THE TRADITIONAL HISTORY OF THE OGHAM
By Kevin Jones
The invention of the Ogham usually credited to Ogma Grian-ainech (Sunface) mac Elatha mac Delbaeth, the brother of Bres, 'a man well skilled in speech and poetry'. To quote the Auraicept he invented it 'as a proof of his ingenuity, and that this speech should belong to the learned apart to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen'. It is often said that the first thing written was the Ogham for Birch, carved seven times by Ogma for Lugh as a warning to the latter that his wife would be carried away. However, the way this is given in the Auraicept, it was FS that was written. Since this was written on Birch, the message, and the magic behind it, becomes more apparent.
Ogham is named after Ogma. However, in Greek ogmos means a line, row or furrow, which is quite an apt description of Ogham. This is not unusual; if an alphabet is not named after a people or its inventor (e.g. Cyrillic), it takes its name from the first letters in some conventional arrangement (e.g. alphabet, abecedarium, futhorc) or else from some descriptive feature or function (e.g. Peshito, meaning simple).
In Scots Gaelic the word for Ogham, oidheam, means 'a notion of anything, an idea, an inference, hint'. This is an accurate description of the Ogham. The cognate word in Latin, agmen, means both 'boatmen's oars' and 'speech', which is very apt! There is also the rather obscure word ogygia which is best translated as primeval or 'before time'. This may or may not be related but if it is, it is apt since the Ogham does concern primeval things.
According to another legend also given in the Auraicept, the inventor of the Ogham was Feniusa Farsaidh who attended a meeting of scholars at Nimrod's Tower at which all the languages were formulated. As the Auraicept na N'Eces puts it, until the time of Nimrod's Tower (The Tower of Babel) 'there was not any king over the world until the time of Nin mac Bel, only counsellors and chiefs. There were seventy-two counsellors in the world at the time of the tower and Nimrod was one'.
The genealogy of Feniusa Farsaidh is given as mac Brath mac Magog mac Japeth mac Noah. It is alternatively given as mac Eogan mac Glunfind (Whiteknee) mac Laimfind (Whitehand) mac Ether mac Agnoman mac Toe mac Bionb mac Semh mac Mar mac Ethect mac Aurtect mac Abodh mac Aoi mac Ara mac Iara mac Sru mac Esru mac Boath mac Riafath mac Gomer mac Japeth etc. The genealogy of Nin mac Bel is given as mac Plosc mac Pluliris mac Agomolis mac Fronosis mac Gitlis mac Tiras mac Assur mac Shem mac Noah! There has been a lot of biblical interpolation here! However, these genealogies will bear some study later.
Gaedel mac Ether mac Agnon or Aingin, who, according to the Auraicept, was one of the inventors of Gaelic was the son of Feniusa's father's elder brother. He is also said to be the son of Amergin since Amergin was called both Aingin and Ether. This sounds as if somebody was trying to cobble together several bits of information and doing a bad job of it! Gaedel's genealogy is given Gaedel mac Ether mac Toa mac Barachan and he is described as 'a Scythian Greek'. 'Scythian' was the collective term the Greeks gave to the tribes of the area north of the Black Sea. 'Scythian Greek' might mean a native of Miletus. The other authors of the Gaelic language were Feniusa Farsaidh and Iar n-Ilberla (of the many languages) mac Nena.
Feniusa spoke Hebrew, Greek and Latin before he came to Nimrod's Tower from Scythia. Since these languages already existed it makes nonsense of the story of the Tower of Babel that has been tacked onto this tale. However, as I shall show later, there is more here than meets the eye. The Auraicept then adds that Ogham was invented after Latin, Hebrew and Greek, so it is more exact. It also supplies an alternative origin; the Beth-Luis-Nion was invented in Achaidh (Achea, in Greece) and at the causeway of the Great Estuary by Amergin son of Mil. Mil was the ancestor of the Irish and turns up in all sorts of interesting places; his name means 'soldier'.
Now according to Auraicept, the language was divided at this meeting into four parts. The text then gives five parts, which might suggest at first that someone could not count. The parts of the language were:
1) The language of the Irish
2) Additional language
3) Language parted from the trees
4) The language of Poets
5) The Common language for all.
The language 'parted from the trees' is, of course, the Ogham. This is no mere poetical description but a statement of fact, as will be shown later. 'The language of the Poets' seems to have been an archaic version of the language that ordinary people could not understand; a sacred language if you like. It was further complicated by riddling and punning. 'Additional language' was, presumably, a technical vocabulary peculiar to the druids. 'The language of the Irish' is fairly obvious; Gaelic or its linguistic predecessors.
'The Common language for all' is interesting. You only need a common language, a lingua franca, to communicate with people who speak a different language from your own. Evidently Gaelic was not spoken by everybody with whom the creators of the Ogham had contact. Now we have already been told that Gaelic is divided into four parts, yet 'the Common language' appears as a fifth classification. It is therefore outside Gaelic. For this period the common language or lingua franca was Greek. Vulgar Latin only became the common European language after 55 BC.
The Auraicept further says that according to one tradition the letters were named after people, the names being given as: Babel, Lot, Pharaoh, Saliath, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, David, Talamon, Cae, Kaliap, Muiriath, Gotli, Gomers, Stru, Ruben, Achab, Oise, Urith, Essu, Iachim, Ethrocius, Uimelicus, Iudonius and Affrim Ordines. You may notice that the forfeda Oir has been omitted.
This is a bit of misdirection! I am insufficiently knowledgeable about biblical personalities although the stories connected with those names that I recognise do relate to the meanings of the individual Ogham. The most relevant clause in this paragraph is that 'the five principal vowels were named from the five noblest persons', which is a slightly evasive bit of misdirection. The Auraicept, by the way, elevates deception and misdirection to an art form.
A little later in the Auraicept we are told, Ea and Oi were added to make seven vowels. This is the number of vowels in Greek and it seriously damages the argument of a connection between the Latin alphabet and the Ogham. The Auraicept specifically states that 'semivowels do not exist, as they do not exist with the Greeks'. A linguist friend of mine recently confirmed that there are no semivowels (glides) in ancient Greek. By comparison, semivowels are used abundantly in modern Welsh. I shall deal with this thorny issue in the next section.
Not surprisingly, academics were not satisfied with these accounts and sought to account for the existence of this script. They came to various conclusions, some intelligent and some laughable. There is still no consensus of opinion, despite one hundred and fifty years of argument. They quickly recognised that it was artificial. However, they have a problem due to their basic assumption that it was invented primarily as an alphabet; it was not.
Ogham is thought by some scholars, particularly R A S Macalister, to have been derived from the Formello-Cervetri alphabet used in Greece in the middle of the sixth century BC. Julius Caesar recorded that the Celts used 'Greek letters' although they abandoned Greek for Latin after his conquests. Admittedly, the earliest Gaulish inscriptions, found at Veii, are in a North Etruscan alphabet but the oldest Gaulish coins do use early Greek letters.
There have been other suggestions; Robert Graves suggested that it might have originated between 1600-1400 BC, somewhere on the southern coast of the Black Sea. It has even been suggested that it was derived from Hittite cuneiform, although this seems very dubious. I have even seen fairly wild suggestions that it originated in Atlantis and was subsequently spread by the Atlanteans to both the Americas and Europe. As you see, it has been the subject of some wild speculation!
