“That sacred tree whose bark I touched,
whose leaves did tell to me,
the ancient tales that made me sure
my friend would come to me…”
From the song, ‘Greatest Friend,’ written by Mike Heron, from the Incredible String Band, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, Elektra Records, 1968.
The Ogham alphabet is a system of writing developed between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE in southern Ireland, probably in response to the adoption of the Roman alphabet in neighbouring Britain. Each letter consists of a number of strokes, from one to five, cut across a central stem line. This form suggests that it derived from an earlier system of counting by cutting notches into tally sticks. Hundreds of examples of Ogham script carved on standing stones survive, all dated to between the 4th and 8th centuries CE. These are believed to be either memorials or boundary stones, possibly both.
In the later medieval period, the Ogham alphabet formed the basis of a complex system that combined poetry and grammar with mnemonics, mythology, divination, musical notation, written cyphers and encoded speech. It is these later developments that are of most interest to modern Druids. Various methods of divination using the Ogham alphabet have been devised. Most are inspired by the poet, Robert Graves, whose book, The White Goddess (Faber, 1948), suggested that each letter of the Ogham alphabet was represented by a different tree or shrub. Graves also derived a calendar from his tree alphabet.
The image on the left shows the 20 original letters of the Ogham alphabet as it appears on stone inscriptions. The later manuscript tradition added a further 5 letter shapes. From top to bottom, the letters shown here are: B L N F S H D T C Q M G Ng R St A O U E I. Most Ogham inscriptions were written from the ground up using the edge of the stone as a stem line. If the inscription were too long, it would be run over the top of the stone and continue down the other side.
Irish legend holds that the alphabet was created by the god, Ogma Sun-Face.