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For teaching purposes:  quote cited references only

[References for this review may be found at <Nyland>]


       [Note:  All Basque words are in Italics and Bold-faced Green]








          It has been suggested that Ogam came to Ireland from North Africa with the first Gnostic missionaries who preached the early Irish Christianity (Nyland 2001). These people believed in magic, just like the pre-Christian inhabitants did. As Anthony Jackson (1993) discovered, this magic took the shape of numerical wizardry with letters (see the Saharan Language). It is not known if the original Ogam had an organized alphabet but it is likely.  The Gnostic missionaries used the script to spread the Gospel by marking their Biblical phrases on Neolithic standing stones to convert the people to Christianity. Around 650 A.D. Benedictine monks and their grammarians came to Ireland with instructions to create a distinct language to replace the "iron" language of the Irish, which they called Cruithin. They found it necessary to augment the early alphabetic script with five diphthong characters, called Forfeda (see below) and further develop it to accommodate the linguistic and literary activities they had in mind. There is no doubt that these people were linguistic professionals in the best tradition.


          The Ogam alphabet, as we know it today, is composed of 15 consonants followed by five vowels. This is the only alphabet known which organizes consonants and vowels in this manner. The Benedictines' operation manual, the "Auraicept na n'Eces", parts of which appear to have been written as early as 700 A.D., in the very early years of Irish Judeo-Christianity, described the Ogam alphabet as follows:


          Translation by Calder


          This is their number: five Ogmic groups, i.e., five men for each group, and one up to five for each of them, that their signs may be distinguished. These are their signs:


          right of stem, left of stem, athwart of stem, through stem, about stem.


          Thus is a tree climbed, to wit, treading on the root of the tree first with thy right hand first and thy left hand after. Then with the stem, and against it and through it and about it. (Lines 947-951).


          McManus clarified this:


          "This is their number: there are five groups of Ogam and each group has five letters and each of them has from one to five scores and their orientations distinguish them. Their orientations are: right of the stemline, left of the stemline, across the stemline, through the stemline, around the stemline. Ogam is climbed as a tree is climbed..." (McManus 1.5).


          By the time the fifth column of Forfeda symbols had been added, the script was written horizontally, from left to right but the above quote still appears to record the original way of vertical writing, read from the bottom up. The original 20 symbols in both the original vertical as well as the later horizontal way of writing are shown. Most of the early inscriptions on stone in Scotland and Ireland are written in the vertical form. The Ogam texts in books such as the Auraicept and on the petroglyphs in West Virginia are written in the horizontal literary tradition. At first sight, the peculiar arrangement of the letters in the Ogam alphabet appears to be completely unrelated to the pre-existing Greek and Latin alphabets. McManus searched elsewhere for the origin and found that "there is a clear connection with the North Etruscan alphabets". Anthropologist Anthony Jackson from Edinburgh University, however, discovered that the arrangement was directly related to the ordinal numbers of the letters in the Latin alphabet:

1   2   3   4  5   6   7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15   16  17  18  19  20

A  B  C  D  E  V  G  H  I   Z    L   M   N   O  NG   Q   R   S    T    U



          The total of the ordinal numbers in the Latin alphabet is 210. The 20 original Ogam characters were divided into four columns, which, arranged according to a cabalistic system of calculation, totaled 50, 50, 61 and 49 respectively:


N  13  +  Q  16 = (1x29)    R  17  +  I   9  =  (2x13)    5x11
S  18  +  C   3 = (3x7)     Z  10  +  E   5  =  (3x5)     3x3x4
V   6  +  T  19 = (5x5)     NG 15  +  U  20  =  (5x7)     3x4x5
L  11  +  D   4 = (3x5)     G   7  +  O  14  =  (3x7)     3x3x4
B   2  +  H   8 = (2x5)     M  12  +  A   1  =  (1x13)    1x23
  ___       ___    ___        ___       ___      ___      ___
   50  +     50 =  100         61  +     49  =   110      210
 10x5      10x5  (10x10)     1x61       7x7    (10x11)   2x3x5x7
B L V S N  /  H D T C Q  /  M G NG Z R  /  A O U E I.    

          The sequence of the letters within each column appears to be in relation to the primary numbers, however, the calculations go beyond the scope of this article. The interested reader is referred to Jackson's monograph, chapter 7.