It has also been suggested that Ogham was invented shortly after the Roman conquest of Gaul because Ogham is based on the Latin alphabet. Tosh! This argument takes as fact the assumption that the Ogham was based on the Latin alphabet. If that assumption fails then the whole argument fails.
The argument of a connection with the Latin alphabet is easily dispensed with. There are many phonetic similarities between Old Celtic and Italic, the early form of Latin. This merely means that the two languages had a common ancestor, not that one language influenced the other.
The principal differences between Old Celtic and Italic lay in the former entirely lacking the letter P and using A for O. For example, the Latin for 'knowing' was gnotus; this became gnatus in Old Celtic. Similarly the Indo-European word for 'horse' was ekvos. This became equos in Latin and is seen in the Gaelic root ech-. In Brythonic, a P-Celtic language, it became epos as in Eposognatus (knower of horses). The word for 'who' was qui in Latin, cia in Q-Celtic and pwy in Welsh. The Gaulish nominative ending is -ios while the Latin equivalent is -ius. Consequently any method used to represent the sounds in one language would reflect the phonetic similarities between both. It does not mean that one script had to be derived from the other. In principal, the Ogham could be based on any alphabet that furnished the relevant sounds.
Additionally the oldest Irish word for an alphabet was aibgitir, which does not remotely resemble abecedarium. Aibgitir represents the letter order in the Greek alphabet, ABG, not the letter order of the Latin alphabet, ABC. The Celts were unlikely to use a word describing the Greek order of letters for an alphabet based on the Latin order of letters.
There are also scholars who hold that Ogham was invented in the post-Christian period in a surge of nationalism. Their argument for this is that the earliest monuments bearing Ogham inscriptions date from the fifth century AD. Therefore, they suggest, any mention of the Ogham in the earlier tales such as the Tain are anachronisms introduced by later authors.
Well, this is plain daft! The first concrete record of German folktales is in 1812 when the brothers Grimm had their collection published. Do we therefore assume that there were no German folktales before this time? If the script was a closely guarded religious secret in earlier centuries, they would hardly likely be going around chiselling it on public stones! In any case, people had better things to do in this period than go round inventing spurious alphabets; it was not a peaceful time!
It would be extremely dubious, not to say anachronistic, to call the Irish of this period 'nationalists'. This is imposing a view of Ireland conditioned by twentieth century politics on the society of the fourth and fifth century. Such conditions did not then exist. Ireland was composed of several tribal kingdoms that regularly vied for supremacy and any 'nationalistic' sentiment concerned these kingdoms and these kingdoms only. Since Ireland had never been occupied by the Romans why would they have a surge of nationalism? There was no occasion for such a sentiment. The British and Gauls, on the other hand, were repelling, or attempting to repel, the invasions that were taking place following the collapse of Rome. I think we can dispense with this theory as not worthy of consideration.
It is far more likely that, with the advent of Christianity, the Ogham were no longer the exclusive preserve of the druids. After all, several early converts had received a druidic education. Macalister was of a similar opinion; he considered that the use of the Ogham for public inscriptions was contemporary with the decline of druidism.
The inscriptions could have been more easily and more legibly inscribed in Latin characters. However, it was the official policy of the Church to take over pagan practices lock, stock and barrel and convert them to Christian use. Mind you, I do like to entertain the idea of some subversive filidh persuading the monks that it was a good idea to record the Ogham for posterity!
The fact that Lucius was writing about Ogmios (Ogma) in the middle of the second century AD should have suggested that a post-Roman date was a non-starter. I have seen an inscription that prior to the fifth century AD that uses some Ogham characters mixed with Latin; it is a potter's invoice from the reign of Tiberius. This is at least four hundred years before the Ogham stones of Britain and Ireland. I suspect that the potter was using the Ogham as 'the trite symbol of number', that is for accounting or reckoning purposes and that it was therefore already well established. The potter was obviously educated although I doubt if he would have known any of the deeper meanings. A similar situation prevails in the Red Branch tales where warriors can read the Ogham but it requires a druid to understand them.
It has generally proved very risky in the past for academics to discard tradition in favour of their theories. Theory is generally proven wrong. It is generally not a good idea to dispense with tradition at all unless there is a large body of evidence to the contrary and in this case there is not.
It is, however, probably no accident that the Ogham were recorded by the Irish. Firstly, fifth and sixth century Ireland was not being racked by the consequences of the dissolution of the western empire. Secondly, the Irish secular literature was written by the fili and is profoundly pagan. By comparison, the British bards had problems with the political situation, ongoing warfare, stiffer opposition from the Church to paganism and the loss of the best territories. Anything a British bard committed to writing is likely to have been lost when those territories were overrun. The situation on the continent was even worse.
So when was the Ogham created? Judging from the information contained within it, it was created sometime during the first millennium BC and probably somewhere after 500 BC. It could not have been created later than 55 BC, for the Celts would have used the Latin alphabet instead. It could not have been created before the seventh century BC because the Latin alphabet was not in use before that time. It is specifically stated that the Ogham came after the invention of the Latin alphabet although it is nowhere said that the Ogham were derived from the Latin alphabet. It is therefore most likely to have been created at the high water mark of the Hellenic culture, between the sixth century and the end of the Alexandrian period, in an area where Greek and Celt traded, used a common alphabet and philosophised. This agrees with R A S Macalister's opinion that it could not be earlier than 500 BC.
The use of a Q-Celtic language in the Ogham is therefore not surprising; P-Celtic was dominant on the Continent during Caesar's period, but before that Q-Celtic was probably the more widespread language. There were still traces of Q-Celtic in Spain and Gaul by Caesar's time. Q-Celtic has more anachronisms, which again suggests that it is probably the older form. For botanical reasons, which will be given later, it cannot have been created in Ireland or Britain. It must therefore have been created in a region where Q-Celtic was commonly spoken, which would have to have been a continental source. Again, it cannot therefore have been created after 55 BC and would have had to have been created considerably before that date. Consequently there is, again, no possibility of it being derived from the Latin alphabet since all historical sources are adamant that the Celts were using the Greek alphabet before this date.
The most likely place is in the region of Masillia (present day Marseilles). This was a coastal settlement amongst the Ligures that traded with Spain and the interior of Gaul. It was originally founded by Phokaia in approximately 600 BC and it was the major centre for trade and cultural contact between the Celts and Greeks. The merchants of Masillia founded colonies from Nice westwards. As the surviving Gaulish inscriptions show, Greek characters were in general use there long before the Romans arrived.
One consequence of founding Masillia was that the Rhone valley became an important trade route. The course of the Rhone reaches into what was Belgic territory and Masillia was the source of the many exotic items found in Hallstatt contexts. This trade route broke down about 500 BC possibly due to population movements and in particular the incursions of various Celtic tribes into southern France. It was however re-established later. The period from approximately 500-100 BC saw the rise of defended oppida in Languedoc that often dominated the trade routes.
As Masillia was an Ionian colony, the Ionic script was used. Ionia, or at least Miletus, had been acquainted with the early Greek alphabet at least as early as the eighth century BC; it may have been one of the first Greek territories to use it. Ionia was also one of the few Greek dialects that retained the use of vau (F). Masillia later became the cultural centre of the Roman Provincia; it was where Julius Caesar had his first contact with Celts. By the time of Boudicca it was a very powerful druidic centre and there had been a major nemeton outside the city since ancient times.
