Excerpt from

Straight Lines: Selected Reviews
by Richard Flavin

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Brave Lad Fear Surely Not
Hidden Death Time Conquers Questions
Money Gains Knowledge Justice Reigns
Apollo Our Ultimate Eloquent Illusion
--the Irish ogham alphabet with a letter-order mnemonic.

Thought to have been invented c.1700 BCE, in or near Sinai, the acrophonic alphabet became codified (or ordered) at some point before its adaptation as a cuneiform script at Ugarit, 1400 through 1200 BCE. [25]  The letter-order remained little changed as the alphabet was later used by the post-Ugarit Canaanite Phoenicians, followed by the Hebrews, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Arabs, and on out across the world.  Though the alphabet diffused to far away places, in many cases some semblance of the original letter-order may still be found, and it's not difficult to trace the development of individual letter-forms (e.g., from South Semitic and Aramaic to Bramhi and Kharoshti, to Malay scripts and their influence on the problematic Philippine alphabet).  The letter-order of the alphabet has had amazing staying power, with the notable exceptions of two early European writing systems: Norse runes and the Irish oghams.  Runeforms follow a different letter-order, but their physical shapes show a clear relationship to Etruscan, which tempts a date of invention c.300-200 BCE.  The oghamic scripts, however, consist of straight lines usually carved into wood or stone, defies a ready relationship with other alphabets, and continues to provoke investigators.  How like the Irish!

Ogham (var. ogam) is thought to mean "skilled use of words," was originally "a peculiar form of cryptic speech, in which, for instance, the names of letters replaced in certain syllables the letters themselves," and a term for the entire spoken composition. [26]  At some later point, perhaps even immediately afterwards, ogham was also used to describe an engraved inscription in oghamic script (as one pens a letter, so one would notch or cut an ogham).  Both uses involve explicit occult cryptology and an implicit sense of cleverness.

Throughout the first half of the last century, R. A. S. Macalister promoted the hypothesis of a Western Greek (Chalcidian) influence on the oghamic script (via Etruscan or a related alphabet), an influence which may also have given rise to the Germanic runic futhark.  Macalister further conjectured that ogham progressed from a spoken, to a finger-language, merged with a tally-stick tradition as a monumental script, before becoming a manuscript pedantry and nearly forgotten. [27]  No firm date of invention was ever advanced by Macalister, though with Caesar's mention that the Druids were forbidden to use writing, his hypothesis allowed for invention before the first century BCE, perhaps a few to several centuries before.  Contrary to Macalister, many scholars didn't need such an early and direct Greek influence to explain the oghamic scripts and were satisfied with a Latin derivation in late Roman times. 

Fueled in part by the literary and artistic 19th century "Celtic Revival," the study of oghams was again taken up.  The 1917 publication of the Auraicept na n-Éces: The Scholars’ Primer, edited and translated by George Calder, was met with critical acclaim and remains a classic for modern oghamists. [28]  The Auraicept is a magical comedy originally written c. 650 CE (with additions over the next few centuries), and is thinly disguised as an ancient learned treatise describing a hoary and fantastic antiquity for oghams.  Calder's publication of the work, with important photographs of four folio-pages from The Book of Ballymote showing 93 varieties of oghamic scripts, enabled later investigators to have a great deal of fun.  But, here we split for the moment, between those amateurs and professionals who believe in a great antiquity for the oghamic scripts and those who support an invention shortly before the composition of the Auraicept.  It is this extreme which still makes the casual study of oghams difficult for most.

Macalister's argument for a Western Greek influence on the development of oghamic scripts not withstanding (though oghamic scripts did acquire additional characters, the forfeda, to represent diphthongs, based on Greek letters sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries CE), scholars continued to propose a derivation from the Latin (Roman) alphabet for the origin of the oghamic scripts.  Such a derivation has steadily gained in acceptance, but the when is still hotly debated.