          As you will have noticed, there are several letters missing from the Latin alphabet shown above: F, J, K, P, V, X and Y. The same letters are missing from the newly re-arranged Ogam alphabet. This probably means that the linguist who designed the Ogam alphabet was selective in choosing only those Latin letters which made the cabalistic calculations and arrangement possible. The V had replaced the B and the F; the I replaced the J and Y; the C and Q replaced the K; the B, a labial, took the pace of P (also a labial), the character X was used for the later Ogam diphthong EA, but in the Ogam script sometimes is written as KS. It is interesting to note that Q-Celtic has no F, J or P. Neither is there a P in Arabic. Only a few words in Basque start with F, which letter may be a quite recent addition to this language; the V, C, Y and Q still do not exist in Basque, and the Basque X represents "sh".


Written horizontally:



Note that the "f" in the horizontal script should be a "v" as it is in the vertical script.

          The reason why all 15 consonants are listed first in the alphabet and the 5 vowels following, has to do with the special arrangement of the words in the monk's dictionary. The primary organization of their dictionary is according to the consonants. Half of the Basque language is made up of words starting with vowel-consonant-vowel (VCV, sometimes VCCV) and it is mainly this half of the language which the monks used in the construction of the Romance languages and English. These words were then arranged according to the first consonants in the words, each consonant was then subdivided again into 25 VCV combinations such as under D: ada, ade, adi, ado, adu; eda, ede, edi, edo, edu; ida, ide ..... etc. Under each such VCV were then listed all those words with their translations which started with these three letters. This arrangement is still the best way for us to decode Ogam writing.


          From this it must be obvious that such a special arrangement applies only to a language that is organized in the VCV manner and Basque is the only language that fits the mold. The syntax of modern Irish (i.e. Gaelic or Celtic) is totally unsuited to this VCV system and consequently this language cannot be written in traditional Irish Ogam. Consequently, all Ogam writing anywhere must have been in the Basque language, which means that the "iron" language of pre-Roman-Catholic Ireland was the universal language we call Saharan or Basque today. This explains why "Celtic" scholars have been unable to translate even one single Ogam inscription correctly.




          The Forfeda revision made by the Benedictines, the addition of the five extra diphthong characters, was almost certainly accomplished in Ireland. Ogam was originally designed for record keeping and the sending of short messages, not for literary expression. However, this is what the Benedictine monks of Ireland were using it for. One of the main "reasons for being" of the Benedictine Order was the replacement of the ancient pre-Christian, gylanic oriented, language with a church-approved one. The syntax of the Basque language was ideally suited for the agglutination of new words, which then appeared to have no relationship to the original language. The VCV formula made this possible. However, traditions governing this ancient formula did not allow two vowels to be written side-by side without a space separation, which demanded separate words. This rule created problems and restrictions for those writing in the script. The monks wished to simplify the rules of writing.  They created words and names with diphthongs in them, by the invention of five new "Forfeda" characters permitting the combination of: each,


          Now let us look at what the name "forfeda" really means. The monks obviously were not very happy to be forced to use the "heathen" Ogam script, but had nothing quite as ingenious, concise and useful to replace it with, until they had invented their new Celtic language. In the following analysis of "Forfeda", the first "f" has to be a "b", a common letter shift; (the second "f" is correct).


FORFEDA, .bo-or.-.fe-eda;
.bo     ebo     eboluzionatu      to develop
or.     ori    
ori               that
.fe     ife    
ifernuko          infernal
eda     eda    
edabe             potion, fabrication

Develop that infernal fabrication!


          Notice how the word "forfeda" breaks up into four three-letter VCV roots, ebo-ori-ife-eda, each composed of vowel-consonant-vowel (VCV), with the vowels interlocking to form a chain of interdependent roots. This interlocking is the main characteristic of Ogam writing, is basic to all Ogam inscriptions and is indispensable in deciphering. Any missing (purposely removed) vowels in the words analyzed, are represented by a dot until identified. Forfeda symbols are never eliminated. The monks later embellished this word to "Foirfeadha", to make it look as if the word had originated with the "Celtic" language, which is characterized by an excess of unnecessary vowels and h's. Some remarks in the Auraicept pertain to the creation of Forfeda characters such as:


IN LEBOR OGAIM. in.-.le-ebo-oro-oga-ahi-im.; (5465 etc)

in.     ina     inauguratu       to innovate
.le     ale    
alegiņez         carefully
ebo     ebo    
eboluzionatu     to develop
oro     oro    
orobateko        similar
oga     oga    
ogasun           wealth
a.i     ahi    
ahituezin        timeless
imi     imitazio         character

Innovate by carefully developing a similar wealth of timeless characters.