There is an account in Plutarch's Moralia concerning the Milesians that has always intrigued me. They were called the Perpetual Sailors since they deliberated about important matters by putting out to sea a great distance. On reaching a conclusion, they sailed back again. I am reminded of the Milesian invasion of Ireland when the Sons of Mil withdrew beyond the ninth wave to consider their response to the De Dananns.
Masillia may have been the most likely place for developing the Ogham but did the creators originate from there? The three divinities mentioned in the Ogham of particular interest; Belenos, Arduinna and Mogunos. Belenos was a pan-Celtic god in antiquity; he was worshipped from Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) to the Shetlands. There are monuments to him in the Auvergne. Arduinna is mainly known from the region of the Belgian border and the Ardennes Forest is named after her. However, there is an inscription to her in the Moselle region. Mogunos was also a divinity from northern Gaul and Rhineland, which is quite close to the old La Tene heartland; the city of Mainz was originally called Moguntiacum. The creator or creators therefore had to have come from northeast Gaul and the Rhineland, the territory of the Belgae.
Why would someone travel from northern Gaul to Masillia? Since Masillia was a cultural centre there was the possibility of learning new knowledge. Greek civilisation was reaching its zenith and the Milesian philosophers were amongst the foremost in the Mediterranean world. Many learned men went on much longer journeys during this period to seek knowledge. Masillia was also a religious centre for the Celts. The account of the meeting in the Auraicept na N'Eces at which the Ogham was created could be interpreted as a formal meeting of senior druids, possibly to consider new developments in philosophy and theology. Presumably this had been occasioned by the cross-fertilisation between Greek and Celtic culture. Then again, as we will see, there are a few surprises there.
The trees used for the Ogham corroborate the origin of the creators of the Ogham. The first twenty plants of the Ogham are only found together in four countries; France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Neither the Silver Fir nor its substitute, Elm, were native to Britain during the Iron Age. They were not introduced until the eighteenth century. Although the Grape was cultivated in Britain during the Roman period, it does not occur naturally here and it is doubtful that it was cultivated to any extent in pre-Roman. On the other hand, viticulture is extremely ancient in parts of Germany, Italy and France.
Ireland also lacked the Silver Fir and the Elm until the eighteenth century. It has never been a wine-producing area and the country additionally lacked the Mistletoe. In Italy Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) would have to be substituted for Holly (Ilex aquifolia) and one species of Mistletoe (Loranthus europaeus) for another (Viscum album) but otherwise all the species are present. Further east, Greece lacks the Birch, Ash, Oak and Heather while the eastern Mediterranean lacks even more species. Therefore on botanical grounds alone the Ogham had to have originated with someone who had lived in the region between France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. This area includes the old La Tene heartland. It also included the territory of the Belgae.
So how did the Ogham get to Ireland from Gaul? Well, this must remain a matter for conjecture since we do not know when it was first used there. Belgic tribes from northern Gaul colonised large areas of southern Britain a century or two before Caesar's campaign and some colonised Ireland as well. The Eoghanachta of Munster, for example, are thought to have originated from such a peaceful settlement from Gaul. There is a fairly strong tradition that druidism did not reach Ireland until some time in the third century BC and this may be related to the Belgic colonisation. This is, I think, the most likely route.
There were other, later, population movements that may have influenced developments in Ireland. Many Gaulish refugees fled to the British Isles following Caesar's Gallic wars in 55 BC. A century later many wealthy British Celts fled to Ireland to escape the Claudian invasion. The archaeological evidence shows that there was a large influx of British Celts from southeast Britain, which was the area of the Belgic tribes. In addition, under the Romans many different peoples lived in Britain, traded here and settled here. Ireland was not particularly remote and there was trade across the Irish Sea.
It is possible that the Ogham found its way to Ireland by the trade routes rather than by migrations. These routes were very ancient and by the sixth century BC there were frequent trading contacts with southwest Britain. Mediterranean trade goods have been found in North Molton, Devonshire while Cornwall had more Irish goods. Even so, four Greek lekythoi of the fifth century BC were found in Penwith. Regular trade routes were established with the West Country by the second century BC and it would be safe to assume there was a thriving trade between that region and Ireland.
The Irish were also trading with the Mediterranean on their own account. According to several versions of The Death of Conchobhar mac Nessa Tiberius Caesar frequently sent an official, Altus, to Conchobhar with an exchange of messages and treasure. This may have been the Romans asking for tribute or it may have been the usual trading between kings. Both were common practices of the period. Either way, the Irish were not isolated from events 'for at that time the King of the Romans were equally over the centre of the world and over the isles of the west and east, so that every famous story that would happen there was equally known in the world'.
The Irish did not remain uninfluenced by the Romans. Macalister did remark that Tech Midchuarta was built on the plan of a Roman basilica. Presumably, like many rulers next to a powerful neighbour, the High Kings liked to copy Roman methods. The British king Cunobelinus had done the same when he started to unite the country and styled himself with the Latin rex. The evolution of the Irish High Kingship may itself owe something to Roman political examples.
It has been suggested that the Fianna were a militia formed to repel a possible Roman invasion. This would have seemed a credible threat to the Irish High King. There was, after all, no reason why the Romans should have stopped at the Irish Sea. Agricola, who had been appointed as governor of Britain by Vespasian in 78 AD, led the legions deep into Scotland. It has been suggested that during this period he did a 'reconnaissance in strength' of Ulster although it seems as though the Roman forces did not penetrate very far inland.
Agricola certainly planned a full scale invasion and he had an exiled Irish leader providing him with intelligence. The proposed invasion was aborted when Imperial policy changed on Vespasian's death. Under the circumstances it would have been unwise to admit having already launched a military operation without waiting for the emperor's permission. Domitian, who came to the throne two years after Vespasian's death, would have probably used such an account as an excuse to execute Agricola. Domitian was like that and, according to Tacitus, he did not much like Agricola.
There is some slight evidence to support this idea, such as Juvenal's account and a coin of Vespasian's era found on the coast. A careful reading of the Agricola does not exclude the possibility. The tales of the Fianna are said to date to the first century AD, which also gives it credence. In one Fenian tale the fianna of Ireland are involved in a desperate battle with the forces of the King of the World who have occupied the seashore. It is certainly not impossible. However, the matter remains open and possibly unprovable. This may not be surprising. Not every Viking raid left evidence of its occurrence yet there is no doubt that they happened.
As I said, Ireland was not in the least isolated from the Roman world, nor would the Irish have been ignorant of what was happening beyond their borders. There were probably occasions during this period when they wished they were a bit more remote.
However, on balance, it would appear most likely that the Ogham found its way to Ireland with the Belgic colonisation. This is in keeping with the tradition that druidism first came to Ireland in the third century BC. As I said earlier, it is unwise to ignore tradition unless there is strong evidence for an opposing view.
It is highly probable that some very sophisticated knowledge found its way to Ireland during the period when the western empire was collapsing. Gaul was most cultured part of empire in the fifth century and it produced superior literary material. The universities at Bordeaux and Toulouse were the most important in the empire. The Gaulish aristocracy was highly educated and literate; they had large libraries and they read their books. They had refined tastes; they loved the classics and had an immense love of poetry, eloquence and rhetoric. The only complete Latin comedy that survived, apart from those of Plautus and Terence, was probably composed in Gaul to amuse a party at a villa between 420 AD and 430 AD. It is called Querolus or, alternatively Aulularia; The [Comedy of the] Little Pot. There were many other plays produced in Gaul at this time. This was a civilised and learned society.
