In Lebor Ogaim, ‘The Book of Ogam’

Image of two manuscript pages from the In Lebor Ogaim which shows many different alphabets, including several variations of ogham.

By Deborah Hayden, OG(H)AM’s Co-Investigator

In my last blog post on this site I discussed some of the earliest attestations of manuscript ogam, as well as the relationship between this script and ideas about alphabets that are expressed in the earliest grammar of the Irish language, Auraicept na nÉces (‘The Scholars’ Primer’). This post picks up that thread by introducing one of the most famous and visually impressive examples of manuscript ogam: namely, the text known as In Lebor Ogaim (‘The Book of Ogam), the earliest surviving copy of which immediately precedes the Auraicept in the great fourteenth-century compendium of Irish learning known as the ‘Book of Ballymote’ (RIA MS 23 P 12):

Image of two manuscript pages from the In Lebor Ogaim which shows many different alphabets, including several variations of ogham.
Fig. 1: Ogam ‘alphabets’ from In Lebor Ogaim, followed by the beginning of Auraicept na nÉces (‘The Scholars’ Primer’), the earliest grammar of the Irish language (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 170v). Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

In Lebor Ogaim consists of over 100 different ‘alphabets’, most of which are variations of the standard ogam alphabet or other kinds of cryptic devices. A relatively straightforward example is the variant called ogam airenach (‘shield ogam’), where the strokes that constitute each ogam character have been curved to look like the boss of a shield:

A snippet from the manuscript pages shown before, featuring the shield ogham.
Fig. 2: Ogam airenach (‘shield ogam’) in the Book of Ballymote (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 170r). Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

One might note that all of the strokes that make up the different ogam letter-forms in this variant ‘alphabet’ are arranged above the stemline. This contrasts with the standard ogam alphabet, where different groups of letters, each represented by one to five strokes or notches, were distinguished from one another by virtue of whether their graphs were placed either above, below or through the stemline. Thus the first letter-group in the ogam alphabet consists of the letters B L F S N, which are represented in standard manuscript ogam by one to five notches written beneath the stemline. In ogam airenach, however, the strokes that make up the letters of this first group are written above instead of below the stemline and are curved in an upward-facing arch. They can still be clearly distinguished from the graphs for the other letter-groups, however, because the arches of the latter are orientated in different directions.

Knowledge of the names conventionally assigned to the letters of the ogam alphabet was crucial for decoding the variant of the script known as ogam dédenach (‘final ogam’), in which (as the compiler of In Lebor Ogaim explains) ‘the last letter of the name (of the letter) is written for the letter, i.e. e for b, s for l, n for f, l for s, n for n, etc.’ Here the reader would have to be aware that the letters of the first group in the ogam alphabet (B L F S N) were known by the names beithe, luis, fern, sail and nin, respectively. Thus wherever one would wish to write the ogam letter ‘b’ – which normally consists of a single stroke beneath the stemline and is known by the name beithe – one should instead substitute the graph for the letter ‘e’, which consists of four strokes through the stemline, because this is the final letter of the name beithe:

Fig. 3: Ogam dédenach (‘final ogam’) in the Book of Ballymote (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 169v). Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

Another cryptic device from In Lebor Ogaim that involves the reversal or substitution of letters is ogam uird (‘order ogam’), in which the letters that make up a name are to be re-arranged in accordance with the standard order of letters in the ogam alphabet. Thus it is explained that the name Bran would be rewritten as b n r a, because ‘n’ belongs to the first letter-group in the standard alphabet, whereas ‘r’ belongs to the third and ‘a’ to the fourth. In the second line of the image below, the scribe has illustrated this example by writing the letters b n r a in Roman script over the corresponding ogam characters, and then glossed it with the words .i. bran (‘that is, Bran’) just below the stemline:

Fig. 4: Ogam uird (‘order ogam’) in the Book of Ballymote (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 169v). Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

The names for some of the variant alphabets included in In Lebor Ogaim allude to legendary Irish figures or aspects of wider literary tradition. For example, the diagram to the far left at the bottom of fol. 170r in the Book of Ballymote (enlarged in the image below) illustrates a type of the script called Traigsruth Ferchertne (‘Ferchertne’s Foot-stream?’), perhaps a reference to the acclaimed chief poet of Ulster who appears in literary sources from around the ninth century. The middle diagram is named Fege Find (‘Finn’s Ridge-pole [Ogam]’), most likely recalling the famous Irish warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill, while the diagram to the right is named Rothogam Roigni Roscadhaigh (‘Wheel-ogam of Roigne Roscadach’), possibly an allusion to a figure skilled in poetry or rhetorical speech (roscad). In these varieties of the script, the ogam symbols are arranged in a wheel or on the lines of concentric circles or squares:

Fig.5: Three variants of ogam from In Lebor Ogaim (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 170r). l-r: Traigsruth Ferchertne ‘Ferchertne’s foot-stream(?)’, Fege Find ‘Finn’s ridge-pole [ogam]’, and Rothogam Roigni Roscadhaigh ‘Wheel-ogam of Roigne Roscadach’. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

