This is a question that comes up a lot – what are some Pagan Symbols used by the (Celtic) Irish?
It’s kind of a tough one to answer, as we don’t have an extant [surviving through the ages] Irish Pagan tradition, per se. We have a whole lot of Irish mythology, of course, and even more Irish folklore… but no complete system for what it all means, or how to use it.
In modern Irish Paganism, we use many of the same Pagan Symbols as do those in other communities, all over the world. Some of the general Pagan symbols you’ll see at any Irish Wiccan coven meeting or Druid convention include:
Any or all of these symbols can be (and are!) used by modern Irish Pagans.
When we look back a little further into our tradition and lore, we have 2 main sources for native Irish Pagan symbols – stone carvings and manuscripts.
Now, either of those may have been influenced by Christianity, and so not count as truly Pagan, perhaps. It depends on the context for them.
That being said though, everything in Ireland is a little bit Pagan, even still… so we can put that one aside, now that we’re aware of it, and look at the sources.
The best example of this, I’d say, is the Ogham alphabet – our Celtic writing system (and I use Celtic here, and through this post, because much of what we have in Ireland on this topic is common across other Celtic cultures).
Ogham appears both carved in stone, and in multiple manuscripts, so it’s ticking both boxes there. With regard to how old this Celtic alphabet might be: we know it existed as a monument script (there’s that early stone carving), in the 400s CE [Common Era].
It was designed for the Irish language, so we can place in at pre Christian times, probably, through that – if it was just made for the monks, they would more like have designed it through Latin.
It’s back to the stone carving folks, and this time, let’s look at our monuments. One of the more famous ones is Brú na Bóinne, with the 3 great passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Built by the Dagda, so they say (and you can read some fascinating stories on that guy right here), these monuments have stood in Ireland for over 5,000 years, and when they were being built, symbolic artwork was a big part of their construction.
Some of it is spectacular: wonderful combinations of spirals, lozenges, chevrons, triangles and arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. It occurs particularly on the structural stones of the tombs but also occurs on some artefacts that have been found within and around them.
Knowth alone has about 45% of all the art known from Irish tombs and nearly 30% of all the megalithic art in Europe.
[Images courtesy of World Heritage Ireland, © 2010 Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government.]
In short, we don’t know. Great answer, right?
We do have theories, of course.
Whatever their original purpose, we can utilise them now for any of these reasons as fits with our personal practice. The Irish Pagan symbols that remain to us are an incredibly valuable connection to our ancestors, and the wisdom of ancient Ireland.
I’d love to learn what Pagan symbols call to you, or which ones you make use of? Let me know in the comments below!
If you want to get some focused guidance on where (or how) to start exploring an authentic Irish spiritual practice, I’ve just released 2 Beginners’ Classes on the Irish Pagan School…
Hopefully, those options give you something solid to be getting going with. If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know?
What are the place, time, person, and cause of the invention of the Ogham? Not hard.
Its place – Hibernia, or Ireland as we know it now. In the time of Bres son of Elatha king of Ireland it was invented. Now, that’s not the bad Bres, the half Fomorian who enslaved the Tuatha Dé… ‘tis a different Bres we’re talking about here.
Its person – well that was none other than Oghma. Son of Elatha, son of Delbaeth, and brother to Bres (that’s the same Bres, not the bad Bres). For Bres, Oghma and Delbaeth are the three sons of Elatha, son of Delbaeth there. In case that wasn’t clear.
Now Oghma, a man well skilled in speech and in poetry, invented the Ogham. The cause of its invention was, as a proof of his ingenuity, and that this speech should belong to the learned apart, to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen. He might not have been a huge fan of rustics or herdsmen, the tales don’t tell us for certain, but sure not many of the nobles were, back then. Except maybe for the Dagda, who never seemed to mind the odd rustic or herdsman in amongst his company.
And that is how the cause of it’s invention is recorded, but is it truly so? Is there more to the tale, that we don’t yet know?
Whence the Ogham got its name, was according to sound and to matter, who are the father and the mother of the Ogham.