The Gauls of the late Roman Empire were in no way decadent, contrary to some ignorant comments by a few early authors. On the contrary, the intellectual life of this period was very modern. It was marked by humour, a sense of values, a sense of proportion, a great respect for knowledge, a restrained worldliness, modesty and an absence of fanaticism. These civilised standards were not seen again for several hundred years and are largely and conspicuously lacking in the modern world.
The most intellectually brilliant Gauls were the Amorican druids, themselves the descendants of druids. As Ausonius relates, the druids of Brittany were still supplying professors to University of Bordeaux in the fourth century; they were personal friends of his. Ausonius' friend was the orator Delphidius. Delphidius' grandfather, Phoebicius, was the aedituus of Belenus at the temple of Belenus near Bordeaux. Phoebicius' descendants were amongst the greatest intellectuals of Gaulish society of the period; they were an enormously talented family. Phoebicius' son was Attius Patera, his grandson Delphidius and his great-grandson Alethius Minervius.
Ausonius was in a position to give us a lot of information about this period. He was himself a professor at Bordeaux who became the tutor to Gratian, the son of Valentinian I. He later became the comptroller of the household at Trier under Valentinian. In 378 AD, in the reign of Gratian he became the praetorian prefect of north Gaul (Belgica) and the Rhineland and a year later he was appointed consul for the same region. These positions were also based at Trier. Ausonius was a member of the political and intellectual elite of the fourth century AD.
Fourth century Gaul was predominantly pagan, as The Vita of St Martin of Tours makes clear. The worship of the old gods predominated. Their shrines and their priests were prevalent in the countryside. Trier itself had a large pagan sanctuary until the reign of Gratian. Christianity was a minority religion that was restricted to the towns and did not make much headway in the countryside. The situation was similar in Britain. Even in the fifth century Christianity was a minority religion, albeit an influential one.
It seems that, faced with invasion and religious intolerance, people such as the Amorican druids made their way to Ireland in the fifth century. This is confirmed by the Leyden Glossary, which was written in Gaul in the sixth or seventh century AD:
The Huns, who are the offspring of an infamous union i.e., of demons, after they had found their way by the guidance of a hind through the Maeotic marshes, attacked the Goths, whom they terrified exceedingly because of the unlooked-for horror which they inspired. From them the devastation of the whole empire took its beginning, and it was completed by the Huns and the Vandals, Goths and Alans, at whose devastation all the learned men on this side of the sea took flight, and in transmarine parts, namely, in Ireland and wherever they betook themselves, brought about a very great increase of learning to the inhabitants of those regions.
Ireland would have received a sudden influx of learning. It would have been the equivalent of having the combined academic staff of Oxford and Cambridge turn up on the doorstep. This would have an obvious and major impact on the Irish culture of the period, which is what is found. During the fifth and sixth centuries there arose in Ireland a literate and learned secular society such as had flourished in the Gaulish universities during closing years of the Roman Empire. This literary culture fostered the late classical learning of Gaul.
There is much peripheral evidence to support this. For example, in the Confessions of Patricius he records the presence in Ireland of scholars who are educated in Latin, who regard the saint with scorn for his illiteracy and who question the legitimacy of his mission. There is also the place name Bordgal in West Meath and Kilkenny. Bordgal is the Irish form of Burdigala, the original name for Bordeaux. Bordgal is also used as common noun in the sense of a meeting place or place of assembly.
However, this migration did not end contact with Gaul. Virgilius Maro, a sixth century scholar, was the last of the ancient Gaulish grammatici. He had direct and extensive contacts with Ireland and may even have lived in there at one point. His knowledge of Gaelic was such that he could make grammatical points about the language. Some of his poetic examples use verse forms that are very close to setna mor and deibide. All his poetry uses the internal rhyme and alliteration typical of Celtic poetry. Incidentally, I cannot help but wonder if he was the Virgil mentioned by Taliesin.
I would have to study his works in more detail but I suspect, from what I have seen, that he may have been a Gaulish druid and most probably a Breton. At the very least, he was educated in a school analogous to the filidh if he was not educated by the filidh themselves. There are indications. He describes a 'grammatical' technique, assena, which corresponds to methods such as cend fo muinne in the Auraicept. His description only makes sense if he is talking in terms of the Ogham. Another technique he mentions, semedia, again only makes sense in terms of the Ogham. Even his account of why his father, Martulis, named him Maro refers to an ancient Celtic legend that has connections with that of Menw ap Menwydd.
The works of Virgilius Maro were widely read in Ireland, which shows that they were understood by the Irish even if they baffle modern academics. His writings have only been preserved through Irish intermediaries. The orthographical errors common to all the manuscripts of his work show that they all depend on a common archetype written in Irish script. His work probably had considerable vogue in Ireland since they were used by several Hiberno-Latin grammarians and his influence shows mostly in works in the Irish language. Incidentally, it is interesting that the Irish tales make references to some druids and druidesses, such as Tlachtga, learning 'in the east'. It is a pity that we do not know where in the east, although Tlachtga was supposed to have gone to the continent.
In later centuries Ireland was the last home of learning in Europe and Irish scholars were in great demand in the Holy Roman Empire. It has often been said that the Irish saved European culture (and got little thanks for it!). Ireland may owe a lot to the Amorican druids. It is possible that the 'books of druid superstition' that Patrick was supposed to have burnt were copies – or originals - of Gaulish books brought over by the Bretons. A great loss.
It is doubtful if it was Patrick who was responsible for this book-burning. It was most probably the responsibility of some later cleric. Patrick's seventh century hagiographer, Muirchu, at the request of Bishop Aed of Sletty, was intent on building an official history for Patrick since Patrick's Confession had some potentially embarrassing implications for the Church. Muirchu's Life of Patrick is what is called a 'noble lie'; propaganda. Patrick had to be a conquering hero demolishing druids everywhere but then Muirchu does seem to have had a rather adolescent mentality.
Again, I am not suggesting that the Irish remained unacquainted with the Ogham until the fifth century AD. Traditions and the tales say that they had the use of the Ogham centuries before. However, the Amorican druids would have brought a refined understanding of philosophy and religion with them. In time perhaps the knowledge of the Amorican druids was communicated to some of the British druids although some of them, such as the Cornish, may have already had close contacts with Brittany. If you recall, both the poems of Ieuan and Taliesin suggest that there was a time-honoured custom of going to Ireland for an education and this may be its explanation.
That covers thesource of the Ogham. What about the original alphabet? Is there anything that we can say about that?
I shall have to disappoint you here. The original alphabet from which the Ogham is derived is itself is lost. I would hate to think how long it has been a redundant bit of knowledge. It is possible though to make a very educated guess at its form. However, this requires studying the history and mythology of writing which in turn means starting with the Mediterranean Bronze Age.
According to Anticlides, writing was invented by Menos in Egypt, '15,000 years before Phoroneus, the earliest Greek king'. The Greeks were typically out by at least a factor of ten when translating Egyptian figures. I am not sure of the supposed date of Phoroneus but I would guess that they are dating the invention of writing to somewhere in third millennium BC. The date is about right if the writing under discussion is either hieroglyphic or cuneiform. Menos is a mythical king who was supposed to have united the North and South kingdoms of Egypt.
