OGAM STONE INSCRIPTIONS AND IGBO COLUMN-WRITING --
By Catherine Obianuju Acholonu
Adapted from a paper published under the title “Ogam Philosophical Language and the Lost Nation of Tilmun” in UNESCO Nigeria published booklet Reflections on Indigenous Philosophical Thought, 2008, Abuja.
Ogam (also spelled Ogham) was the earliest form of writing and communication known in the British Isles and in Scandinavia, where ancient traditions insist that it was introduced by the Druids, who, according to the indigenous traditions of the Isles, were Black African dwarfs and magicians. Research conducted by Marija Gimbutas has linked Ogam with the “Old European Script” dating back to 5,300 B.C. (Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, see Ego Nyland Website, 1996). Ogam appears to have a connection with the ancient Cretan script called Linea-A (see Plate 4) which like Ogam was written in columns and strokes. Ogam inscriptions appear as etchings on thousands of stone monoliths scattered throughout Ireland. Irish scholars maintain that Ogam is much older than their native Celtic language, which is as good as saying that those who wrote Ogam lived in Ireland before the genetic ancestors of today’s Irish people appeared in the land. Edo Nyland Ibid., 1996) an Ogam scholar, who has done much work transcribing Ogam and even coming up with an Ogam Dictionary, writes:
"Many people have tried to translate the inscriptions using the Celtic language, but without any success. Not a single genuine Ogam inscription is written in Celtic…The Celtic language did not yet exist at the time these petroglyphs were made…"
In the course of conducting field research on ancient Rock Art in the West African environment, with particular emphasis on Southern Nigeria, my team found strong evidence that seemed to suggest that ancient people from Southern Nigeria who spoke a language that belonged to the Kwa linguistic family had left behind a series of enigmatic Rock inscriptions that had baffled anthropologists and historians since they were discovered in the turn of the 20th century by British colonial officials Charles Partridge (1903), P.A. Talbot (1926) and Philip Allison (1963). (Philip Allison, Cross River Monoliths, 1967). The Cross River Monoliths (Plate #1), as they have come to be known, consist of over 300 units of oval shaped basalt rock of between 3 and 6 feet in height located in villages and forests in Ikom Local government, Cross river State, Nigeria. (Catherine Acholonu, The Gram Code of African Adam, Stone Books and Cave Libraries, Reconstructing 450,000 Years of Africa’s Lost Civilizations, 2005) Ikom monoliths are listed on the World Monument Fund ‘2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites’ as being over 2,000 years old. (See Plate 1; see also World Monument Fund Website www.wmf.org) According to Jocelyn Murray’s description of the distribution of languages on the African continent in Cultural Atlas of Africa, the Kwa group of languages is an arm of the Niger-Congo sub-family of Niger-Kordofanian spreads across half of Africa and its child the Niger-Congo is traditionally spoken in West Africa. Kwa is spoken in Southern Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic.
For four years, between 2001 and 2005, we worked on transcribing the Cross River monoliths and made the first breakthrough in July 2005 when we were able to translate one word of the inscriptions. It was in the course of searching for possible linkages with other stone inscriptions around the world that we stumbled upon Ogam.
Ogam has survived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England as the “Language of Magic”. Some samples have also been discovered in USA, notably in West Virginia. Dr. Barry Fell of Harvard University has been studying the phenomenon of the Ogam writing. (Barry Fell, “Wonderful West Virginia”, in America B.C., March, 1983) Because Ogam shares the Vowel-Consonant-Vowel (V-C-V) structure of morphemes with the Basque language, Barry Fell came to the conclusion that Ogam originated from Basque: a language used among Native Tuaregs of the Sahara regions in North Africa. But Edo Nyland (op. cit.) admits that “no one has been able to translate one single Ogam word” with or without Basque, which means that Ogam has no real affinity with the Basque Language. Ongoing research however, seems to suggest that the Akan who are of the Kwa linguistic family have numerous cultural affinities with the ancient Egyptians, Libyans