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For teaching purposes only:

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


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







Ogam is the oldest form of writing in Ireland and Scotland and is being found more and more at Pre-Columbian archeological sites in North America. It can still be seen inscribed on hundreds of large and small stones, on the walls of some caves, but also on bone, ivory, bronze and silver objects. The Ogam script was especially well adapted for use on sticks. Sticks are part of the Basque word for "alphabet": agaka, agglutinated from aga-aka, aga (stick or pole) and akats (notch). The meaning of the word agaka therefore isn't so much "alphabet" as "writing", a stick with Ogam notches conveying a message. The name Ogam probably comes from oga-ama, ogasun (property, wealth) ama (Priestess, mother) property of the Priestess, which indicates that the script may originally have been designed for use by the clergy of the pre-Christian Mother Goddess religion. There is evidence that the Igbo of West Africa originated the Ogam style of writing (see Catherine Acholonu).


Ogam may have originated in Libya, from where also the first Gnostic Christian missionaries are thought to have come Nyland (2001). It was adopted and further developed by the first Gnostic monks in Ireland around 350 A.D. Our earliest information indicates an uncertainty as to where Ogam came from. According to the "Auraicept" the origin of Irish and Ogam must be sought in the Near East: "In Dacia it was invented, though others say it was in the Plain of Shinar" (line 1105-06). A "Made in Ireland" version is recorded in "In Lebor Ogaim. The inventor here is "Ogma Mac Elathan who is said to have been skilled in speech and poetry and to have created the system as proof of his intellectual ability and with the intention that it should be the preserve of the learned, to the exclusion of rustics and fools" ( McManus8.4). The script was used by the Gnostic monks as a monument script between 450 and 800 A.D. and the succeeding Roman Catholic Benedictines used it for literary purposes between ca 700 and 900 A.D. Every time the script was inscribed in stone it must have been used thousands of times on sticks, for which medium the script was obviously designed. Over 600 Ogam inscriptions are known from Ireland (collected by R.A.S. Macalister), some 40 from Scotland (A. Jackson) and a growing number from the east coast of North America. The fact that not a single one of these scripts in Ireland and Scotland had been successfully translated is not so much the fault of the monks who wrote the texts, as of our linguists, all of whom assumed that the language of the script was Gaelic. However, this assumption appears to be without foundation, because the syntax of the Gaelic language in no way lends itself to be written in traditional Ogam.


Prof. Damien McManus, at Trinity College, Dublin, suggested that the Ogam script had its origin in the scoring of the tally stick, a knife cut for each count, a V for five scores, an X for ten etc. From this simple beginning, the system was only an inventor's step away from writing. However, Carney guessed that it was likely developed "in an area where Romans, Celts and Germans were in contact and was brought into being by political or military necessity. Its purpose could be to send messages, probably on sticks, which, if intercepted could not be read or interpreted". That begs the question: Why did the evangelists in Ireland and Scotland go to all that trouble to inscribe so many stones with religious texts and other information, if only a few literate monks could read them? But were the inhabitants as illiterate as we have been told repeatedly? On the other hand, could it be that it was the magic, built into the inscription, which was the most important feature?


The origin of Ogam must be sought much earlier. In her monumental book, "The Language of the Goddess", Marija Gambutas describes the much alike "Old European Script" the earliest evidence of which she dates at 5,300 bce.. (p 308). Therefore, it appears that the Ogam script has gone through a very long period of evolution. It may well be that all the authors who suggested origins for Ogam were right, that all the places mentioned and all the different uses over the ages played a role in the development of the script. Whatever its early history, the form of the Ogam script we know today was certainly developed in Ireland.


The Ogam inscriptions that have been studied include a number of late Bronze Age writings in Canada and the United States and a large inscription found in West Virginia U.S.A. There is also a growing number from Ireland and Scotland. The variety of topics inscribed on the Irish stones is quite astonishing. Most of the Scottish inscriptions are made by Christian missionaries using the ancient script to convert the worshippers of the ancient Goddess religion to Christianity. There are indeed Ogam grave stone inscriptions in Ireland but they appear to be in the minority. Most relate to the evangelical efforts of the Christian monks.