by Balldrich Ballbarian, M.S.C.A.

    Irish Ogham is based on numbers rather than letters. It is found in inscriptions dating from the 4th century AD onwards. It certainly predates that since it is not the type of thing to spring into common usage over one weekend.

    Ogham was a popular form of "secret writing" attributed to Irish Bards. It was also used on grave stele (markers) and on wooden sticks or boards similar to tally sticks in most northern countries as well as its Irish homeland.

    Ogham is read from the bottom right to the top and then down on the left . All that is needed to write in Ogham Is a squared edge to cut, chip, notch or slash, to form the dots, dashes and hatch marks needed, and an implement to do it with.

    This is an Irish "alphabet" and the letters J, P, V ,W, X and Y were not used, so there are no Ogham equivilents. Try substituting G for J; B for P; F for V; Z for X and E or I for Y. The W does not have an easy alternate sound so you could drop it from the list or use a double U. Remember that spelling, as we know it, has nothing to do with 'writing' in Ogham. Try to make it sound out right no matter how you spell it.

    Ogham, like runes, tended to be considered sources of magical power. For that matter, anyone who could read and write in any form was considered a person of power. Ogham seems to have had heaviest use by bards for recording events, poetry and songs. It also was used much like "hobo marks" of the 1920's and 30's to mark safe houses or places to avoid. Imagine the problem for households "black-balled" by bards--no news of the outside world, no new songs, no new company to break up the long lonely drudgery of rural life in ancient Ire1and.

    Bards often held positions much like the medieval herald - nearly sacrosanct of body while performing their office. Ogham is wonderfully simple and easy to learn, yet is able to pass on the most complex messages. As you can imagine, a bunch of chips and notches on a stone marker or wooden post would look like simple vandalism to most people. Even the chips on a stone marker would look like stone carvers dressing the stone. But the message is plain to anyone who can read.

    The line that the dots, dashes and slashes touch or cross represents the edge of a stone or piece of wood.

    To demonstrate the use of Ogham you will need small pieces of wood (lxlx12) and a knife.

    First designate top from bottom and front from back. Carve or mark a thumb spot at the bottom of the wood piece and you will have done both.

    Second, decide what to write, a couple of short meaningful words or your name, being mindful that certain letters must be substituted or dropped. (See Chart)

    Third, carefully notch or carve the needed dot, dash and/or slash on the edge of the stick beginning on the bottom right (nearest to most knife hands) and work your way toward the top with your message.

When complete, exchange it with someone else and translate back into a Romanized format.

What fun you can have passing secret messages around, leaving them in plain view for others to read and follow the secret directions or to puzzle those who can't read them.

I have also been told that the Bards of Ireland may have had an Ogham like notation for passing on tunes or recording them for later study. This would be far faster than learning them and teaching them by memory alone. This would make tunes available to those who had not actually heard the tune played.

Now you have a way of recording news, lyrics and poetry for future generations to ponder.

    Menninger, K. A Cultural History of Numbers. 1969, MIT Press.

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