Forestry Focus



The myth of the Alphabet of Trees.

No discussion of trees in Irish folklore and history would be complete without mention of the letters in the Ogham alphabet. This alphabet is the ancient Irish alphabet, many examples of which are still to be found on standing stones across the whole of the island. These inscriptions mainly date from the 3rd to the 5th century AD.

Ogham_stone,_Irish_National_Heritage_Park by David Hawgood - Wikimedia

Ogham stone (photo D. Hawgood)

The alphabet was an exception to the largely oral nature of early Irish society. The Brehon laws provide an illustration of this predominantly oral nature. We also have Julius Caesar’s word for it – he remarked how the Celts “commit to memory immense amounts of poetry…they consider it improper to commit their studies to writing…lest it be vulgarised and lest the memory of scholars should become impaired”.

It’s not that the Celts were not thinkers, poets and lawyers –it just happens that they did not tend to commit much to paper, wood or stone. The majority of the inscriptions we are left with are not works of literature but simple names, usually along the lines of Conor, son of Eoin. It was up to later Christian scholars to commit Irish lore to paper.

The alphabet itself originally comprised one group of vowels and three groups of consonants. Each group or aicme contained five letters, bringing the total number of letters in the alphabet to twenty. The letters themselves were made up of one to five lines stemming from or crossing a central line or axis, usually the edge of a stone. After a while, a new group of letters was added to the alphabet. These later letters have more complex symbols than the straightforward lines of the first twenty.

Each Ogham letter had a corresponding letter name and kennings or riddles which were like crossword clues referring back to the letter name. These kennings seem to have been used as learning aids, although they would seem rather cryptic to people today.

What is interesting is that trees figured largely in the naming of the Ogham letters. Originally eight letters were named after trees -birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, pine, ash and yew. Their selection gives us clues as to the importance of these trees in early Irish society. Scholars in the Middle Ages built on the prominence of tree names in the alphabet and read other tree names into the remaining letters, resulting in a tree alphabet.

The Ogham tree alphabet became so bound up in Irish tree folklore that, even though many of the tree/letter associations were the fabrication of medieval scholars, no treatment of the mythology of trees in Ireland would be complete without mentioning it.

Ogma, or Ogmius as he was known in Gaul, was described in the 2nd century by the Greek writer Lucian as the Gallic god of Eloquence, and Goidelic Ogma also has the epithets ‘honey mouthed’ and ‘eloquent’. The golden speech of Ogmius was recorded in Gallic artwork as a fine gold chain linking the tip of his tongue to ears of a group of followers. According to the Book of Ballymote, the invention of Ogham was achieved when ‘Ogma Sun-Face raised four pillars of equal length’, and it was upon these pillars that the characters of the letters were etched.

Ogham is read from right to left and from the bottom up. The following quote compares reading Ogham to climbing a tree:

“This is their number: there are five groups of Ogham and each group has five letters, and each of them has from one to five scores, and their orientations distinguish them. Their orientations are: right of the stemline, left of the stemline, around the stemline, through the stemline, across the stemline. 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 hÉces , 650-700AD

Further information on Ogham click here