The Táin Bó Cúainge ("The Cattle-Raid of Cooley") is an Irish epic commonly believed to describe Iron Age Ireland, much like Homer's The Iliad described Achaean-era Troy. [29]  The Táin has been dated to the early first century CE, around the time of Jesus, but many now disagree, with some claiming The Táin depicts Irish life much earlier, while others maintain the Iron Age in Ireland lasted to c.500 CE and The Táin was probably composed shortly thereafter. [30]  There is no mention of writing in the works of Homer, a fact many have pointed out tends to impart a certain verisimilitude to Homer's "history," while The Táin does include a mention of the making of an ogham.  Some believe this reference was inserted into The Táin, perhaps as late as the 12th century, and is therefor unreliable in attempting to date the origin of the oghamic scripts.

A requisite for the study of any ancient language or script is the compilation of a corpus ("main body") of extant examples.  This was done by Macalister in his monumental Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, and showed that the vast bulk of extant oghams occur in Ireland, with far lesser numbers in Scotland, Wales, England, and some of the islands. [31]  No examples of ogham were recorded as being from the continent, though many amateurs and professionals had allowed for some form of Romano-Gaulish origin.  With this apparently solid information, many scholars then projected a native invention of the oghamic scripts and even went so far as to declare the script was created in the southeastern corner of Ireland.

Ebb and flow, decadence and puritanism, liberal thinking and conservative judgments, such are the extremes we endure until a lasting consensus is reached. The inescapable allure of the Druids, the Celtic myths and legends, the later fabulized manuscript claims regarding the age of the oghamic scripts, were all too much for academia to resist, and they've struck back in a most surprising manner.  Many scholars today now understand the oghamic scripts as a reaction to the introduction of Christianity.  Those extant examples referred to above?  All appear datable to after the 5-6th centuries CE.  Could the oghamic scripts have arisen as a joke in the face of Christianity?  Some think so.

The Christian Druids: On the filid or philosopher-poets of Ireland by John Minahane [32] and Ogam Stones and the Earliest Irish Christians by Catherine Swift [33], are two examples of contemporary works which tack away from antiquity and support a late invention of the oghamic scripts, though one does so with a smile and the other without.

The current trend to regard the oghamic scripts as a druidic farce is, I believe, a response to previous claims, and merely describes late changes and nuances, but lacks the spine to understand the necessary requirements for a script, as opposed to some rarely used secret cipher.  I don't doubt that ogham changed many times and eventually survived in a Christian context.  However, I have three points of challenge to such a late, Christian-era origin for the oghamic scripts:

1)   One of the so-called "Ballinderry Dice," from the second century CE, has the numeral 5 represented as three straight lines or the oghamic character "bilabial," which stands for the letter f or v, and another die has V, as in the Latin numerical convention for 5.  Three lines to show the number five?  The "Ballinderry Dice" would seem to suggest the oghamic script (and an Irish familiarity with Latin) was well established before the 4th century introduction of Christianity. [34]

2)  Previous claims of no ogham on the continent, though based on earnest and seemingly thorough investigations, continue to be challanged.  Oghamic flourishes on Celtic engraved stones in Brittany are too late to assist with the location problem for the invention of the oghamic script.  Fell's claims of Swedish oghams and various Gaulish coins said to contain oghamic script in their decorations also offer little help.  Yet, as recovery techniques and the discipline of archaeology improves, perhaps a future discovery of continental ogham awaits. 

    Most agree that the structural basis of the oghamic script developed from an earlier system involving the cutting of notches on wood (for tallies, divination, etc.).  As wood seldom survives in the archaeological record, except under preservative conditions, it's not surprising we don't possess any examples of these early notations and possible transitions to the alphabetic oghamic scripts.  The paucity of early runes is thus comparable to early oghams. [35]

3)  I'm uncomfortable with the recent trend of some scholars to accept those sections of Josephus' Antiquities which mention Jesus, James, and Baptist John and reject the long standing understanding that those sections were likely early medieval interpolations.  But, I'm satisfied that everyone agrees that extant versions of Caesar's De bello Gallico are essentially the same as when various scribes and secretaries composed the classic military account (under Caesar's personal direction, of course).  As Rome had despised the Celtic tribes to the north for centuries, it stands to reason that Caesar's explaining of the lack of a Celtic ethnic script (due to a profound regard for learning) was accurate, as it easily could have been bitterly dismissed by Caesar as profane and ignoble.  Like the bit about the human sacrifices in wicker cages.  Caesar's reporting on druidic traditions, c. 58-51 BCE, readily allows twenty years to learn how to voice a spoken ogham, how to signal a finger-language ogham, and perhaps how to cut an ogham inscription. [36]