The earliest Greek writing is derived from a North Semitic source, the Phoenician alphabet; it looks quite runic and had twenty-two letters. The Phoenician script was a variation of the North Semitic script and, like other scripts in the family (e.g. Hebrew), it did not include vowels. The Phoenician alphabet was probably learnt by Greek traders operating from the Aegean islands and who were established on the Syro-Phoenician coast. They adapted it to fit the phonetic requirements of the Greek language. It subsequently spread throughout Greece and her colonies.
The Phoenicians were a major maritime trading nation. In 600 BC they circumnavigated Africa, from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, on a voyage of exploration for Necos, the Pharaoh of Egypt. The journey took them three years. Herodotus (Book 4, 42) did not entirely believe this account since the Phoenicians reported seeing the sun on the right as they sailed west round what is now the Cape of Good Hope. Herodotus was in error since this is exactly what would be observed in the southern hemisphere. It is now considered that the Phoenicians did make the journey. They must have been extremely brave and competent sailors; I should not like to go round the Cape in a Phoenician ship of the period!
According to legend, Cadmus introduced sixteen letters of the Phoenician alphabet to Greece. Greece had close relations with Palestine and the Phoenicians as least as early as the late Bronze Age; the Greeks referred to the Phoenicians as the Phoinike. The Romans used a similar term, hence the Punic Wars; Carthage was a Phoenician colony.
The earliest datable inscription in the primitive Greek script is on a leg of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, where some soldiers in the army of king Psammetichos (presumably Psammetichos II 593-589 BC) left graffiti. Soldiers have obviously not changed much! The use of primitive Greek script may go back to the seventh century BC, although some colonies were apparently using the script at the end of the eighth century BC.
Cadmus, who was the brother of Europa, also supposedly founded Thebes. For good measure, he married Harmonia, the daughter of Ares, which was presumably what up-and-coming young men of those days considered a good career move. Unfortunately his father-in-law became rather miffed over an adventure Cadmus had with a giant serpent just before he founded Thebes. It is never wise to upset a god, particularly one with as little brain or as little sense of humour as the Greek Ares. Eventually Cadmus and Harmonia became serpents, which is an allegorical way of saying they became immortal.
The ancestry of Cadmus is interesting; the river god, Inachus, the son of Ocean, had a son Phoroneus, who founded Argos and became the first mythical king of Greece. The son of Phoroneus was Pelasgus. The sister of Pelasgus gave birth to Belus of Egypt, whose children were Aegyptus and Danaus, and to Agenor of Phoenicia, whose children were Cadmus and Europa. This means that Cadmus was the great-grandson of the inventor of writing.
Belus, whom we will meet later, later became king of Tyre, the principal city of Phoenicia. The House of Danaus was descended from Belus while the House of Minos was descended from his brother Agenor. In a later legend forty-nine of the fifty daughters of Danaus slew their cousins, the fifty sons of Aegyptus. This seems to be the usual state of family relationships in Greek legend! The odd daughter out was Hypermnestron whose descendants were Abas, Acrisius and Danae. Danae was the mother of Perseus who was supposedly the ancestor of the Macedonian kings. All the heroes in Greek myth were descended from Belus and Agenor.
In another and possibly older version, Io gave birth to a son, Epaphus. He was raised by the king of Byblus (Babylon). Io married Telegaus in Egypt; her son married Memphis, daughter of the Nile and founded the city named after her. Epaphus and Memphis had a daughter, Libya; she had twin sons, Agenor and Belus, by Poseidon, god of the sea. Agenor reigned in Phoenicia and Belus in Egypt. The latter married Anchinoe, another daughter of the Nile. Agenor had three sons, Cadmus, Phoenix and Cilix who became the ancestors of the Thebans, Phoenicians and Cilicians respectively. Some classical authors have Cadmus and Europa as the children of Phoenix, all of which shows that there were major links between the Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians in a very remote period.
Herodotus (Book 5, 56-58) suggests that Cadmus was a Phoenician who brought into Greece the alphabet 'which had hitherto been unknown . . . to the Greeks; and presently as time went on the sound and the form of the letters were changed'. Herodotus had seen Cadmean characters in the temple of Ismenian Apollo at Thebes in Boeotia and 'for the most part they looked like Ionian letters'. This is not surprising since the Greeks living near the Cadmeans were Ionian; they adopted the letters with a few changes of form. The Ionians then spread the alphabet round the Mediterranean. More importantly, they founded Miletus which, in its turn, founded the colony at Masillia.
The Egyptian traditions, according to Herodotus (Book XI, xiv-xv) also connected Cadmus with the earliest Greek alphabet. The Egyptians held that they were the first people 'to represent thought by symbols' and that they invented the alphabet. The Phoenicians, 'who were predominant at sea' learnt the alphabet from the Egyptians and taught it to the Greeks. According to the Egyptians, it was Cadmus 'arriving with a Phoenician fleet, who taught the art to the still uncivilised Greek peoples'. The Phoenicians therefore 'gained the credit of discovering what they had borrowed'.
According to Greek accounts, Palamedes added four letters to the Cadmean alphabet; Z, Y, F and X. Simonides then added a further four; A, X, W and Q. This brought the total up to twenty-four. At some point the Greeks abandoned the use of H. The Greeks therefore considered that the earliest alphabet consisted of sixteen letters, one of which was H. The Phoenician alphabet was inherited without vowels and therefore contained sixteen characters, confirming the Greek accounts. The vowels were probably excluded since in antiquity they were associated with sacred mysteries.
The earliest form of the Ogham, according to tradition, was composed of the fifteen letters of the consonants, Ogham Consaine. Now it is possible that the original fifteen letters of the Ogham were identical with the letters introduced by Cadmus. The Celts of the period would have subtracted the letter P because it was unnecessary, leaving a total of fifteen consonants, as found in the Ogham. Interestingly there would be a total of sixteen letters if P were included. This is both the number of letters traditionally assigned to the Cadmean alphabet and the maximum value of the numbers connected esoterically with the Ogham.
The possible form of the alphabet from which the Ogham were derived is shown above. This is a variation on the the Ionic script of the western Mediterranean. The letter Ng existed in the earliest Greek scripts but became obsolete fairly early on. I have taken Str as the equivalent of Z, which is attested in the sources. The original order would, of course, have been that of the Greek alphabet. However, I have retained the letter-order of the Ogham as it will make later explanations easier.
I have not, unfortunately, been able to see any examples of Gaulish inscriptions from this period so this is a 'best guess'. If anyone wants to come up with a better idea of the original alphabet, be my guest.
The names of several of the Ogham are almost identical to those of the equivalent letters in the Semitic alphabet. The names Beith, Idho, Muin, Nuinn and Ruis are very close to the Semitic names for the same letters, Beth, Iod, Mem, Nun and Resh. They're far closer than the equivalent Greek names, Beta, Iota, Mu, Nu and Rho. Idho, Iota and Iod are obviously closely related names, which again indicates that the Ogham had a connection with both the primitive Greek alphabet and the Phoenician alphabet. The relationship of the Ogham letter names to both the Phoenician and the early Greek scripts further discounts any connection with the Latin alphabet. The Ogham must therefore belong to a much earlier period.
It is possible that the Gauls may have been acquainted with letters before the foundation of Masillia. There is some confirmation for this in the sources. According to Xenophon and Archilochus, the letters which Cadmus brought from Phoenicia to Greece resembled Gaulish rather than Punic (Phoenician) characters. If this is the case, then the alphabet upon which Ogham is based may not be identical with Formello-Cervetri script. It may be that the Greeks and the Gauls may have both derived their letters independently of each other from the Phoenician script.