Many of the variant forms of ogam cited in In Lebor Ogaim do not occur outside of this source, and it is not always clear what practical use they might have had. It is probable, however, that they point to a broader interest in cryptography or secret communication that can ultimately be traced to much earlier ideas about the exclusivity of literate knowledge. It is claimed in the preface to the tract, for example, that the ogam script was invented by the mythical Ogma, who designed it ‘as a proof of his ingenuity’ and so that it might be a mode of communication belonging only to the learned:

Ogma didiu, fer roeolach a mberla ⁊ a filidecht, is e rainic int ogam. Cuis airic derbad a intlechta ⁊ co mbeth in bescna-sa ic lucht in eolais fo leth, sech lucht na tirdachta ⁊ na buicnechta.”

‘Now Ogma, a man well skilled in speech and poetry, invented the Ogham. The cause of its invention, as a proof of his ingenuity, and that this speech should belong to the learned apart, to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen.’[1]

The figure of Ogma mac Elathan appears in other medieval Irish literary sources, such as the narrative tale Cath Maige Tuired (‘The [second] Battle of Mag Tuired’), where he is depicted as a formidable warrior of the supernatural race of Irish settlers known as the Túatha Dé Danann. Yet while the author of the preface to In Lebor Ogaim has chosen to associate ogam with a character from Irish mythological tradition, the precise wording of the above passage regarding the origins and purpose of the script allows us to set the contents of the tract as a whole in a wider pedagogical context. There is a striking parallel for its concluding phrase in the Latin grammatical works of the seventh-century scholar Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (a figure of possible Irish origin), who sought to explain the rationale behind scrambling words, syllables or letters by invoking the words of his teacher, Aeneas, as follows:

O fili, inquit, ob tres causas fona finduntur. Prima est, ut sagacitatem discentium nostrorum in inquirendis atque inueniendis his quae obscura sunt adprobemus; secunda est propter decorem aedificationemque eloquentiae; tertia ne mistica quaeque et quae solis gnaris pandi debent, passim ab infimis ac stultis facile reperiantur […]”

‘My son [he said], words are scrambled for three reasons: first, so that we may test the ingenuity of our students in searching out and identifying obscure points; secondly, for ornamentation and reinforcement of speech; thirdly, lest mystical matters which should only be revealed to the initiated be discovered easily by base and stupid people […]’[2]

As Vivien Law has demonstrated, Virgilius Maro’s explanation that words might be scrambled both for the purpose of edification and for the concealment of ‘mystical matters’ resonates with ideas expressed by earlier figures such as the fifth-century bishop of Lyon, Eucherius, who argued that the purity of the sayings in the Scriptures should be ‘hidden from the eyes of the vulgar horde and covered with the veil of modesty’ because they sheltered celestial mysteries. The revelation of such mysteries was, of course, the ultimate aim of the kind of scriptural exegesis that could only be carried out by a select group of educated, literate scholars. It has been argued that the work of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus had a considerable influence on other aspects of the grammatical teaching set out in the Irish grammar Auraicept na nÉces, and is thus perhaps not surprising to find that the preface to In Lebor Ogaim – a text which, as we have seen, is juxtaposed with the Auraicept in the manuscript tradition – likewise echoes ideas expressed in his Latin text. More generally, however, assertions of the kind found in these two sources serve as a reminder of the very limited extent of literacy in Ireland during the medieval period, when even very basic grammatical learning would have been the preserve of a small and privileged élite.

Although most of the cryptic variants of the ogam alphabet that comprise In Lebor Ogaim are not illustrated anywhere else in the sources that have come down to us, passing references in other works indicate that knowledge of them was understood to form an essential part of the rudimentary educational curriculum. According to a metrical tract compiled during Middle Irish period (ca 900–1200 AD), for example, the first three years of a poet’s training should include mastery of both Auraicept na nÉces and ‘150 ogams’. The acquaintance of Irish scholars with the contents of In Lebor Ogaim at such an early stage in their education may help to explain how the tract became a key starting-point for the transmission of ideas about the cryptographic uses of ogam in later manuscripts, including many that were written well in the modern period. More to come on that soon!


[1] Edited and translated by George Calder, Auraicept na nÉces. The Scholars’ Primer (Edinburgh, 2017), pp. 272–3.

[2] Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, Opera Omnia, ed. Bengt Löfstedt (Munich, 2003), p. 213; trans. Vivien Law, Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (Cambridge, 1995), p.83.

Further reading:

George Calder, ed. and trans., Auraicept na nÉces. The Scholars’ Primer (Edinburgh, 1917)

Deborah Hayden, ‘The context and obscure language of medical charms in a sixteenth-century Irish remedy book: four case studies’, in Obscuritas in Medieval Irish and Welsh Literature, ed. by Chantal Kobel (Dublin, forthcoming 2022)

Vivien Law, Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (Cambridge, 1995)

Damian McManus, A Guide to Ogam (Maynooth, 1997)

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