Oghma, the first inventor, spoke and sang it in respect to its sound, indeed. According to matter, however, ogum is og-uaim, the little egg hatched in a cave… perfect alliteration, which the poets applied to poetry by means of it. For by letters Gaeilge is measured by the poets, and when they are written are they done.
True too, is that the father of Ogham is Oghma, while the mother of Ogham is the hand or knife of Oghma.
The champion sat alone, in the darkness, in the dirt.
His restless hands moved through the clay in which he sat. Scooping, scraping, kneading, shaping, dispersing it back to the floor of the cave, then repeating the process again.
After a time, in the silence, he began a low hum. Starting deep down in his broad chest, it built steadily as it rose through his throat and flowed past his lips, softening and sweetening over his honey tongue as it was released to the air around him.
The cave accepted the sound, as ever she would, with the open arms of amplification and reverberation, gifting the champion his sound back to him, from many angles and in many ways. The essence of Ogham lived in that sound, discharged from the father to the womb of the mother.
It did not exist in our world though, without form, for that is ever the differentiation between the worlds – the formless and the formed.
Taking the clay, imbued with the sound and birthed from the body of the cave, the champion shaped matter, created a small round surface with his hands. And with his knife, he carved what came, shaping the sound around into the matter, twining the two into the first strokes, the early birch, the B.
And with that, a vision came, for the sound and the matter combined did form a gateway to Imbas Forosnai, and the champion saw Lugh, son of Ethliu, in pain as his wife was carried away from him into the Otherworld, and not once but seven times over. And he knew the birch, the Beith, would guard the woman, should Lugh let it, for the Ogham had told him true.
Oghma continued the process, the birth of Ogham, and each little egg he carved hatched a new letter into this world, there in the cave under the mound. And each new letter presented him with fresh Imbas, illuminating his experience, so that he understood. With each birth of sound, and matter, with each new letter, he knew it for a key to the wisdom between the worlds. With each new letter, the focus narrowed, and he learned to insert the key within the lock, and open the doorways to the Knowledge Which Illuminates.
There’s much more to the Ogham, oh and so much more to learn and know… but sure, they’re all stories for another day.
Primary Source –
[ed.] [tr.] Calder, George [ed. and tr.], Auraicept na n-Éces: The scholars’ primer, being the texts of the Ogham tract from the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow book of Lecan, and the text of the Trefhocul from the Book of Leinster, Edinburgh: John Grant, 1917.
If you’re interested in the Ogham, you might like the Ogham Journeys Course… register your interest at – https://loraobrien.ie/ogham-journeys/
This story originally appeared on my Patreon – for $3 per month you can support the writing of these tales, AND receive first access to a new one every single month.
You’ve heard of the Ogham (or Ogam), the ‘ancient Celtic alphabet’ of Ireland?
Possibly in the context of a ‘Celtic Tree Calendar’, perhaps?
But you’re never sure if the resources you’re finding are genuine, are respectful of the native traditions… or just created by some colonisers cashing in with appropriative, half understood, mostly mangled nonsense?
You might want to know more about our Ogham writing, about Ogham stones, or what’s the real story with this Old Irish alphabet system?
You’re in luck! Have some Ogham resources, checked and curated by your Guide to Ireland, Lora O’Brien. 💚
Once per year, I run an ‘Ogham Journeys’ online programme. Over the course of 25 weeks, students begin to develop their deep, fulfilling, lifelong relationship with the Ogham.
BONUS – you’ll get a welcome email with a PDF copy of this ogham resources guide to download when you do!
Aileen Paul (USA) said: This course was rich in its information, enough that I need to go back a second time and spend more time with each Ogham to more fully experience them. The time commitment is the main obstacle for a busy person, but the personal relationship with the Ogham is worth the effort. It sets you up for a lifetime relationship with the Ogham.
