We are grateful to our Erasmus+ student intern Clara Scholz for providing this month’s blog. Clara writes:
Ogham inscriptions have slowly but surely made their way into several pieces of popular media. One of the most recent and widely recognized pieces the script appears in is the newest addition to the videogame universe of Assassin’s Creed, an open world RPG (role-playing game) called Valhalla. As the name suggests, its plot is set during the time of the Viking invasions of Britain, probably roughly towards the end of the 8th century. The main character’s avatar travels from their home in Norway towards Britain to plunder monasteries, explore lands, forge alliances and eventually create new settlements for their people there.
During these voyages, the player is met by a variety of characters using a wide assortment of different languages and dialects. Among the numerous side characters, the player meets people speaking Old West Norse, Old English, Welsh and Gaelic. Ubisoft, the games publisher, states that the production team put great effort into the accurate representation of the languages included in the game, having made sure to consult a variety of specialists and translators of the languages used.
One of the specialists consulted by Ubisoft was Gregory Darwin, a senior lecturer for Celtic Studies at the University of Uppsala, who was not only able to provide translations into Gaelic appropriate for the time the game is set in, but who furthermore created an Old Ulster Gaelic dialect to be spoken by the characters inhabiting the northern areas of the game world.
Historically, Gaelic was the dominant language in parts of Scotland by the 8th century and expanded east and south across the country in the 9th and 10th centuries at the expense of the Pictish and British languages. In the game, Gaelic is presented to be spoken by Picts and the characters of raiders settled in the more northern, most likely supposed to be Irish, part of the game world. Additionally, these characters were voiced by Irish Gaelic speaking voice actors.
As the game is keen on authentic linguistic representation of the time period, it is unsurprising that the Ogham script is also to be found in several of the game’s quests. Often, and mostly after a while of searching, it can be found inscribed on stones. Furthermore, in one of the games expansion packages called Wrath of the Druids, there is an option for the players avatar to get an Ogham tattoo. Antoine Henry, the associate game director at Ubisoft and one of the designers of Valhalla, states that it was the team’s intention to make sure that all the inscriptions found within the game were coherent and accurate to the period when they would have been written. Henry, who says he has experience with proto-Celtic languages and primitive Irish in particular, was therefore responsible for concealing several Ogham inscriptions within the game, and even though some textures and scripts are reused several times throughout different places, they still give handy clues to each particular quest.
One of the first inscriptions the player comes across is within a stone circle, where they meet a mysterious figure called Brendan who then proceeds to tell them a story. Here they also find a stone that has been inscribed with Ogham:
Unusually, especially compared to most other stones we know of, this one is inscribed on its flat surface instead of its edge, but this decision might have been made to guarantee that a full inspection of the inscription is possible for the player. No explanation of the inscription or translation is provided within the game itself, leaving the player to figure out its meaning themselves. However, the translation is not necessary to complete the quest and proceed with the game.
Reading the script from the bottom to the top it translates to BRENAIN MAQI FINLUGI MUCOI ALTI (‘Brendán son of Finnlug, of the Alt(raige) tribe’, i.e. St Brendán of Clonfert). Thus, the game remains historically accurate in using the Ogham inscription to refer to a person by name as well as to their ancestry using the traditional formula ‘X MAQI Y MUCOI Z’. Unsurprisingly, it is an apparition of Brendan of Clonfert himself who the character has met in the stone circle. Figuring out the inscription therefore gives the player a clue towards discovering Brendan’s real identity. Brendan of Clonfert, also known as “the voyager”, was an Irish saint and one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. He founded the monastery in Clonfert around 560. Within the Assassin’s Creed universe, he is portrayed as having visited many standing stones and places of strange power across England, communicating with the god-like Isu (an ancient and highly-advanced species of humanoid beings) and marking down his interactions with them on stones and in journal entries left for the player to find. This leads to several other stones bearing the same Ogham inscription of Brendan’s name, even though they are not technically connected to one single quest.
A second Ogham inscription can be found in the so-called Hall of Excalibur, placed within an ancient structure under Stonehenge, unsurprisingly introducing the character of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon to the game:
Once again written on the flat side of the stone, from the bottom to the top this inscription translates to ARTUR MAQI UTERI QENNDRAGON (‘Arthur son of Uther Pendragon’). This is where historical accuracy for the most part goes out of the window and the game focuses more on the fantasy aspect of the popular King Arthur myth. Having been mentioned in several earlier Assassin’s Creed games, it is not surprising that his name makes an appearance here. Within the game’s universe Arthur is not only known as a military leader and true king of the Britons but also as a leader of the so-called Order of the Ancients, a mysterious pagan organisation operating all over the world ever since antiquity, as well as a head of the Assassin’s Creed version of the Templar Order. This quest allows the player to pull the legendary sword Excalibur out of its resting place, after first having to go through the long process of collecting 12 stone tablets that each match one of the pillars in the Hall of Excalibur, thus proving bravery and strength. The inscription once more honours the tradition of giving someone’s name, as well as that of their father, even though again it is not strictly necessary to translate it to finish this quest.
At least three more Ogham stones can be found within Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, many of which reuse the inscriptions and texture of the stones discussed above. The form of script used in the game (with spacing between letters and written on the flat side of the stone) was, as we know today, more commonly used from the 9th century onwards. This would be consistent if the inscriptions were meant to be freshly written within the time of the game, but not if they are meant to be old (aka having been carved at the accurate time of the language represented) when the player discovers them.
Nonetheless, it is delightful to see how much thought the creators of the game invested into the historical accuracy of its linguistics and how much hidden clues like the Ogham inscriptions contribute to the experience of the game. For those unfamiliar with the script it adds a level of mystery to the game, and those familiar with its origin and history will surely appreciate its appearance.