          (Note: there is no break in the interlocking vowels, even though the text is broken into three "words".oi, ui, io and ae, the use of which then also allowed these to be part of the creation of new words starting with eha, ohi, uhi, iho and ahe. The design of the characters they created was totally out of style with the original script. McManus observed that they "missed the opportunity of completing the symmetry of the system by having the fifth series mirror the third in the way that the second mirrors the first" (McManus 1.2).





Ogam translation requires the following steps:

Step 1. Transliterate the Ogam characters into our Latin letters,

Step 2. Replace the letters c, q, v, w, y with equivalent Basque letters, c and q become k, v becomes b, the y
            becomes i.

Step 3. Arrange these corrected letters into the VCVCV format, placing dots where vowels are missing,

Step 4. Fit these letters into the VCV formula,

Step 5. List the various meanings underneath each VCV,

Step 6. Arrange the hidden sentence.

          he best way to explain the process is with a few examples of real Ogam inscriptions, take for instance:



          Step 1. The middle part of the inscription was badly damaged, but after much study Dr. Jost Gippert at Frankfurt University decided that it should read:



          Step 2. All Ogams in Ireland are based on the Basque language, however, Basque does not have a "C" or a "V", so the inscription will now read



          Step 3. When fitting the letters in the VCVCVCVCV format, it appears that only one, the first vowel, is missing, which must therefore be represented by a dot. The inscription to be translated now reads:



          Step 4. There are four consonants so this VCVCVCVCV line is then broken up by hyphens into four three-letter VCV's in which the V's on either side of the hyphens are the same (called interlocking): VCV1-V1CV2-V2CV3-V3CV, which therefore represents four words:



          Step 5. With the preliminaries out of the way, the next step in decoding an Ogam inscription is to list the possible meanings underneath each VCV. In the case of the one missing vowel, all five possibilities must be tried (aku, eku, iku, oku, uku) as follows:


(aku)                   una                    aba                 ato
to incite              boredom            priest                tow
to stimulate       annoyance          occasion          tug boat
to rent, lease     cowherd             slingshot          to arrange
acoustics           fatigue               advantage        to seize

(eku)                   dull                   rower           embellish
equator, worried                           almost              to solve
peace of mind                               shade               come!


(iku)                    branches           shirt           

 to touch, to visit, flag, motto, watchful

fertile field

stable, falsify
go bad, smelly


          Step 6. To discover the hidden sentence we must match up the words which obviously belong together, starting with the complete VCV's. For instance take the pair aba and ato and immediately out pops priest and come!, "the priest says: Come!". Why would he say come!? "To stimulate" (aku) your "boredom" (una). The translation of CUNAVATO therefore is:

          "The priest will stimulate your boredom; come!" The completed words are:
akuilatu (to stimulate) unadora (boredom) abade (priest) ator! (Come!). That is exactly what one would expect a missionary to say, it's his job.


          Occasionally more than one reasonable meaning appears in which case we have a problem. Lay this work aside and return to it later; often new insight will be obtained and the proper translation decided upon. In the following pages you will see hundreds of decodings and learn that applying the Ogam formula is not an exact science. Guessing the mood of the monk who made up the word can be fun.


A Second Example


An  Ogam inscription which has two vowels missing is decoded (Macalister # 364):

        Step 1.


        Step 2. barkuni


       Step 3. .bar.kuni


           Step 4.  .ba-ar.-.ku-uni


       Step 5.  Three VCV's have a vowel missing. Each of those represents five VCV's e.g. .ba can be aba, eba, iba, oba or uba. Go to the VCV dictionary and list the possible meanings under each of these five VCV's. Do the same with .ar and .ku  The last one, uni, is complete and only has a few possible meanings.


           Step 6. When assembling the sentence built into the inscription, keep in mind who the people were that carved it. The words that pop out immediately are "evangelist" and "priest" under eba, which goes together with "prayer" under are: "the evangelist's prayers" . What do they do? They give peace of mind, under eku. The sentence therefore reads: "The evangelist's prayers (give you) general peace of mind". The four words completed are then: ebanjelari (evangelist) arren (prayer) ekurutasun (peace of mind) unibertsal (general).


A Third Example


          The decoding of the more complicated Ogam inscriptions is difficult to fit into the internet restrictions, however, the reader now has the idea how decoding is done. My third example is considerably larger and will therefore be presented in a different manner, which has the disadvantage of not being able to show how the missing vowel is recovered, but this is difficult to avoid.


Step 1.