Is there anything that we can learn about the people who invented the Ogham? I mentioned earlier that their genealogies would bear a little examination and would offer a few surprises. I have had to leave it until now because some of this depends on the preceding paragraphs.
According to legend Feniusa's son, Nel ro Nin, married Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh. In the Dindsenchas Scota, the eponymous ancestress of the Scots, is married to Mil, the leader of the Milesians. The Dindsenchas also contains the tale of Temair Breg where Tephi occupies Scota's role and Macalister makes a strong case for the two being identical (Proc. RIA XXXIV, 1919). Gaedel mac Ether, who is also concerned with the invention of the Ogham, looks like the eponymous ancestor of the Gaels.
Since both Nel ro Nin and Mil are married to the same woman, they are equivalent. It follows logically that Feniusa and Bile, as their respective fathers, are also equivalent. What can be learnt about the rest of the family?
In both the Auraicept and the Dindsenchas Scota is the daughter of Forenn, Forann or Forand. Forand is usually interpreted as 'Pharaoh'. Fortunately there are a few Pictish inscriptions that throw some light on Scota's ancestry. The Newton stone has the inscription AIDDARN VORENN. The stones from Scoonie in Fifeshire and Brodie Park in Elginshire have a variant of Aiddarn, Edarnon, which preserves the Old Celtic -on suffix for a god.
Now the meaning of Edarn is known, since a variant of it appears in the ancestry of Cunedda; it means 'eternal'. Edarn eventually became Etherun in Gaelic; run means 'secret'. Ether is the elder brother of Feniusa's father, Brath. Gaedel and Scota would have the same father; he is just called by different names. Ether's name may also have been the root of Eiddyn, the old Brythonic name for Edinburgh.
The other part of the name, Vorenn, is cognate with the Brythonic Bran. In Welsh, Bran can be pronounced as 'vran'; the B mutates to an F which is pronounced as V. Scota, the daughter of Forenn is the ancestress of the Scots as Branwen, the daughter of Bran, is one of the Ancestresses of Ynys Prydain. The two genealogies would therefore seem to be equivalent. In Brythonic tradition Bran's younger twin was Beli and Feniusa's father would seem to occupy this position.
The etymology of the names agree with this. Brath is derived from the Old Irish for 'brother', brathair while Forenn may be related to foirenn which means a portion or division. On the other hand for is an Old Irish adjective meaning above or over.
Now Bile is usually regarded as cognate with Beli and this is an accepted equivalence. However Bile is the term for a sacred tree and the Welsh root for 'trees' is gwydd. In modern Welsh the words for wisdom and trees are intertwined, being derived from the same root. Gwyddon means 'magician', gwyddor means 'science' and yr wyddon is 'the alphabet', the latter being a mutated form of gwydd. These are all fields in which Gwyddion is renowned, just as Feniusa is. Additionally, the fedha or 'wood vowels' were the creation of Feniusa and the term is linguistically related to gwydd, the root from which Gwydion's name is derived. The two individuals are intertwined. Since Feniusa is equivalent to both Gwydion ap Don and to Bile then Gwydion ap Don and Bile must also be equivalents.
In Old Celtic the picture is even more complex. The root for 'tree' has given rise to the words for 'vowels', 'voice', 'speech', 'invocation', 'poetry', 'letters', 'science' and 'magician'. In the Teutonic languages the equivalent root is associated with poetry, frenzy and madness. Not surprisingly, the nearest equivalents to Gwydion and Feniusa would be Mercury and Wotan. Both divinities were connected with communication and alphabets and Wotan's name is closely related to Gwydion's.
Gwydion's father is not given in The Mabinogion. However, his sister is Arianrhod who is described as the daughter of Beli in Trioedd Ynys Prydain. It would therefore be a reasonable assumption that Beli would also be Gwydion's father. This means that the genealogies of Gwydion, Feniusa and Bile are identical. Equating Bile with Beli might therefore seem to be a case of bad etymology. Or is it? It is not a good idea to accept things at face value with Celtic sources and I shall deal with this shortly. However, there are a few other points to raise first.
Now according to the fourteenth century Book of Ballymote, the Ogham is also supposed to have been invented by Ogma mac Elatha mac Delbaeth, the brother of Bres. He also appears in the Auraicept. Ogma, one would assume is the equivalent of Feniusa. Is there any evidence of this?
Ogma is also called Grian-aineach or Sun-Faced and there is a depiction of him at Richborough showing him as Sol Invictus. The idea of the strengthening sun is frequently connected in antiquity with the growing of crops. However 'sun' is feminine in both Welsh and Gaelic and the divinity of the sun was a goddess. There is therefore a feminine element in Ogma; although male, he has the nature and face of a goddess. In short, he is effectively bisexual. The same sexual ambiguity appears in the mythology of the equivalent deities mentioned. The original astrological symbol for Mercury combined the symbols for Mars and Venus, male and female, which indicated this divinity’s bisexual nature. The Welsh word for Mercury, Merchyr, is thought to be derived from merch-ur meaning 'woman/man'. In The Mabinogion Gwydion and his male cousin, Gilfaethwy, were turned into animals by Math following the rape of Goewin. Gwydion both fathers children on Gilfaethwy and becomes pregnant by him.
Feniusa makes a reappearance in a late Irish legend that includes a change of sex. Feniusa is given as one of Adam's daughters. Her three sisters are Letiusa, Aliusa and Eliusa. Feniusa's Otherworldly silver fort is the abode of righteous kings and has apple-trees that produce wine. It might be remarked that she is obviously a goddess and therefore cannot be one of Adam's daughters.
This is not in the least unusual. It is known that the Gauls had such hermaphroditic or bisexual divinities and, as Macalister pointed out, even the Stone of Fal was sexually ambiguous. It proclaimed the true king and as we know from Irish legend, the Goddess of Sovereignty selected the next king. Despite its phallic shape and explicit references to it as 'the stone penis', the king was supposed to marry it as part of the rites at Tara. No doubt an anthropologist would have a field day pointing out that this was a re-enactment of a primal myth, the ancestor and the first king being born of 'Tree'. It also goes towards explaining why the king's behaviour and the land's fertility were tied together. It also gets into some philosophically deep waters concerning 'Truth' which I do not chose to explore just yet.
The idea of such a hermaphroditic divinity survived into the Christian period. The poem Yr Awdil Vraith, which appears in both the Peniarth MSS and in The Red Book of Hergest, contains the following odd stanza about Eve:
Twice five, ten and eight,
She was self-bearing
The mixed burden
This stanza rather puzzled Robert Graves. I am not sure how he missed the specific reference to Eve being self-bearing, that is, both male and female. Eve has been conflated with this ancient deity since in the Christian cosmology there was nowhere else to put him/her. It presumably made sense to the author since Cain was the ancestor of mankind and the hermaphroditic divinity produces the ancestor. However, from the point of view of the Church, this is a very heretical piece of poetry. It also makes Adam a bit surplus to requirements if Eve can become pregnant by herself, which undermines the whole story of Genesis. By the way, there are at least two available Welsh puns in that stanza, both of which are very pagan.
Graves thought that the reference to twenty-eight meant that Eve had given birth to twenty-eight children. He therefore used it as a point from which to develop his own theories. On the contrary, it is a lunar number. However, this is not the place to develop arguments about this symbolism but they do fit together.