Cat Dubh (Ireland) said: This is a course that truly does create a deep and meaningful ongoing relationship with the Ogham. I have studied the Ogham for many years and this course brought me to a whole new level of knowledge and understanding. The study material, the journeys/meditations, and the personal creativity tapped, has been and will continue to be second to none. Lora O’Brien, as Guide Extraordinaire through this Ogham course, is also second to none. Highly recommended.
It’s 2 years since myself and my sister set off on my first Patreon site visit, and I thought I’d share a version of the report for the anniversary!
I’ve been aware of the site, peripherally at least, since I saw a picture in Daragh Smyth’s ‘A Guide to Irish Mythology’ (1996 edition), in the entry on Druids – where he makes reference to Druid divination “by means of ogam, carved on wands of yew”, and then on the next page is a drawing tagged – “Cave entrance at Drumloghan, Co. Waterford, showing ogam stones in place.” Mysterious, eh?!
Obviously not mysterious enough to warrant further investigation at the time though, because I didn’t.
When I moved to Waterford in March 2016, I missed my cave terribly (the Cave of the Cats, at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon). I had a vague recall of the ogham being interesting, so I googled ‘ogham cave’, and found it. Pretty sure I posted a link to my author page round that time, but I was in the throes of book jail and couldn’t afford to give it much time. Even so, I determined to visit.
The site I looked at around that time simply said: “Located 3.5km north of the village of Stradbally, this is one of Waterford’s most interesting sites. Known locally as the ‘Ogham Cave’, it was discovered by a farmer in 1867. Ten Ogham stones were found built into the walls and roof of a souterrain measuring 3.5 m long, 1.5m wide and 1.2 meters in height.
In 1936 five of the stones were erected each side of the now exposed souterrain with just three remaining as roof stones. It is thought that the stones were pilleged from local cemeteries for the construction of the souterrain which could have been used for storage or defence from invasion around 800-900AD.
The site, which is enclosed by a wooden fence, is located out in the middle of a field normally used for cattle grazing.” http://www.prehistoricwaterford.com/products/drumlohan/
Myself and my sister Jay set out on this adventure one rainy Saturday morning in July. I had Google Maps directing on the phone (it’s a marked site you can get directions to, by road) and she’d found these ones:
“From Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, take the N25 west, at the first crossroads take a left for Stradbally at the second crossroads take a right then the next right, about 300 metres down this road you will come to a gate with a house next to it. Go through this gate and follow the path the stones are about 200 metres down this path in a field on your left hand side.”
I refused to look at the site info from where she’d got the directions, wanting to go in cold, as it were.
All seemed well.
We were in fine form, and had even the use of a posh and luxurious Lexus for our adventure, as my cousin Catherine (who’s like a sister to us as well sure… and also Jay’s actual work boss, by the by) was away for a few weeks and definitely wouldn’t be using it that day.
We were driving happily along that main road there (the N25) when Google informed us we had reached our destination. Eh, no. Obviously we hadn’t.
Realising Google was a little confused by the lack of actual roads or pathways to the site, we abandoned that and looked again at the written directions.
Getting awful confused by talk of crossroads and farm tracks, we found what we figured must be the closest farm yard, based on the Google ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’ marking point, and drove up that lane.
It was obviously a working farmyard, so we did the respectful thing and pulled in off the lane so we could go in and ask directions, and possibly permission to access the land, if that was required. Local knowledge and respect are always the way to go when accessing Irish sites, as most of them are based on private (and often working farm) land. I mean, I have social anxiety issues and I still went and knocked on a stranger’s door… that’s how important this is!
We were directed to the forest track down the road by a smiling Saturday farmer, with assurances it was ‘just down there’, and got back in the car to drive off on our merry way. Um…
The Lexus is heavy! With slick road tyres! It was raining, a lot!
Luckily, the farmer had a 4×4 and some straps for towing, so he came outside and hauled us out. We were mortified of course, but it was all very good natured. We got turned around and back on the road.
Found the forest track. Examined the car for damage (none, phew). Walked the forest track.