and the ancient Garammante. (Eva Meryowitz, The Divine Kingship of Ghana and Ancient Egypt, 1960; Akan Traditions of Origin, 1952; Kwame Osei, The Ancient Egyptian Origins of the Akan, 1996) It is therefore quite possible that cultural transference could have occurred indirectly via Egypt and Libya, through Greece and the Aegean, to Europe. This would explain the presence of the Linea-A writing (Plate 4) in Crete. Phoenician influences as culture bearers, who traversed the seas around Africa and the rest of the ancient world, are not ruled out. Phoenicians were Canaanites and Biblical records (Genesis) maintain that Canaanites were prehistoric migrants, Hamites who left their African homeland to populate Palestine. The Akan case is not an isolated case, for emerging anthropological information would seem to suggest that the ancient speakers of the Kwa family of languages (to which the Akan belong) had migrated South from North Africa circa 4,000 years ago. This is particularly true of the Igbo and would tend to support a distant Basque connection of not only Ogam but the Kwa group of languages though this is still the subject of ongoing research. (Adiele Afigbo: The Age of Innocence, 1985; Akaolisa, H.K.: The Igbo Race, Origin and Controversies, 2003)
In the bid to translate Ogam using Basque, what Barry Fell and others did was to assign arbitrary meanings to the Ogam words they wished to translate. Since no one has really been able to break the Ogam code before now, all translations done so far by scholars have been more or less guessing exercises, and the scholars who have done this, including Fell himself have admitted failure in actually translating any Ogam word or sentence. Neither Barry Fell, nor any of the subsequent translators has seriously considered matching Ogam with any other language other than Basque. Ironically all the words transcribed from the stones by these scholars, including Fell’s own transcriptions easily give themselves away as belonging to the Niger/Congo group of West African languages which are characterized by the V-C-V structure. Most if not all of the Ogam inscriptions recorded by Barry Fell possess the Vowel-Consonant-Vowel (VCV) structure of morphemes: the distinguishing element of Niger-Congo languages, the Kwa family group in particular. This means that in Ogam as in Kwa languages, words are structured in such a way that consonants are interspaced by vowels. The assumption by Barry Fell and other Western scholars that Basque is the only language (in the world), which fits this mold, was a major error that hampered all their translations. Another problem was that Basque does not possess the letters ‘C’, ‘V’, ‘Q’ and ‘Y’ that occur in Ogam and in Kwa. Kwa languages include Yoruba, Igbo, Idoma, Igala, Ashanti and Akan languages of Nigeria and Ghana. In Igbo language ‘C’ occurs as ‘CH’, ‘Q’ as ‘KW’ while ‘Y’ and ‘V’ remain unchanged.
It was researcher Don Luke in an article titled “African Presence in the Early History of the British Isles and Scandinavia” (African Presence in Early Europe, ed. Ivan Van Sertima, 1985) that first pointed out that Ogam might be a West African language and not the North African Basque language suggested by Barry Fell. Luke argued that (Ogam) script may have originated in Africa and been taken northward by early adventurers…(for) this same script can be found along the Niger in West Africa because there appears to be a possible West African Scandinavian link in our findings.
We checked out Luke’s suggestion that there was a similar kind of writing along the Niger area and found that indeed the column writing existed among the Igbo of Southern Nigeria, which had literally been lost. Fortunately this writing (see Plate 2) was recorded in Things Fall Apart a novel by Africa’s most famous novelist Chinua Achebe (1958). A character in Things Fall Apart says, ‘Look at the wall… Look at those lines of chalk:’ and Okoye saw groups of perpendicular lines drawn in chalk. There were five groups and the smallest group has ten lines… ‘Each group there represents a debt to some one, and each stroke is one hundred cowries’. (p. 6)
Today in traditional Igbo land the column writing is only used for mathematical calculations and in negotiating bride prices, whereby sticks known as Ogu represent numbers. This is also recorded in Things Fall Apart (p. 51). The process is known as Ima Ogu. Incidentally ancient records from Ireland say that Ogam was originally rendered with sticks.
