In Celtic and Druid lore there is an alphabet known as ogham (pronounced “OH-um”). This alphabet had its origins, as far as anyone knows, in medieval Ireland, making it a bit too late for the Druids, but modern Druids still use it extensively. The original ogham contained twenty letters. Five more were added later, for a total of 25 letters.
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|OGHAM FEW||LETTER||TREE OR PLANT|
|Oir||TH||Spindle – Pink Dogwood|
The ogham was probably created during the medieval period by Irish and/or Christian scholars, and not by Druids.
Whatever its origin, ogham is used by many modern Druids and Celtic Pagans for both communication and divination. For divination purposes, each letter of the ogham is inscribed on a rune. Each of these runes has a divinatory aspect or meaning. These runes are usually placed in a crane bag, shaken or stirred up, then drawn and laid out in various ways and interpreted. A rune constructed in this manner is called an ogham few.
Each of the 25 letters of the ogham is associated with a plant. The ogham is sometimes referred to as the Celtic Tree Alphabet, but that is somewhat misleading, as some of the plants of the ogham are not trees.
For those interested in the healing and magical properties of plants, the ogham is a great place to start. Knowing the medicinal and magical properties of the plants of the ogham would give you a good basic foundation in both herbalism and magic. Not only that, but since each letter of the ogham is associated with a plant, one Druid may leave a message for another Druid by simply arranging leaves on a string. Each leaf represents a plant of the ogham, and each plant represents a letter. Some Groves actually use this technique as a test of one’s abilities, by leaving messages for students in the form of leaves. If the students can decipher these messages, they are considered learned in the art of the ogham.
The calendar used today by many Pagans is a lunar calendar, as opposed to a solar calendar like the one used by most Western nations. This Pagan lunar calendar, devised by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, is divided up into thirteen months of 28 days each, with one extra day left over. Since the lunar cycle is approximately 29.5 days, this method of calculating months doesn’t exactly line up with astronomical observations, but a discussion of the complexities of astronomy is beyond the scope of our purposes here. Suffice it to say that Ordugh na Slighe Meadhanach uses 13 months of 28 days each, for a total of 364 days. The one day left over constitutes our “year and a day” period, making a total of 365 days.
Each month on the lunar calendar is also associated with a tree and a letter of the ogham. A horoscope can be constructed by finding the tree month of your birth, and studying the properties of that tree.
So the ogham contains a calendar, a means of divination, and a means of healing. Obviously, there is a wealth of information to be obtained from study of the ogham! For this reason, anyone wishing a good basic foundation in The Way of the Druid would go far towards accomplishing this goal by studying the ogham in depth.
Construction of the Ogham
Ogham writing is unique in that it is a vertical method of writing, starting from the bottom-up. Letters are constructed on a vertical baseline. There are five groups of five letters, each consisting of hash marks on either side of the baseline. Think of the baseline as the trunk of a tree, and the hash marks as its branches (see figure below):
The original ogham alphabet, consisting of 20 letters, was known as the feda. It was arranged in groups of five letters each. These groups were called aicmí (the singular is aicme). The word aicme means “family.” Each aicme is named after its first letter. The first aicme is Aicme Beithe, the second is Aicme h’Úatha, and so on. Five additional letters were later added because in the original ogham there weren’t enough letters to cover all possible spellings of some Irish words. This fifth aicme is known as the forfeda, or Aicme Koad, for the first character of the aicme.