Bladnach cogradedena


Bladnach cuilen



          McManus, (page 132). Macalister #1086, 1949, shows the second word as Cogracetena, which is incorrect. Both inscriptions are found on a bronze hanging bowl, likely an incense burner, dug up from a swamp in County Kerry. "They are inscribed along the upper surface of the rim and on one of the escutcheons" (Mcmanus 7.6)



     Step 2. Bladnak kogradedena and Bladnak kuilen.


     Step 3. .B.lad.nak. .kog.radedena and .B.lad.nak. .kuilen


      Step 4. .ko-og.-.ra-ade-ede-ena, and 



Step 5. This time the given VCV's are placed along the left border:


.B.     abe     abe           cross
.la     ela     ela           story
ad.     ade     adelatu       to prepare
.na     ena     ena           that
ak.     aka     akabu         ultimate, superior
.ko    ako     akorduan euki to remember 
og.    ogi     ogizatitze    breaking of the bread 
.ra    ira     iragan        to suffer 
ade    ade     adelatu       to prepare 
ede    ede     edergi        to confide in 
dena   dena    Deuna         Lord 

      Step 6. The story of the Cross prepares us for that ultimate remembrance while preparing for the breaking of the bread (for His) suffering (while we) confide in the Lord.


.ku     eku     ekurutasun    peace of mind
ile     ile     ilezin        everlasting
en.     ene     eneganatu     to come over me

      The story of the cross prepares me for that ultimate everlasting peace of mind (which will) come over me.



          All words and many names in any invented language have known meanings. This is not the case with the words written in Ogam and this fact does not make the job of decoding any easier. In addition, no effort was made to allow easy pronunciation. On the contrary, all ingenuity was aimed at insuring that the writing looked as awkward as possible so that only specialists would be able to interpret it. This disguising was done mostly by applying the VCV Code and the removal of as many vowels as possible.  This followed the example of Hebrew where often no vowels are left at all; such as the name Talmud (Oral Law) being written as "lmd", originally from tala-muda, tala (watch out) mudatu (to alter): "watch out for alteration", or freely translated: "pass on unaltered", which is what an oral law is all about. The meaning of the word Talmud today has been accepted as something like "instruction".


          In Scotland, several of the Christian Ogams were inscribed aggressively over pre-existing animal- and geometrical symbols/totems which had been carved in the 7th century. These symbols organized marriages and other co-operative arrangements between groups of (usually) four tribes (Jackson) and ever since had been regarded with great respect by the population. The over-writing was probably done to destroy the "magical powers" of the "heathen" symbols. Deciphering the Ogams usually poses no real problem as long as the inscription is complete and legible.





          In analyzing Ogam inscriptions and names or words, especially those from which too many vowels have been removed, it may be helpful to know which consonants are easier to decode than others. Nyland (2001) devised a rating system that was helpful. It involves writing down all the possible VCV combinations and then counting only those that are found in Aulestia's dictionary. For instance take "F":


          afa          efa          ifa          ofa          ufa
          afe          efe          ife          ofe          ufe 
          afi          efi          ifi          ofi          ufi
          afo          efo          ifo          ofo          ufo
          afu          efu          ifu          ofu          ufu

          Out of the 25 VCV possibilities of "F", only the six italicized VCV's are the first letters of existing Basque words: afa (pleasing, supper), ifa (north), ife (infernal, hell), ifi (from ibi, to be, to go), ofi (craftsman, official), ufa (panting, blowing, scornful). The rating of the consonant "F" is therefore 6, making it the second easiest of all letters to find meanings for. The ratings of all the consonants are as follows:


    Ņ-5, F-6, J-7, NG-13, Z-17, B-18, M-18, D-20, G-20, S-21,
K-22, L-22, N-22, P-22, T-22, H-23, R+RR-46.


          The use of the letter "R" in the inscriptions poses somewhat of a problem because no distinction is made between "R" and "RR", each having its own set of 23 VCV combinations. Also the large number of words associated with each combination of this letter make it sometimes difficult to select the appropriate word. The analysis of the "R" or "RR" is therefore usually kept to the last





          It has long been known that languages were being invented,  (Wittgenstein 1922)  wrote: "Man possesses the capacity of constructing languages, in which every sense can be expressed, without having an idea how and what each word means - just as one speaks without knowing how the single sounds are produced" (Tractatus B.C.).  That is exactly what was done by the Benedictines and their grammarians when they made up the western European languages. Even all the names of their saints and monasteries were constructed without the uninitiated having the slightest idea what each name meant. By the time Darwin wrote his "Descent of Man" the language invention efforts had been forgotten because he commented: "No philologist now supposes that any language has been deliberately invented: it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps". How soon we forget! This is discussed by Nyland (2001) in  Benedictines in England.