Ogam was written in the form of strokes or lines, originally on sticks and later on rock. From Edo Nyland we gather that Celtic traditions of Ireland say that Ogam means Oga-ama. Oga-ama is most likely related to Igbo equivalent Ima Ogu already described above as the custom of using sticks to communicate, for in both traditions Ogu means ‘stick’. In Igbo tradition another similar word, Ogu-ama, has a range of meanings connected with the act of using sticks for oath swearing. Thus its literal Igbo meaning would be ‘One who cannot be found guilty by ogu swearing sticks’. Accordingly, when an Igbo says, “I have Ogu.” It is a declaration of impeccability. Though the custom appears to be dying down, column writing was considered sacred, such that the sticks used in the process were imbued with a kind of scriptural potency. Other examples of the use of the column writing by Igbo elders as recorded in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart confirm that the writing was essentially a sacred activity employed by the initiates of the ozo, the cult of holy men/senators/judges as a demonstration of their holiness and their title each time they were about to embark upon the most sacred act of sharing communion which was done through the ritual breaking, sharing and eating of the kola nut: the seed of the cola acuminata tree. (Plate 2; See Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p. 5, 51) Accordingly Helen Chuwkunyere in an article titled “Oji Ezinihitte Festival in Imo State” published in Nigerian Heritage Journal (Vol. 13, 2004) wrote, “Nzu (clay chalk) is usually the first Item you offer to your guest and (it) comes before the kola nut in a powdered or solid form.” (p. 90) And P. Osuagwu in a booklet tilted The Oji Ezinihitte Cultural Festival wrote, “To the visitor, the nzu serves two purposes; he registers his visit and declares his title. The visitor marks eight lines or dots on the ground with the nzu if he is titled and four or five lines or dots if he is not.” (p. 32)
Ogam writing presumes a central axis (the stick) called the stem on both sides of which the lines are executed. (See Item 1 and 2) The description of the structure of Ogam provided by its early users indicates that the script is constructed in line with the metaphor of ‘Tree Climbing’. By way of explanation, Ogam basic structure consists of a long, central line called ‘the stem’ to which short, straight lines are added: to the right, to the left and across. The number of lines in a cluster and their positions relative to the stem, form the individual letters of the Ogam Alphabet. (See Item. 1&2) For example, one line to the right of the stem, stands for the letter ‘B’; one line to the left of the stem, stands for the letter ‘H’; two slanting lines across the stem, stand for the letter ‘G’; four slanting lines across the stem, stand for the letter ‘Z’; two straight lines across the stem, stand for the letter ‘O’, etc. (See Item. 1, No. 1 and 3). Vowels are determined by vertical or horizontal lines or dots across the stem (See Item. 1, No. 4).
1. 2. 3. 4.
Below is a list of Ogam codes transcribed from the original stone inscriptions by Barry Fell. Their ancient creators purposely left blank spaces where most of the vowels are supposed to be. We worked on the project for several weeks, supplying vowels for the blank spaces through the process of trial and error. The result was astounding. Also included are samples of our transcription of the Horse Creek Petroglyphs of West Virginia (Plate 3), USA, listed here as critique of Barry Fell’s translations of same using Basque, which he admits, do not make any kind of meaning in any known language. Ogam sentences we worked on are listed by the serial numbers by which they have been identified on the stones in the open and in museums as recorded by Barry Fell and Edo Nyland. Making provision for slight errors that may have occurred in the course of transcribing from the stones by Fell, we came out with the phrases listed below: Ogam sentences are listed word-by-word on the top rows, (indicating missing letters as they occur on the stones), while the corresponding Igbo words/ sentences, are listed underneath each row (Items 3-9). In Igbo and in Ogam, words and sentence-structures match with an uncanny exactitude. (Transcriptions of Ogam stone inscriptions listed here are taken from the article “Translating Ogam: Introduction to Linguistic Archaeology for Ireland”, by Edo Nyland, published on the Online, 1996. It includes his listings of Dr. Barry Fell’s transcriptions of the Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia, USA).
The Cille Barra Stone (Located at the Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh, Scotland, No Serial Number):
There are two sentences in the above list. The first sentence reads:
Nti roo ete ahu uru, eku roo ete ahu usa.
Literal translation, “When the ear constructs a palm-tree-climbing-rope (ete), there is gain for all, but when the spoon does the same, gluttony reigns”. Meaning: Those who are keen to learn and listen to advice ultimately become great assets to themselves and society; not so the gluttonous. All their efforts are motivated by greed.
The second sentence says: Ina aru oru isi aku, uru oso asi ina ari isi uta. Literal Translation: “When you work hard to lay a solid foundation, the-get-rich-quick accuse you of attempting to climbing the tip of the arrow (attempting the impossible; foolish waste of time and energy).”
Lesson: Lasting success is the result of hard work and perseverance. One poised to succeed takes no advice from lazy people and charlatans.
-b- -la ad- -na ach- -ko og-, -ra ade ede dane.
Igbo Reading: Ubi ala adi, ana acho iko ugu, nra adi ede ede-ana.
Literal Translation: “When farmland is scarce, no one plants creeping legumes (that spread over the farmland and stifle other plants). Eczema is no body tattoo. (It is a disease.)”
Lesson: In times of lack, luxury is unnecessary and survival is paramount. One who hides his ailment, and pretends to be well, will die in his disease. The minor discrepancy between og- and ugu at the end of the first clause, as in a few other instances below, may have occurred in the course of transcription from the stone.
-ma aq- -qi i-i, i-a ari i-e iyi ima
Igbo Reading: Oma akwu-kwo iyi, ima-ri ihe iyi ma.