My first proper pic of the day was the solitary Foxglove we encountered in a drainage ditch along this lane. The Fairy Fingers (digitalis) were enchanting me all day, but this one for some reason was waving to me (physically moving, as well as energetically waving) to get my attention as we walked, so I stopped to say hi, and take a picture (below).
Continuing along the lane, we were awful confused to reach the dead end there.
There was some rubbish dumped, including somewhat bizarrely, a broken beehive. But no track or trail or gods forbid a finger post sign, to tell us where the site was.
There were large red overhead barriers at the end, something to do with forestry machinery I believe… but nothing else. I was feeling drawn to a place that MIGHT have been a way through, but Jay pointed out that a particular tree wasn’t just one season’s growth, and likely indicated that there was no use pushing our way through brambles to try and get to the other side… the direction I felt the site to be in.
We walked back up the lane, and figured we could find the site from the original written directions, but we’d need to start from the farmyard where we’d got the car stuck.
Leaving the car parked safely where it was, we walked along the main road (google maps helpfully telling us we’d reached our destination somewhere round the middle again, thank you very much). We were hoping to spot a way in from the road, but it was pretty dense forestry and undergrowth, so it looked like a return to the farmyard was inevitable.
Embarrassing though. So, we walked a bit up their lane, but hopped a stone wall into the fields beyond, and crouch ran across the open space to a point we recognized, a large erratic boulder that was mentioned on some directions she’d seen that I can’t actually find now… it’s all a little hazy.
Talk about stepping on a stray sod somewhere along the way and begin turned around? We wandered those fields for the guts of 2 hours in the rain and wind, I kid you not.
Eventually, I hit on the brain wave of taking out google maps again, and turning on the satellite view to get some idea of the terrain, and although the data wasn’t quite up to date, that at least gave us the general direction to be hitting for. Thankfully her map reading skills and spatial orientation abilities are on point, as mine as severely challenged, I will admit.
And we found it!
And it was wonderful!
We recorded the first video (under the thorn tree in the ‘fairy cave’ once we had it in sight, but before we approached. Then we went over, wandered around a while, sat down into it, examined the ogham and talked. It was very still and quiet down in it, and I don’t think that was just due to the relief of being out of the bluff and bluster of the windy hillside fields. I got a feel of burial, which didn’t make sense.
Jay recorded another video, inside the cave. Then she graciously departed and went and sat on the hillside by the hedge, while I lay down in the space and Journeyed to the Otherworld location of that site.
When I came back to this world, I recorded a quick extra video that unfortunately lost the sound… that may or may not have been technical difficulties. Well, it was definitely technical difficulties, but whether it was a random glitch or Otherworld interference is anyone’s guess. Then it was time to leave.
The Otherworld Journey was a little odd, but not uncomfortable.
I lay down, closed my eyes, and went through my usual process – going inside myself, through the blackness, path to the beach, out across the ocean… and I landed on the Otherworld Ireland. From here I travelled ‘as the crow flies’ to the location of this site, and set down to visit.
The ‘locals’ there were very much unused to visitors. Such a kerfuffle! I sat, and waited for things to calm down and natural curiosity to take the place of that initial ‘wtf is this?’ It did, in little time. The stones were originally all laid across the hollowed souterrain, and this was the case in the Otherworld too. But there was a mirror/shadow of the stones stretching out along a boundary a little distant, at the same time. There was a definite burial energy showing up on that side too, for me.
As I lay there under the originals, I got a strong sense of ‘Protection’ – but it was very unclear, shifting, and confused to me as to whether the stones were meant for protection of something inside the ‘cave’, or protection of those across the landscape from something within. I got a sense that the thing being protected from, in either case, was something very different, with an ‘alien’ feel to it (unusual, not extra-terrestrial) – i.e. so vastly different as to be almost incomprehensible to the locals.
I said thank you, and left the Otherworld. Returning to this world, I found a large lump of moss lain across my chest, with no easy or obvious way it could have gotten there.
When I was home, I visited the SMR Database (always my first port of call) at www.archaeology.ie, to see what is available in the known record.