Peniarth MSS ascribes the poem to Jonas Athraw who lived in the thirteenth century. This may be in error since the theme of Yr Awdil Vraith is almost identical to a poem by Oengus the Culdee in Saltair na Rann which is tenth century or possibly earlier. Substantial amounts of pagan mythology found its way into the Celtic Church and Celtic Christianity has been described as a blend of Christianity with paganism where the paganism predominated. It does raise some interesting questions concerning the persistence of druidic religion if the date given by Peniarth MSS is accurate though. After all, it was only a century earlier that a druidic community had existed at Mona Inch.
However, we have not yet finished with Ogma. We have an account from Lucian in the second century AD that Ogma was the equivalent of Heracles. His second epithet was Trenfher or 'strong man' although as Lucian's Celtic acquaintance informed him, his strength is that of eloquence. Feniusa is described as coming from Scythia. Heracles' most famous adventures were set in Scythia, including a passionate fling with the queen of the Amazons. The Scythians consequently regarded him as an ancestor. Heracles, by the way, was also connected with Gades (modern day Cadiz). The lad seems to have got about a bit!
Now this seems to be a bit contradictory. The usual accounts of Heracles make him sound like a one-man Club 18-30 holiday. However, Heracles was not just a hero who strode about the countryside getting drunk and blipping monsters over the head. He was the son of Zeus and a vegetative divinity of very great importance in several religions of antiquity. In the Orphic theology of Hieronymus and Hellenicus Chronos is a winged, multi-headed bisexual snake who is also called Heracles. To put it another way, Heracles is another aspect of Chronos. Chronos, together with Necessity and Adrasteia, formed water, chaos and ether into an egg from which comes the god:
. . . for water was the origin for the totality of things according to [Orpheus], and from water slime was established, and from both of them was generated a living creature, a snake with a lion's head growing onto it and in the middle of them the face of a god, Herakles and Chronos by nature.
By the second century AD Heracles was regarded by some religions as the divine ruler of the Earth. In many instances he was seen as taking over the functions of Zeus with respect to Earth. Nonnus in Dionysiaca calls him:
Herakles, star adorned, king of fire, ruler of the universe, thou sun, who with thy far-flung rays art the guardian of mortal life with flashing beam revolving the wide circuit of thy course . .
A little later Nonnus equates Heracles with Bel Marduk, the original version of Baal. Now this is interesting since it is possible that Feniusa is a corruption of or a pun on 'Phoenician'. Bellat, the wife of Feniusa, was the mother of 'envenomed' Nel according to the Auraicept. Now Bellat is equivalent to Baal'at, wife of Baal; Baal and Bellat were the principal Phoenician god and goddess. If Feniusa does mean Phoenician, then Feniusa Farsaidh literally means the Eldest Phoenician or Baal. Baal therefore invented the letters from which the Ogham was derived, which is another way of saying that their letters were derived from a North Semitic script. Semitic scripts did also have religious applications, as is shown by Hebrew, which may be why a god might be suggested as their author. Feniusa's son marrying the daughter of Pharaoh may be a reference to the Phoenician alphabet supposedly originating from an Egyptian source.
Unfortunately I know little about Baal apart from his relationship with Bel Marduk. Fortunately I do know something about the latter. He was a Babylonian vegetative god who became the supreme divinity and the source of order in the created universe. Like Heracles, he was also known for turning monsters into endangered species. However, Baal was later equated with Anu, the Babylonian Lord of Knowledge.
One must therefore assume that the Celtic Divinity of Knowledge includes elements of the vegetative divinity. This was not an uncommon theme in antiquity although it has been largely forgotten in the modern world. Mercury's caduceus of two entwined snakes is a good example. There are also several examples in the Celtic mythology, such as Gwydion's theft of pigs from Annwn. Divine knowledge imparts life, science and law to earth whereas the vegetative divinity takes all forms and is in all life. However, the Divinity of Knowledge is governed by a higher law; Math is Gwydion's king and there are older laws than Wotan. The Divinity of Knowledge is also distinct from the vegetative divinity; it is the difference between the Tree and the God in the Tree. Again, this is getting into philosophically deep water and an explanation will have to be left for later.
So why is there all this twaddle about Nimrod's Tower? Well, the purpose of the Tower of Babel was to reach heaven. Bile, the Sacred Tree stretches from heaven to Earth. The Sacred Tree was the source of the ancestors and therefore of the different languages. Where else would you find Feniusa and what better image could you find to illustrate what is meant, while disguising it from priests and the uninitiated? Why else would this divinity have been associated with Eve in Yr Awdil Vraith?
Of course, there would be no better divinity than the Divinity of Knowledge for instructing people in the Ogham, unless it were Manawyddan, and this is exactly what is found. Manannan, his Irish alter ego, is associated with the Ogham through his crane-bag while Manawyddan is connected with the discovery of the primary gogyrfen. However, that is yet another very deep subject that will have to be left for later. No, this does not mean that Manannan is the same as Ogma. Manannan only keeps the Ogham in his crane-bag; he did not invent them. He is, however, associated with the forfeda and that is one secret that the Divinity of Knowledge would not be expected to know.
I raised the question earlier of whether the identification of Beli with Bile was false etymology or not. This is unlikely to be the case. You see we are comparing three sources of different ages. Much of The Mabinogion relates to the seventh and eighth century, although parts of it are later. The oldest texts in the Auraicept na N'Eces probably date from between the sixth and eighth centuries, so the two works are roughly contemporary. The Dindsenchas on the other hand contains material that is far more ancient. The later sources differentiate between the divine source, the Divinity of Knowledge that imparts that source to Earth and the vegetative divinity that is Life itself. This corresponds to the three names of god, Teo, Daur and Tiamud, given in an Irish manuscript translated by Whitley Stokes. However, in earlier times there would have been less differentiation between the last two. This more primitive view is found in the Dindsenchas and in the Ogham itself. It also is in broad agreement with Strabo's description of druidism in his Geography.
The genealogy of the Divinity of Knowledge has been deliberately obscured in the Auraicept na N'Eces. The only thing left to establish is whether this obfuscation was deliberate or not. Given the amount of blunt paganism that I have found in the Auraicept, hidden in full sight, I suspect that it was. Hiding things in full sight was a favourite druidic trick. It would be useful to obscure the whole lot with extraneous Biblical references that would throw priests off the track and equally useful to use Classical allusions that none but the learned would understand.
Well, we have now looked at the supposed inventor of the Ogham and we have found ourselves dealing with cosmology and the start of religious mysteries. Is there anything in the mythology to suggest when it was created?
Now it is said in the Auraicept na N'Eces that 'there was not any king over the world until the time of Nin mac Bel, only counsellors and chiefs. There were seventy-two counsellors in the world at the time of the tower and Nimrod was one'. The first king considered to have ruled the world, or at least the known world, was of course Alexander. All subsequent rulers tried to recreate his achievement. It was a staggering achievement; between 334 BC and 323 BC he conquered an area between Greece and Egypt to the Indus Valley and up into southern Russia.
There have been many legends about Alexander. He became a religious hero in many cultures, which is not surprising considering that he claimed divinity. In many other legends, as we shall see, he is described as being descended from a god.