While examples of ancient and medieval ciphers and occult alphabets exist, none (that I know of) achieved the enduring (widespread?) usage of the runic and oghamic scripts.  Usually the invention or introduction of an alphabetic script is an almost nationalistic affair, with slight adaptations to individual cultures and specific requirements to accommodate the needs of the language being expressed.  Also, there is the matter of the teaching of the alphabet, a collection of letters (an abecedarium), and a mnemonic attached to the letter-order to facilitate learning.  All such mnemonics are lost, unfortunately, and various reconstructions are simply tantamount to wiley guesswork.  However, it would not be unreasonable to assume that both the runic and oghamic scripts express far different mnemonic narratives than other alphabets. [37]

As we await further work and possible future discoveries, we're left with the choices of the oghamic scripts as likely being either a late creation inspired by such Latin grammarians as Aelius Donatus (fl. 354 CE), or a first century invention using the divisions of the Latin alphabet as expressed by the rhetorician, Quintilian, in his Intitutio de Oratoria. [38]  An origin coeval with with runes, c. 300-200 BCE, is an unsupported hunch I favor, in that such an early date makes it easier to accommodate known developments and changes in oghamic letters, sound values, and letter-order, but a first century BCE invention wouldn�t surprise me.

Notes:
25) Cross, Frank Moore.  1989.  The Invention and Development of the Alphabet. The Origins of Writing, edited by Wayne M. Senner.
  Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; pp. 77-90.

26) Diringer, David.  1948.  The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind.  New York: Philosophical Library; p. 525.  Diringer's
  assessment may have been based on:  Meyer, Kuno.  1909. The Secret Languages of Ireland.  Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society
 
(new series).  2: 241-246.

27) Macalister, R. A. S.  1937.  The Secret Languages of Ireland.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
28) Calder, George.  1917.  Auraicept na n-Éces: The Scholars' Primer, ed. and trans. by George Calder.  Edinburgh: John Grant.  A
  lively overview of the "conspicuous genre of 18th-century alphabet symbolism," commenting on the works by Rowland Jones, L. D.
  Nelme, and Charles Vallancey, authors who undoubtedly swallowed the bait of various pre-Calder mss. versions of the Auraicept, may
  be found in: Drucker, Johanna.  1995.  The Alphabetic Labyrinth: the letters in history and imagination.  New York: Thames and
  Hudson; pp. 225-234.

29) Koch, John T.  1991.  Eiru, Alba, and Letha: When was a language ancestral to Gaelic first spoken in Ireland?  Emania 9: 17-27 (a
  date of 1141 BCE is proposed).

30) Mallory, J. P.  1992.  The World of Cú Chulainn: The Archaeology of Táin Bó Cúailnge Aspects of The Tain, ed. J. P. Mallory.
  Belfast: December Publications; pp. 151-153.

31) Macalister, R. A. S.  1996.  Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, second edition (with a preface by Damian McManus).
  Dublin: Four Courts Press.

32) Minahane, John.  1993.  The Christian Druids: On the filid or philosopher-poets of Ireland.  Dublin: Sanas Press.
33) Swift, Catherine.  1997.  Ogam Stones and the Earliest Irish Christians (Maynooth Monographs Series Minor II).  Maynooth: The
  Cardinal Press.

