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How was the Ogham Alphabet Invented?

Ogham Alphabet - light to illuminate a Cave

Sound and Matter – a Scéal of a Tale of Old Ireland, and the Ogham.

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. 


 

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Lora O'Brien

Irish Author and Guide to Ireland

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