The Oghams: A New Insight

by Vivienne Manouge

While studying the oghams the other day, I suddenly noticed that the names of the first twenty original oghams, beith and her five, huath and her five, muinn and her five, and ailm and her five, are suggestively like the names of different branches of ancient Celtic society.

BEITH resembles beth, a Brythonic[i] form of the Goidelic gcath, an eclipsised[ii] and shortened form of Cathaoir, and means a seat, chair, or city. Beth is usually translated as house. It occurs in the name Helvetia (bhet =vet) and many Middle Eastern place names, for example, Bethlehem.

LUIS resembles Lughais which, seems to have been a priesthood of Lugh. It is Lugh(a)-is, the -is being the same as our English -ish.. This may explain the old French monarchy’s fondness for the name Louis. Under the veneer of Romance, they still Gauls at heart!

FEARN is pronounced exactly like foreign. Foreign has a difficult etymology, and it may well be that etymologists have as usual neglected to look for a Celtic antecedent for it. I think Fearn is precisely that. We know that ancient Celts sailed the world, and they no doubt brought back specimens from abroad. Alder trees grow on both sides of the Atlantic and could well have been introduced to Europe from America. So as an ogham, Fearn would represent foreign input.

SAILE is sally in English, as in ‘sally forth’. Whether by sea or land, the sally-doers were the ancestors of both sailors and soldiers. Sailor is the result of taking the original saile-doir, and leniting the slender d to dh, pronounced y and then unslenderising the l. Soldier is what it becomes if you don’t lenite the d.

NUINN is our word nun. It may be related to the word nine, as feminine priesthoods and covens consisting of nine women were recorded in different parts of ancient Europe, the norns of Scandinavia, for example, and the Grecian muses. Perhaps the word was once applied to both feminine and masculine consortia, as Druids came in nines sometimes too.

HUATH is a lopped and lenited Tuatha (pronounced TOO-uh-ha) as in the Tuatha de Danaan. Lop off the final -ha and then lenite to form Thuath’ (pronounced HOO-a). The Tuatha de Danaan need no introduction.

DUR is traditionally the Druids’ tree, and has been linked etymologically with French dur (hard) and the English word tree, through a hypothetical dtree to draoi, modern Irish for a magician. But I believe it is the Gaeilge syllable -doir, -dor in Spanish, and doer in English. The Draoi-o- doir, Gaeilge draiodoir (magician), is a doer of magic.

TINNE, pronounced almost like CHIN-yuh, only needs the i shifted towards the diphthong ai, to give us the English word China. There’s plenty of evidence that the Celts were in China, and wherever they went they incorporated the wisdoms they found into their own. It’s unlikely that they wouldn’t have entered into a vigorous cultural exchange with China, and they may well have dedicated an ogham to Chinese scholarship, importing both scholars and wisdom.[iii]

COLL is one of the easiest to trace. Old King Cole springs to mind, the colaisti (colleges) fore-runners of our modern universities, and the various Kells (as in the Book of), Cilles, as in Columcille, and cells, as in modern monasteries and convents. As I mentioned above, it is a variant of Pol, from which we get palace and polis.

QUERT - Oops, we’d best be minding our p’s and q’s. It can’t be Quert. We already have a hard c, and worse still, we haven’t a p to our name. Come on, you Goidelics, isn’t that carrying prejudice a little far? I believe it’s really Puert, which is these days pronounced poet. The Apple tree was the tree of bardic prophecy, which is poetic in form. Perhaps it connects with the Norse rune Peorth.

MUINN is the same as mine, mound, and the Latin murus. It seems to have meant earthworks, perhaps originally mines although it came to mean a fortified place in which various industries were carried out. Later it became a place of religious education, and still later, a place of religious retreat. We get words like Munster, minister and monastery from it. Lenite Muinn and you get mhuinn, pronounced almost like wine. If you slenderise the initial letters you get vine. Presumably the muinneas-doirs cultivated grapes -they do nowadays, at any rate. Our word monk is a collapsed form of muinneach, so monks and monasteries weren’t a Christian idea introduced by the Romans at all.

GORT is one of the more interesting ones. It’s our English word court with the initial c eclipsed, as if it were spelt ‘gcourt’ (pronounced gort.). It includes the Seelie (holy, innocent) court and the unseelie court of the faerie. It may have originated as a variant of Cath, perhaps through cCathaoir-id or gCath-id. In English we use our variant of it, chair, for a chairperson, or the holder of a university chair of studies.

NGEATAL looks like an eclipsised geatail. Geata is gate and the -ail ending makes it a collective noun - the gates. The Norse Beowulf went to England, we’re told, and offered to slay monsters for the King of the Geats. They don ‘t figure much in the history books, but be know what their neighbours thought of them - Get is still used as a term of contempt by some people. Maybe we should find out what the quarrel was all about and mend it. It would clear the ogham of spiritual congestion for magical purposes.

RUIS, like rush, can be pronounced ROO-ish or RAH-ish. It means the priesthood of Ra. Although it was well-documented in Egypt, it was not an exclusively Egyptian priesthood. The Ra-id or Ra-acha, to give it a Celtic plural ending, gave us the sunwheel. Raachas is our word raucous, so we know that they must have been a noisy priesthood! They seem to have organised knowledge in terms of rays, rather like the branches or fields of knowledge that we organise it in today.

