. It may have been kept in the vicarage in the intervening years. The Book of Leinster owes its present name to John O'Donovan (d. 1861), who coined it on account of the strong associations of its textual contents with the province of Leinster, and to Robert Atkinson, who adopted it when he published the lithographic facsimile edition.
However, it is now commonly accepted that the manuscript was originally known as the Lebor na Nuachongbála, that is the "Book of Noghoval", now Oughaval (Co. Laois), near Stradbally. This was established by R.I. Best, who observed that several short passages from the Book of Leinster are cited in an early 17th-century manuscript written by Sir James Ware (d. 1666), found today under the shelfmark London, British Library, Add. MS 4821. These extracts are attributed to the "Book of Noghoval" and were written at a time when Ware stayed at Ballina (Ballyna, Co. Kildare), enjoying the hospitality of Rory O'Moore[disambiguation needed]. His family, the O'Moores (Ó Mhorda), had been lords of Noghoval since the early 15th century if not earlier, and it was probably with their help that he obtained access to the manuscript. The case for identification with the manuscript now known as the Book of Leinster is suggested by the connection of Rory's family to the Uí Chrimthainn, coarbs of Terryglass: his grandfather had a mortgage on Clonenagh, the home of Uí Chrimthainn. Best's suggestion is corroborated by evidence from Dublin, Royal Irish Academy MS B. iv. 2, also of the early 17th century. As Rudolf Thurneysen noted, the scribe copied several texts from the Book of Leinster, identifying his source as the "Leabhar na h-Uachongbála", presumably for Leabhar na Nuachongbála ("Book of Noughaval"). Third, in the 14th century, the Book of Leinster was located at Stradbally (Co. Laois), the place of a monastery known originally as Nuachongbáil "of the new settlement" (Noughaval) and later as Oughaval.

The Book of Ballymote 

The Book of Ballymote (Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta, RIA MS 23 P 12, 275 foll.), named for the parish of Ballymote, County Sligo, was written in 1390 or 1391. It was produced by the scribes Solam Ó Droma, Robertus Mac Sithigh and Magnus Ó Duibhgennain, on commission by Tonnaltagh McDonagh, in the possession of whose clan the manuscript remained until 1522, when it was purchased by Aed Óg O'Donnell, prince of Tír Conaill, for 140 milch cows. In 1620 it was given to Trinity College, Dublin, but was subsequently stolen from the library, and only returned to the Royal Irish Academy upon its foundation in 1785 by Chevalier O'Gorman who allegedly purchased it from a millwright's widow in Drogheda for 20 pounds. The first page of the work contains a drawing of Noah's Ark. The first written page is lost, and the second page describes the ages of the world.

The Book of Lecan

The (Great) Book of Lecan (Irish: Leabhar (Mór) Leacain) (RIA, MS 23 P 2) is a medieval Irish manuscript written between 1397 and 1418. It is in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy. Leabhar Mór Leacain is written in Middle Irish and was created by Ádhamh Ó Cuirnín for Giolla Íosa Mór Mac Fhirbhisigh. The material within was transcribed from the Book of Leinster, latter copies of the Book of Invasions, the dinsenchas, the banshenchas and the Book of Rights. At one stage it was owned by James Ussher. James II of England then deposited it at the Irish College, Paris. In 1787, the Chevalier O'Reilly returned it to Ireland; where it was at one stage in the possession of Charles Vallancey. He passed it on to the Royal Irish Academy. There were originally 30 folios; the first nine were apparently lost in 1724. Unfortunately these contained a large section devoted to the pedigrees and history of the Norse and Norse-Gaelic families of Ireland, which are nowhere else preserved. The pages are unfortunately covered in a greasy substance which makes them transparent and reduces their legibility.

Note: A portion of the article is an extract from Yvonne Vetjens and the other party that includes all three books (text) and photographs, is mine.