The Thirteen Trees
Ogham Moon Calendar
The Five Trees
The Half Year
The Sacred One
Original artwork © Ruby Clark 2010
The 'Sacred Branch' Ogham symbol for 'ng'
The Ogham Trees have been objects of veneration, sources of wisdom, inspiration and medicine for unknown centuries. Each of the twenty British native trees and shrubs (see list at left of this page) has particular powers of its own which may be useful in improving any magical rituals.
Each has its own moon cycle span of twenty-eight days
and an Ogham letter symbol.
Look after the trees, learn about them.
Take from them only with respect and in need.
.Find your birth wood (from the list at left) and include a small amount of bark, fruit or flower in any burning incense, charm or healing magic. Keep a little close to you and carry it in times of significance, or add some to the decoration of your home.
If your work is for another person, try to discover their birth tree and use a little to help the empowerment.
There is no definitive proof about the origin of this alphabet, but it can be certain that the Druids, in the late Iron Age and beyond - last century BC and the first and second centuries AD - used this system in the form of a calendar, based on the thirteen cycles of the Moon, and the celebration of the four Solstices.
The word 'Druid' itself comes either from the Celtic name for the oak - 'duir' - or from the Welsh - 'derwydd' - meaning oak-seer.
Each of the twenty symbols
is the first letter of the name of a tree.
The Druids, who were finely attuned to the spiritual powers of nature, are credited (from medieval tradition) with choosing the trees and shrubs to be associated with the moon cycles and Ogham symbols. Each one was already steeped in folklore and healing medicine, each representing long established magical powers and metaphysical meanings.
Ogham Staves, each cut from the correct wood
from "Spirit of Old"
When carved on standing stones, this simple system wasn’t meant to form whole words, but to depict names or meanings.
Later, another five letters were added.
For divination during magical ceremonies, small staves, each with their own Ogham rune and made of the appropriate wood, are thought to have been used by the Druid priests.
The Celtic alphabet of Ogham – pronounced Oh-wam –
and meaning 'grooved' was used in written form in Ireland from the 5th Century AD but it existed for centuries before this in its symbolic form of notched grooves carved into rocks. It is the very first attempt at written communication native to the British Isles.
There are several versions, the best known being the 'Beith, Luis, Nion' after the first three trees which represent the lunar months.
It consisted of twenty straight line symbols, each one forming a letter, (another five were added later) - that could easily be scratched into wood or carved into standing stones.
These were inscribed in a vertical line running up from bottom to top - and always placed on a vertical edge - along the angle where two faces of the stone meet - so that the edge of the stone itself was in fact the central line. Symbols were notched across, and to the right and left.
Many of the stones can still be seen in original situ in Ireland and some have been saved from the weather.
The best indoor collection can be seen at University College, Cork (see picture above) in the 'Stone Corridor' and the Book of Kells Exhibition at the Old Library, Trinity College in Dublin .
My pictures show how, in ancient Ogham carving, the 'letters' read upwards from base, across and on either side of the edged vertical angle-line of the stones.
These stones are dated between the early fifth and late seventh centuries.
Taken in The Stone Corridor, University College, Cork, Ireland.
In Robert Graves’ scholarly work about poetic myth ‘The White Goddess’, (pub: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Graves shows how the tree alphabet Beth, Luis, Nion, could have been used in hand signing, using the finger tips and joints of one hand. It was a secret believed to have been practiced by the Druids.
It is in 'The White Goddess', that Robert Graves attempts to solve and piece together the riddles and meanings given by the early balladeers, in one of the earliest written manuscripts to speak of the 'Beith, Luis. Nion' Ogham trees. It is on his work (which has its decriers) that our modern usage is mostly based.
The manuscript is 'LLyfr Taliesin' - 'The Book of Taliesin'.
The book is a collection of Welsh poems, some thought to be passed down from the bards of the 10th century. They were collected and written down by one scribe during the early 14th century, and the manuscript still survives in The National Library of Wales.
(At right is a facsimile of a page from the Book of Taliesin, showing the last lines of the poem Cad Goddeu and the beginning of the poem Mabgyfreu Taliesin - click to enlarge.)
It is in the Book of Taliesin that we find the poem
'Câd Goddeu' - 'The Battle of the Trees'.
Inspirited by the magician Gwydion to fight on his side against the god of the underworld Arawn, each tree in the poem represents one of the twenty Ogham letters amongst much baffling legend, myth and allegory, which Graves tries to untangle.
The second early manuscript containing a treatise on the construction and use of the Ogham Alphabet
is the beautifully illuminated 14th century
' Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta' - Book of Ballymote'
The Book of Ballymote shows many forms of the script, including the Beth, Luis, Nion Ogham in the form of a wheel, known as 'Fionn's Window'.
It also includes a fascinating set of Ogham symbols known as 'The Sacred Branch' thought to have been used in magic. See the black rune at top of this page and more of the Ogham treatise from The Book of Ballymote at The Equinox Project here.
The 'Word Oghams' from the Book of Ballymote, The Yellow Book of Lechan and the 'Trefochul' from The Book of Leinster were collected together and published in the 'Auraicept Na N-ecis' - or 'The Scholars Primer' by George Calder and published in 1917. It can be studied here online.
The Book of Ballymote can be seen in the Library of The Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.
Discoveries of Ogham on ancient stones in the Americas and Canada lead to the firm belief that Celtic traders and settlers made Ogham an international tool for communication of belief and ritual.