34) Henken, H. O'Neill.  1942.  Ballinderry Crannog No. 2, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 47C(1): xx-xx.
35) Barry Fell.  1982.  Bronze Age America.  Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.; pp. 12 and 14.  For a picture of a coin claimed to bear
  oghamic script, see: Payn, Marshall and Barry Fell.  1989.  The Origin and History of Ogam Script: an interview with Barry Fell.
  Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications 18: 49(Fig. 10).  The first edition of Diringer's The Alphabet (see above, [26] Diringer
  1948
) and the minimally changed second edition a couple of years later, were a goldmine for Fell and his enthusiasts.  The first two
  editions of The Alphabet allowed some major guesswork to sneak through.  Diringer repeats a 1902 report by Macalister (Studies in
  Irish Epigraphy II
) of "limestone tablets, discovered at Brier near Magdeburg on the River Elbe in Saxony" which "are written in a script,
  which has some similarity with the oghams, but nothing can be said about their mutual connection."  I've recently read that the Saxony
  psuedo-oghams were revealed as forgeries in 1917.  Shortly before Glozel.  Diringer took a peek behind the curtain when he wrote an
  encouraging introduction to Hugh A. Moran's 1952 The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Astrological Elements in the Origin of
  the Alphabet
(Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books).  See also: Moran, Hugh A. and David H. Kelley. 1969.  The Alphabet and the Ancient
  Calendar Signs
, second edition.  Palo Alto, CA: Daily Press; with new preface by Moran and "American Parallels" by Kelley; pp.
  143-187.  Kelley later published more of his Moran-related thesis in: Kelley, David H.  1974.  Eurasian Evidence and the Mayan Calendar
  Correlation.  Mesoamerican Archaeology: new approaches, ed. Norman Hammond.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press; pp.
  135-142.  Diringer was interested in Moran's thesis that the 28 divisions of the Chinese Lunar Zodiac may have influenced the invention
  (and, later, diffusion) of the acrophonic alphabet, c. 1700.  The late Prof. Cyrus Gordon attempted to connect the 29 or 30 signs of the
  Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet with a lunar zodiac, but much like Kelley is still hoping for a Mesoamerican K-L-M sequence, Gordon didn't
  actively pursue his suggestion (see: Gordon, Cyrus.  1974.  The Accidental Invention of the Phonemic Alphabet. Journal of Near
  Eastern Studies
29: 193-197).  The last photograph reproduced in Diringer's first edition (p. 569) of The Alphabet shows a chunk of
  slate engraved with a bunch of straight lines.  "Is this a cryptic system of writing consisting in numerals?  Nobody knows." Diringer
  commented.  He says there's been over 500 inscriptions just like it found in "different localities" in Spain.  Unfortunately for footnote
  fetishists, he doesn't provide a citation or reference. [8-9-06  I've just learned that more than one Irish college (i.e., scholastic monastary)
  existed in and around Salamanca when the Irish miniscule script was being developed.  Perhaps other scripts were attempted.  More
  work needed...  RDF.]


Engraved slate from Salamanca, Spain.  See above,[26] Diringer 1948;
p. 569 (Fig. 253.6).  Used without permission.

36) The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, trans.W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn; Book 6, Chap. 14: "The Druids do not go to war, nor pay
  tribute together with the rest; they have an  exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great
  advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and [many] are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said
  there to learn by heart a  great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it
  lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters.
  That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the
  mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally
  occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the
  memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body
  to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise
  discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth,
  respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods."  Rather gracious for a bitter enemy, eh?

37) Graves, Robert.  1966.  The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, amended and enlarged edition.  New York:
  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Graves argued that the medieval Welsh poem,
Câd Goddeu ("The Battle of the Trees"), was a remnant of the
  ogham mnemonic narrative for sequential letter-order.  This approach is a mischievous sequel to the Auraicept and as Graves later
  admitted, farcical and allegorical.  Still, there could be truth in his twistory, as an ogham is by nature, a complex cleverness.  Some
  grammarian invented the oghamic cipher alphabet, radically departing from the traditional A, B, C (G), D, etc. letter-order (though whether
  this took place in Ireland or Latin and Greek lands is still debated), and that a mnemonic narrative was used for education purposes is a
  given.  What that mnemonic was remains as elusive as for that other European cryptic script, the runic alphabet.  The mnemonic
  narrative of the Old Canaanite alphabet and its familiar
‘alp, bêt, gaml and dalt (cow, house, throwstick, door) might, with luck, be
  identified someday in a previously overlooked Ugaritic cuneiform tablet 

38) Carney, James.  1975.  The Invention of the Ogom Cipher, Ériu 26: 53-65.

Related articles may be found at the Twisted History website.
c. 2003 RDFlavin.