On their map, we can see the red dots representing points of interest in the area. The top dot on right hand side is the Ogham Cave, which is helpfully marked ‘ogham’.
The note reads:
“The souterrain (WA024-033004-) associated with the perimeter of ecclesiastical enclosure (WA024-033003-) at N contained ten ogham stones which are now preserved at the site. This is on the fourth lining stone on the W side which Macalister (1945, vol. 1, No. 281) read as: DEAGOS MAQI MUCO[I……]NAI.” – ‘Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford’. In this instance the entry has been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
This stone has been studied as part of the ‘Ogham in 3D’ project undertaken by the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. To access details go to the following website: http://ogham.celt.dias.ie/search.php?ciic=281
The line of three dots underneath is the mentioned ecclesiastical site (bottom, centre circle) which I hadn’t been aware was there before our visit, with an unknown artefact previously classified as a millstone in the grounds, and a bullán stone near the boundary edge.
The ecclesiastic/church site entry is as follows:
Situated on a gentle S and SE-facing slope overlooking a river basin to the S and E. This is an early ecclesiastical site, but there are no known historical references. Subcircular grass-covered area (dims. 40m E-W; 35m N-S) defined by an overgrown stone field bank (Wth 2m; int. H 1m; ext. H 1m) which is truncated at SE by a NE-SW field bank. There is no evidence of a church or that the enclosure was used for burial (WA024-033002-), but this is very likely. There is a cairn (diam. 4m; H 0.5m) (WA024-033019-) in the centre, and a millstone and subrectangular bullaun stone (WA024-033005-) of Old Red Sandstone (dims. c. 1m x 0.7m) with a single basin (diam. 0.4m; D 0.18m) are also at the site. An outer boundary of an ecclesiastical enclosure (WA024-033004-) is visible as an eroded bank (Wth c. 6m; H 0.2m) with traces of an outer fosse (Wth 4m; D 0.2m) SW-NE (diam. c. 130m). Traces of field banks (WA024-033020-) connecting the inner and outer enclosures were present c. 1980 (SMR file). There is a souterrain (WA024-033004-) with associated ogham stones (WA024-033006- to WA024-033015-) on the outer boundary at NW. (Kirwan 1985; 1987)
As you can see – the ‘church’ assignment is not definitive. But there is a cairn, and a hollowed stone.
You will see in the Report folder a file you can download, which is a copy of the article from the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland by William Williams, entitled “On an Ogham Chamber at Drumloghan, in the County of Waterford”.
[Source: The Journal of the Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, ThirdSeries, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1868), pp. 35-39]
In this, he speaks of local knowledge at the time (1868), claiming the church site to be:
“an ancient cemetery, if not actually of Pagan origin, at least long disused, except for the interment of unbaptized children, suicides, and any others not considered entitled to burial in consecrated ground.”
He describes the discovery of the Ogham Cave, only a year or so before he wrote the paper:
“Mr. William Quealy, a very intelligent and obliging young man, on whose land the cemetery is situated, and who, too, gave practical proof that he is no stranger to the exercise of the national virtue of hospitality, directed his men, a few weeks since, to demolish the remains of the external fence above referred to. In the progress of the work they came upon a long stone which crossed the foundation of the fence; and having noticed some earth to fall into the ground by its side, they removed it, and found underneath a moderately large chamber, which contained nothing but loose earth and a few small stones. Having failed to turn up the much-coveted hoard of gold, they proceeded with the work of demolition, and took little further notice of the matter. Intelligence of this important discovery having been brought me a few days later, I visited the spot in the month of August last, and was agreeably surprised at finding that the chamber thus accidentally broken into was an ogham cave”.
Also in your Report folder is another research article, published by the Old Waterford Society publication ‘Decies’, issue XXVIII, Spring 1985; this is entitled “The Ogham Stones at Drumlohan, Reconsidered”, by E.M. Kirwan.
