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October 27, 2021

How to Read Ogham?

Ogham (also spelled ogam) is a uniquely Irish alphabet, which uses a system of notches and horizontal or diagonal lines to represent the sounds of an early form of the Irish language. Our students at The Irish Pagan School always want to know though, how to read Ogham?

We have two primary sources for the Ogham language in Ireland: inscribed stones, and the manuscript tradition.

Ogham stone inscriptions give us the earliest recorded form of the Irish language (Gaeilge), and form our earliest written records – dating back at least as far as the 400s (5th century) Ce (Common Era). Mostly, the stones are carved with the names of important people, and sometimes we see tribal/ancestral affiliation, or geographical areas.

The earliest Ogham manuscript records that remain to us are dated a little later that the Ogham stones, but references to Ogham appear in books worldwide. This may indicate an established Irish alphabet system travelling with scribes who had learned it while studying in Ireland.

In Switzerland, we find the Codex Bernensis 207, fol. 257r, or the Bern Burgerbibliothek MS 207, dated to the 8th or 9th Century CE. This is a manuscript containing materials relating to Latin grammar, which also features Ogham, and shows that scholars worldwide knew how to read Ogham.

How to Read Ogham - check the Codex Bernensis?
Codex Bernensis

Looks complicated, right?

We have other similarly early manuscript sources:

  • Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS Reg. Lat. 1308 fol. 62v (876-877 CE)
  • MS Oxford St John’s College 17, fol. 7v (created in Early 1000s)
  • The Annals of Inisfallen (Irish) in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson B 503 [s. xiex] (Late 1000s CE)

However, we don’t need to dig back quite that far into dusty manuscripts to figure out how to read Ogham today.

How to Read Ogham

There are two distinct ways to read Ogham, depending on the source. For the Ogham stone inscriptions, we read from bottom to top.

Ogham is climbed (i.e. read) as a tree is climbed, i.e. treading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand before and one’s left hand last. After that it is across it and against it and through it and around it.”

Auraicept na n-Éces , 650 – 700 CE

Remembering that Ogham will be written in Irish (or Latin) will help with translation, and it’s worth noting that anyone wondering how to write Ogham, should also make sure that the first step is to begin with Irish words and phrases.

Trying to translate English into Ogham doesn’t usually work out very well.

The second way we see Ogham written is horizontally, across a page from left to right. People often get confused when flipping the script from stone to paper, so here’s a guide on how to read Ogham this way:

  • Letters that point right when looking at them vertically (beith, lus, fern, sail, nin) will point downwards when written horizontally. (This is the first Aicme, or group of 5 letters.)
  • Letters that point left when looking at them vertically (húath, dair, tinne, coll, ceirt) will point upwards when written horizontally. (This is the second Aicme, or group of 5 letters.)
  • The third Aicme (muin, gort, ngétal, straif, ruis) just flip from side to side slanted lines, to up and down slanted lines.
  • The fourth Aicme (ailm, onn, úr, edad, idad) which are straight across lines when reading them on vertical Ogham writing, can be represented by straight lines, or by dots instead of lines, when reading them on horizontal script.

Here is an example to clarify how to read Ogham, of the word Sláinte (health) in Irish…

I hope that’s been helpful!

To learn more about how to read Ogham, see our online classes (with free and paid options!) at the Irish Pagan School – Click Here for Ogham Classes.

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About the Author

Irish Author, Educator, and Guide to Ireland. Co-Founder of the Irish Pagan School, Eel & Otter Press, and Pagan Life Rites (Ireland).

Lora O'Brien

Join our Tuath (community, tribe) to get Course and Scholarship info, and regular (free) Irish resources on topics such as Mythology, History, Society, Spirituality, Storytelling and Travel directly from Lora O'Brien and the team at the Irish Pagan School.

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