Literal Translation: “You who (claim to) know the vegetation of the riverside, do you have the river’s knowledge?”
Lesson: Literacy is not wisdom. A man’s knowledge cannot compare to that of the Eternal Being.
We have isolated in brackets the authors’ tendency to repeat the last vowels of preceding words when the next word begins with a consonant. This would tend to suggest that the sentences were meant as rhythmical incantations, which are essential attributes of magic.
The stone inscriptions under this heading were discovered in Horse Creek district, West Virginia, USA. Barry Fell noted that Ogam authors of USA left behind a number of stone megaliths in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire. Archaeological dating of Ogam inscriptions in Virginia, USA, places them between 600 A.D. and 700 A.D. It is suspected that early Irish missionaries did the writings. (“Wonderful West Virginia” in Barry Fell, America B.C., March, 1983) Dr. Fell is reputed to have translated the West Virginia inscriptions using Basque. As we noted earlier, both Fell and other scholars of his school have admitted that none of the translations they have so far done has made any kind of sense or meaning. Edo Nyland has rendered a more contemporary translation of this petroglyph. Our own translations are listed here. Due to changes made by Fell in the original script, it was hard to translate some portions of the West Virginia petroglyph. However, going back as close as possible to the original, we were able to translate the middle and bottom lines fully but the top line only partially. The top-line can be summarized as follows:
The Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia (top line)
-r- -j- -h- -mu, -ku u-i ih- -m-, -n- -m- -k- -s-, -b- -d- -l- -k- -s- -tu u-i.
-g- -n- -m- -idi -a…
Igbo Reading: Ire eji aha emu, aku eji haa emu, one-eme aku ocha? Oba adi ele oku uzo ntu di. I ga-añu Imo n’idide…?
Literal Translation: The slanderous tongue, the wealth that finances slander, can it be called clean? The barn cannot go up in flames where there is a pile of cinders (to put out the fire). No one drinks Imo (a major river in Igbo land) with earth worms.”
Lesson: Those who seek equity must seek with clean hands. The evil we do onto others condemn us. Where there is a will, there is a way. The solutions to a person’s problems are always around him. As the river does not carry worms, so the Eternal One is beyond error. Seek and find the Eternal One (God) and live above limitations…!
The Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia (middle line)
-m- -g- -n- -t- -l- -g-, -mi i-a at- -ge e-a an- -b- -t-
Igbo Reading: Omi aga ano otu ulo ogo, omi ina atu oge ina ana obi ete/uta.
Literal Meaning: “A well won’t last long in one house, the well that you dig in your new, permanent homestead.” Lesson: “While digging a well (domestic water bore-hole) for your new and permanent homestead, do not forget that a well serving only one family dries up quickly.”
Deeper meaning: “No man is an island. Sharing is the essence of life. Life is only worthwhile when it serves the collective good. The value of the life of the individual is measured according to his service to society.”
The Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia (bottom line)
–b- -h- -g- -to o-i ir- -g- -l-, -g- -g- -b- -mo,
o-i it- -k- -di i-a ah- -f-. -ki i-o on- -d- .
Igbo Reading: Obu ahia ego ito, odi ire ego ole, ego oga ebu imo; odi ita eke, odi iga ahia ofe. Oki ilo onu ada.
Literal Meaning: “Seller of three pence worth or goods, how much will your goods fetch? Can money swallow Imo River (metaphor for the sea)? Can it kill a boa? Can it shop for groceries (do one’s chores)? An old man does not soil his body like a new born.”
Lesson: The power of money is limited to commerce. Money can not render direct service or affect the realm of the infinite. Without human instrumentality, money is useless in the performance of actions great or small. Age confers wisdom through experience. Those better placed than others should live by example, rather than following the ignorant to do wrong.
Igbo translations of Ogam inscriptions reveal them to be proverbs and wise sayings that not only have their roots in Igbo language, but also in the current Igbo geographical environment. Frequent references to Imo, the longest River in Igbo land, and the recurrence of the Igbo word ete (palm-tree-climbing rope) lend further credence to an Igbo origin of this ancient orthography whose major distinguishing attribute, according to its ancient users, is that “Ogam is climbed as a tree is climbed”. Ogam inscription titled Kinguilben East, No. 1086, listed here as Item. 4 was particularly singled out by Barry Fell as a litmus test for a successful translation, due to the fact that it is one of the very few sentences with a succession of complete words “…ade ede dena”. This three-word phrase, which Barry Fell could hardly fit into his own translation, fitted very neatly, phonetically, structurally and semantically, into our Igbo translation. Ogam inscriptions are statements of ageless philosophies that teach universal truths and lessons of everyday life. Their metaphors, drawn from the rustic environment, emphasize the importance of hard work, patience, perseverance, sharing, giving, tolerance, and service, condemning acquisitiveness, greed and excessive self-gratification. They emphasize the need to place more premium on eternal values and less on material acquisitions; the superiority of collective good over individual comfort; the imperative power of the Eternal over the transient; natural wisdom over bookish knowledge, and above all, the indispensability of Eternal Being (God) in the affairs of man. In Ogam and in Igbo worldview the metaphor for God or Eternity is the sea or the river.