On the Ogham stones, they write:
“When the ogham stones were discovered at Drumlohan, it was evident immediately that they had been used primarily as building materials in the construction of the underground chamber in which they were set. There are ten stones that have been inscribed with ogham and the question of the actual origin of these stones remains open. It is quite certain that they had been inscribed long before being used as supports and roofing stones, and it is supposed that they came from the immediate vicinity. The exact age of both underground chamber (souterrain) and ogham stones is uncertain.”
There is a detailed look at the Ogham inscriptions and translation opinions too.
“The readings of the Drumlohan oghams show little consistency. The main difficulties have been due to parts of the stones being missing; not reading the whole length of the stones; but more frequently, the difficulty has been in interpreting the forms of the ogham genitive case. A shortened account of the various readings should be of help in trying to put these ogham stones into historical perspective.”
|First Lintel||Of M. boy of G. descendant of M.|
|Fourth Lintel||(monument) of Calunovix, son of the Kin of Litus or Lith|
|Fifth Lintel||(monument) of MacInissen the Good|
|Sixth Lintel||(monument) of Cunalegis, son of C. of the Legs, descendant of Quects|
|Eighth Lintel||Fractured, partial – Dag, or Lag|
|East 1st Lining||(Monumentum) Birmaqui generis Rothae|
|East 3rd Lining||MAQI NE(TA-SEGAMON)AS – possibly|
|East 5th Lining||DENAVEC(A MU)OI MEDALO|
|West 1st Lining||CORRBRI MAQUI X, or BRO(INION)AS|
|West 4th Lining||Older inscription – SOVA(L) (I)NI|
|West 4th Lining||Newer inscription – DEACOS MAQI MUCO(I…)NAI|
Not all of the Lintel or passage Lining stones have Ogham inscriptions on them, hence the gaps.
“Passing out of the old cemetery to the west, the eye is at once attracted by the remains of a broad circular rampart. This external ring appears to have been con centric with the cemetery, and of about thrice its diameter. It can be easily traced from N. to S. E.; and although the remainder is now quite obliterated, I have no doubt that originally it surrounded the cemetery. Nay, more, fortified by the presence of the ogham cave, shortly to be described, and of a fine rock-basin which lies at a few yards distance from the cemetery, I have no hesitation in stating that this great external ring was an open-air Pagan temple.” (Williams)
It was easier to orientate ourselves off the road way from that point, and we figured out which direction the car was parked in and tried to make for that, but came to a boundary that we couldn’t cross. We ended up standing by the boundary ditch and fence across from that particular tree that wasn’t just one season’s growth, having spotted those large red barrier things for the forest machinery… that way through was indeed unpassable, so thank you Jay for saving me from the bramble push and pull, but it was heartening to realise that while my spatial awareness and road negotiation leaves a lot to be desired, my internal ‘magic stuff is this way’ compass is absolutely spot on.
We decided to go up and around, to try and hit the road from the other side and further down, as neither of us relished the idea of the crouching run back across that farmer’s land. And so we did, and we found a laneway, leading to a gap in the hedge, and ended up at the top of the hill again, in the field behind someone’s back garden, with the road running in front of their house.
As we were about to swing out that way, and back along the road, when Jay noticed a gap in the hedge on the other side of their house, in what looked like forestry, and wondered if that, possibly, was the forest we’d parked in, and if the gap might lead us back onto the forest path?
Lo and behold, it was and it did.
Looking back up the hill…
And back on the forest path laneway, where did we end up?
Coming through a gap and over the drainage ditch to be greeted by my first little foxglove friend.
I shit you not, that energy waving at the start was about trying to show me the right way in.
All in all, the research to attempt to explain (or even confirm) my personal gnosis on site showed up some interesting academic analysis and opinion. There is no consensus there, of course, but the ancestral boundaries are certainly indicative of protection, while the local folklore points to burial tradition.
I would propose that my uncertainty between protecting within from without, or without from within, may be rooted in the re-purposing and re-locating of the stones. Boundaries were strong. I have no doubt that there was a sacred or even magical element to these carvings, and the placement at these sites.
This was an important place to our ancestors, and that can still be felt in the stone bones and echoes.