A secret alphabet to defy the Romans?

The art of Ogham created a fascinating medieval alphabet system primarily used to transcribe early Irish and later Old Irish languages. This early form of communication has been discovered on roughly 400 surviving orthodox inscriptions, mostly in southern Munster, throughout Ireland and western Britain. The largest collection of Ogham inscriptions outside of Ireland was found in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

Ogham, a remarkable ancient alphabet that originated in early medieval Ireland, is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The secretive nature of this script has captured the imagination of scholars and enthusiasts alike, leading to a range of theories about its creation and purpose.

One school of thought, advocated by scholars such as Carney and MacNeill, posits that Ogham was initially created as a cryptic alphabet, designed to be understood only by those with knowledge of the language. According to this theory, the alphabet was invented by Irish scholars or druids for political, military, or religious reasons as a secret means of communication in opposition to the authorities of Roman Britain. The Roman Empire, which then ruled over neighboring southern Britain, posed a genuine threat of invasion to Ireland, which may have acted as an incentive for the creation of this secret script.

Even after the threat of invasion had receded, the desire to keep communications secret from Romans or Romanized Britons would still have provided an incentive. However, with bilingual Ogham and Latin inscriptions in Wales, it is possible that the Ogham script could have been decoded by at least an educated few in the Post-Roman world.

Another theory, proposed by scholars such as McManus, suggests that Ogham was invented by the first Christian communities in early Ireland. This theory posits that the sounds of Primitive Irish were considered difficult to transcribe into the Latin alphabet, and thus a separate alphabet was created for writing short messages and inscriptions in the Irish language. The invention of a separate script would also have allowed for the creation of a uniquely Irish identity, distinct from that of the Romans and their alphabet.

The exact origin and purpose of Ogham remains unclear, but its significance as a valuable historical artifact is undeniable. The surviving inscriptions provide insight into early Irish culture and language, and the use of trees to represent individual letters has led to Ogham being known as the Celtic tree alphabet. Despite the many theories surrounding its creation and use, Ogham remains a fascinating and enigmatic script, imbued with an aura of mystery and secrecy that continues to captivate and intrigue scholars and enthusiasts today.

An example of an ogham stone in the ground of Ratass Church in Tralee, Co. Kerry. The inscription was discovered in 1975. The stone had been built into the sides of a 19th-century tomb in ths southwest corner of the church, and is now on exhibit inside the church. The stone slab measures 134cm x 30cm x 19cm.

The iscription reads:


The writing

The word ‘ogam’ or ‘ogham’ derives from the Irish language and its etymology is still ambiguous. However, it is thought to mean “point-seam,” relating to the seam created by the point of a sharp weapon.

Scholars have traced the origin of Ogham to the early medieval period, with inscriptions dating back to around the 4th century AD. However, some experts, including James Carney, contend that its roots can be traced back to the 1st century BC. It is clear from the phonological evidence that the Ogham alphabet was in use before the 5th century, despite the earliest inscriptions dating to this period. It is assumed that there was a period of writing on wood or other perishable material, which led to the loss of certain phonemes represented in the inscriptions.

Experts believe that Ogham was modelled on another script, with the Latin alphabet being the most likely template due to its wide usage in neighbouring Roman Britannia at the time. Other scholars, however, argue in favour of the Elder Futhark and even the Greek alphabet.

Ogham can be written using a series of lines or notches, known as strokes or score marks, on a central line. The direction and number of strokes determine the specific letter being represented. The Ogham alphabet consists of 20 letters, each representing a different sound in the Irish language.

Here is a guide to writing Ogham:

Draw a vertical line, known as the “stem line.”

Place one or more horizontal lines across the stem line to represent the letter you want to write. The horizontal lines can be positioned on either side of the stem line and can be connected to each other or the stem line.

The number and placement of the horizontal lines determine which Ogham letter is being written. Each letter has a unique combination of horizontal lines placed above or below the stem line.

there is an Old Irish poem called “The Secret of Ogham” (Rún Oghaim) that references the use of Ogham as a means of encoding secret messages. Here is a translation of the poem:

The Secret of Ogham

I have a secret in my heart

That only the wise can see,

Engraved in Ogham writing,

A message meant for me.

It tells of mysteries and secrets,

Of things beyond this mortal sphere,

Of knowledge that only the wise possess,

And of things that are held most dear.

It speaks of a hidden path,

That winds through the forest deep,

Where faeries dance and magic lies,

And the ancient oak trees sleep.

It tells of a secret name,

That only the stars can know,

A name that unlocks the hidden lore,

Of the ancient powers below.

So if you seek the secrets of the wise,

And the mysteries of the ages old,

Look to the Ogham writing,

And the secrets it does hold.

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