These are eternal subjects that were as relevant 3,000 years ago as they are today. These Scriptures on stone are the same philosophies and morals for which the Holy Bible, the Koran, the I-Ching and other Scriptures of other civilizations were later to be written. No wonder the Benedictine Christian monks of Ireland adopted Ogam philosophy and codes for their early missionary work. Ogam writings were transliterations (literal translations) of a West African language: a language still spoken today in Nigeria. What this means again is that the Pre-Historic inhabitants of Ireland and their Scandinavian neighbours could have originated from West Africa. It could also indicate language borrowing from pre-Historic West African colonizers, missionaries of the religion of the Druids! Irish Druids referred to Ireland as the ‘Land of Erin’, which was the etymological origin of the word Ire-land. Erin was very likely a mythical world teacher known to the Igbo as Eri, the founder of their ancient civilization, the Nri civilization. Eri is spelt Erin in Yoruba and Benin (Edo) languages, meaning ‘God’, among other things. In Yoruba language it also means ‘four’ which is the core number in Igbo cosmology. It also means ‘god of songs’, elephant: king of the jungle. Eri seems to have had links with the Yoruba ancient town of Ijesha giving rise to the terms Erin-Ijesha, Erin-Ile that mean ‘Ijesha of Eri, the place of Eri’.
It does appear that though Igbo and Yoruba branched off from the same mother language - Kwa, Igbo language might have retained more similarities with the original (proto) Kwa spoken and written by the Kwa ancestors of both peoples who might have been the inventors of Ogam. This would explain why Igbo is closer to Ogam than Yoruba. We can make this assertion because we actually attempted unsuccessfully to create Yoruba sentences out of the Ogam phrases, working with Yoruba native speakers. Their conclusion was that though individual Ogam word made several meanings in Yoruba language, each sentence needed additional conjunctions, pronouns and articles to make any kind of sense. We are hoping to elicit reactions from scholars working on Ogam to consider its possible links with other Niger-Congo languages and other languages of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Emerging facts from new research seem to strongly suggest that ancient West Africans were responsible for megalithic stone works in ancient Europe and the Americas. Thus Zecharia Sitchen, in When Time Began, Book IV of his phenomenal Earth Chronicles, wrote, that if European legends be “deemed as conveyors of historical fact, then the one about Africans coming to erect the megalithic circles at Stonehenge” in the British Isles is conveying an important piece of world history not unconnected with the same Black West Africans who created the Olmec civilization of South America around 3,000 B.C. (p. 323). Ikom monoliths (see Plate 1) of Cross River State, Nigeria have been officially listed by the World Monument Fund in its 2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites (it was nominated for listing by the Acholonu research team), where it was designated as “an ancient form of writing and visual communication … dating from before 2,000 B.C.” This is an official proclamation that more than 4,000 years of Black Sub-Saharan African history is written on these stones waiting to be deciphered. By way of example, we have demonstrated in our book The Gram Code of African Adam, our step-by-step interpretation of the graphic illustration, by these ancient stone authors, of picture-equivalents of portions of Sumerian and Biblical Genesis. The creation or ordering of the planets of the Solar System, the cleaving asunder of the mother Planet Gaia and the Sumerian story of the ‘gathering of the parted waters of the firmament by the clenched fists of the Creator’ are illustrated on the monolith known as Wisdom Stone (Plate 1, below).
Plate 1: A Cross River monolith
Plate 2: Samples of Igbo column writing
Plate 3: Ogam Inscription- Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia discovered by Dr. Barry Fell
Plate 5: Map of Northern Africa showing regional location of Igbo land and also of the monoliths
Plate 4: Cretan Linea A writing
Composition of Research Team:
Catherine Acholonu - UN Forum of Arts and Culture, Nigeria
Ajay Prabhakar – UN Forum of Arts and Culture, Nigeria
Nneka Egbuna – UNESCO, Nigeria.