STRAIFE, full of spears, is our word strife - war - and so this is the ogham of the warriors.

AILM is pronounced OL-um, and is the modern Irish ollamh, with the final h leniting the preceding m to a v sound - it is pronounced like olive. It is the title given to a professor in a Gaeilge-speaking university. Elm, elf, and the Scandinavian name Olaf are all related words. The first syllable, ail, is possibly the eol- of eolas, the Irish for knowledge or information. There’s a Norse rune called eolh too, which is also the name of the totem animal, the elk.

ON is Iona, originally pronounced YON-uh, a lenited form of Don. Iona, the island needs no introduction, but it’s worth noting that Ionian Greek originated in Classical Iona, home of the Homeric tradition. The Milesians emigrated from that Iona to Ireland, and brought the Ionian culture with them. The Dons of English universities have their origins in the same tradition. Other forms recorded throughout Europe and the Middle East include John, Dana and the Danaans, or Danaid as they were called by the Greeks, and perhaps Diana, as a female priesthood. It may be an old plural form of the word from which we get dia, the Irish for god, and just meant the gods.

UR: this little syllable is thought to have meant the origin or beginning, and to be cognate with the arch of archetype. I’d further suggest that it is a collapsed form of Uthur, a variant of Arthur. Th often drops our of Gaelic words between two vowels. They’re the clan fathers, the masculine counterpart of Maeve (pronounced Muvva, as in Cockney English).

EDHADH (pronounced ETH-uh) could be related to the word aether, a form of father, matter being a form of mother. It seems to have been an ancient theory that the earth, matter, was female, the mother of nature, while the aether, spirit, was the male, the father of nature. This then may refer to a priesthood as well.

IOHO is, I suspect, a form of Jove. The Celts respected and incorporated every religion they encountered, and Jove appears to have had a very ancient lineage. It may even be cognate with Lugh. The gh in Lugh probably represented a v sound, or an f, as it does in many English words. The oghams did not distinguish between a v sound and a f. The Romans often lean an l towards a y sound: flora becomes fiore, for example; and the French often treat ls as if they were ys. So Lugh was once pronounced Luv/Lov and became Iove in Latin, and Yahweh (pronounced just like Iove) in ancient Hebrew.

In ancient Celtic, as in modern English, th and v are sometimes confused, and th, when lenited gives h. So Iovo becomes Ioho, where the final o is a inflection specific to its dialect. (Funny about the common ancestor of Lugh, Jove and Yahweh being the modern English word Love. Do you think Lugh might have been a time-traveller? What a way to tell us!

Well, that’s the first twenty, the original oghams as they are usually known. I’m aware that there were different versions. No doubt I’ve made a few errors, but even so, there’s more than coincidence at work here. So what are the implications of all this? For the historian it looks to me like a valuable lead, capable of yielding much insight into the ancient Celtic world. It enables us to identify their spiritual direct descendents in the present world: the dons in universities, the royal courts of monarchic countries, monks and ministers, nuns and Irish professors. For the practitioner of Celtic religion, it points us to our ancestors in a new and invigoratingly earth-bound way, and sheds light on our archetypes, investing them with a new and powerful accessibility, realness, and at the same time, vulnerability. Our gods have trod the dust of our earthly continents, have preached to us through priests, shamans and poets, and perhaps forgotten as we ourselves keep doing, that they were gods. For the druid, it offers a way to access some of the ogham’s greatest powers and to obtain, by due courtesy and respect, a working relationship with the demon/god/angels who guard each one. More importantly, it could provide a starting point for working with the past through ancestral archetypes, to begin a healing dialogue with our hurt, traumatised and scorned predecessors and send our blessings, praise and honour back through time to them in ritual or simple meditation.

[i] Celtic languages are loosely classified into two types: Goidelic (gCa(i)th(o)elic, of which Catholic is a variant) and Brythonic. Goidelic has substituted a hard c for the p in many words in which the Brythonic Celts retained the p.

Eclipsis is a grammatical feature of modern Irish (Gaeilge) which can be seen operating in ancient Celtic language too. Another letter replaces the initial sound of a word: m for b, g for c, n for d, bh (v or w) for f, n for g, b for p, t for s. The eclipsing letter is written in front of the eclipsee, which is not pronounced.

Lenition softens the initial letter, b to v or w, c to ch (a gutteral fricative), d to dh, f to silent, g to gh, m to v or w, p to ph, s to h, t to h, inserting an h after the lenited consonant.
Consonants are slenderized by pronouncing them as if followed by a y for yellow, while they are made broad by pronouncing them as if followed by a u. [iii] See Jean Louis Brunaux, trans. Daphne Nash, The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites and Sanctuaries, B. A. Seaby Limited, 1988, chapter one for an account of druidic international centres.

• Brunaux, Jean Louis, trans Daphne Nash, The Celtic Gauls: Gods, rites and Sanctuaries, Seaby, London, 1987.
• Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths (2 vols), Folio Society, London, 1999.
• Matthews, Caitlin and John, The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Source Book, Element Books Ltd, Shaftsbury, Dorset, 1994.
• Saggs, H. W. F., Civilization before Greece and Rome, B. T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1989