Alexander is called 'the man with two horns' in the Hebrew version of Secretum Secretorum, a medieval manuscript fictitiously ascribed to Aristotle, Alexander's teacher. However, despite its late date, parts of it are very much older. The Secretum Secretorum informs us that in Arabic 'the man with two horns' is rendered as Dzul Karnain. The same epithet for Alexander appears in Koran although it was probably derived from a Hebrew source.
The epithet may have originated from a Hebrew spelling error where maqron (horned) was substituted for maqdon (Macedonian). However, this is unlikely and there is a much older reason for the name. Alexander had the Horn of Ammon on his coins and there is an old legend that the god was his father. Ammon, so the legend runs, came to the wife of Philip of Macedon, bathed in light with three horns on his forehead, one of silver, two of gold. An alternative version says that there was a light on the god's forehead and he had two horns. The god's purpose was to obtain from her a son that would rule the entire world. Nine months later Alexander was born. Philip's response to the news that he had been cuckolded by a god is not recorded.
The legend of Alexander's divine descent was quite widespread and it was current in his lifetime. Nor did it end with his death. It appears in an old Hebrew manuscript of the twelfth century AD where Philipus is described as Polipos, king of Egypt. In this manuscript the god told Philip's wife that the child should be called Alexandron 'for Alexandron in the Egyptian language signifies lord over all'. The same manuscript calls the god Digonia, which may be a corruption of 'two-horns'.
Is there any other support for identifying Nin mac Bel with Alexander? The genealogy of Nin mac Bel is given as mac Bel mac Plosc mac Pluliris mac Agomolis mac Fronosis. There are interesting comparisons with the genealogy of Cadmus; Plosc could be Pelasgus and Fronosis Phoroneus, which would mean that two generations have been interpolated between them. This would make Nin mac Bel the equivalent of Aegyptus, son of Belus of Egypt. Ammon, Alexander's supposed father, was the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus and the two divinities were equated in antiquity. The Phoenician Baal had also been equated with Zeus as Zeus Belus. Ammon, the claimed father of Alexander, can therefore be described as Belus of Egypt. I did say that we would meet him again.
Alexander's Egyptian connection was further strengthened since he was buried in Egypt at Alexandria, the city that he founded. He also worshipped at the temple of Ammon; there is nothing like keeping in with dad! In addition, there was also an early Egyptian legend that Alexander's father was Nectanebus, the last native ruler of Egypt. Identifying Alexander with Aegyptus, son of Belus of Egypt, is therefore not in the least improbable. There is, by the way, also the interesting matter of dialect to consider. Apparently the Macedonians pronounced P as B so Philip's name, as pronounced by a contemporary Macedonian, began with a B.
Now to complicate matters, the kings of Macedon claimed descent from Perseus, a descendant of Belus and nephew of Cadmus. 'Perseus' has two meanings. His original name was Pterseus, which means 'the Destroyer'. However, Perseus means 'by Zeus'; he was another of that god's myriad offspring. I am not too surprised if the ancestries of Cadmus and Alexander have been somewhat confounded since theoretically both are descended from the daughter of Pelasgus. If this is the case then several generations have been omitted between Belus and Alexander, probably because of the confusion caused by Alexander's status as the son of 'Belus of Egypt'. One wonders if Alexander saw himself as the reincarnation of Perseus, the ancestor of the Macedonian kings.
Alexander the Great therefore qualifies as the best candidate for 'mac Bel'. I am unsure quite how to translate nin; its most obvious meaning would be 'forked' which would be an appropriate allusion to two horns. The meanings of the Ogham Nuinn could also be extended to fit Alexander. The ambiguity may even be deliberate.
Now it might be asked if the filidh were familiar enough with the Classical material to have played such games with it. The answer has to be yes. It is, as I mentioned earlier, almost certain that Ireland received an influx of highly educated men in the very late Imperial period. Some of the tracts that comprise the Auraicept na N'Eces were written one or two centuries after this migration, although they were not collected together until the tenth century. The education and the sources would certainly have been available and the motive, concealing things from the uninitiated, was definitely there. As the Auraicept says, the intention was 'that this . . . should belong to the learned apart, to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen'. They were not about to leave information lying about for anyone who could merely read a book, particularly since the general level of literacy would seem to have been higher than might be supposed. In the Tain the warriors could read Cuchulainn's Ogham but it required a druid to understand it; the ability to merely read was not enough.
Similar methods have been used throughout human history by the educated for various reasons. There was, for example, a British military commander in nineteenth century India who sent a one word signal on the conclusion of his campaign – “peccavit”;. For those who have no Latin, it means 'I have sinned'; the commander had just taken the city of Sind contrary to the advice of the War Office.
I have as yet reached no firm conclusion about Nin mac Bel apart from considering it possible. The above points are merely thoughts; they may or may not have some merit. The matter needs more research than I am presently prepared to give it. If, on further research it seems as if the identification to Alexander is strengthened, it would confirm the fourth century BC origin of the Ogham. It may well belong to the period between Alexander's conquest of Egypt and the foundation of Alexandria to his death. This is the upper limit of the range expected from the information contained independently within the Ogham.
Why is the Alexandrian period the upper limit? There are two reasons for this, both of which are relatively obscure. Before the sixth century BC the Morning Star and the Evening Star were thought to be two separate planets. The former, which was called Posphorous, was thought to be where the Tree of Immortality and life was to be found. The Evening Star, on the other hand, was Hesperos, where the Hesperides or the Island of Apples was located. Compare the role of the Rowan in the tale of Diarmuid and Grainne with the mythology of Avalon. The Ogham for Luis and Quert still preserve this distinction although they are subtly linked linguistically by the name for the Rowan. In Irish Gaelic the Rowan is caerthann while in Welsh it is cerddinen, both of which would have originally begun with a Q. This would suggest that the Ogham were created after the sixth century BC, but not too long after.
In the Alexandrian period, and specifically within the lifetime of Aristotle, the goddess Aphrodite became associated with the planet Venus. This had not formerly been the case and the innovation was due to Babylonian influence. The association is taken for granted these days. There is no evidence of her presence in the meaning of the Ogham although she does appear in later Welsh legend as Gwendydd. Therefore the Ogham had to be created before the association of the goddess with the planet became commonly accepted. This means that it was created no later than the Alexandrian period or the last third of the fourth century BC.
This period was a very fruitful time for philosophers and other intellectuals. Alexander appears to have had great respect for learning and religion, probably due to Aristotle's influence and Alexander founded the great library at Alexandria. This coincided with a period when travel from the rest of Gaul to Masillia was at its safest and when Celtic culture was also at its zenith. The journey to Masillia probably could not have been made a hundred years earlier due to warfare and it is unlikely that the Ogham could have been created in the preceding century. It would therefore seem that the earliest, and the latest, that the Ogham could have been created was the fourth century BC when the Celtic culture was at its peak. It is most likely that the Belgic migrations then carried it to Ireland a century or so later. This agrees with the tradition that druidism entered Ireland in the third century BC.
Is there more that can be learnt about the invention of the Ogham? Well, there is that throwaway line in the Auraicept that it was invented 'in Achaidh and at the causeway of the Great Estuary by Amergin son of Mil'. Note the 'and'; it does not say that the two places are the same but that the Ogham was invented in two places. Again, there is an element of misdirection. The first part is correct; the letters from which the Ogham are derived came from Greece, otherwise known as Achea.
The second part of the statement is not too difficult to fathom either. To the west of Marseilles was a huge area of marshland, islands and lakes created by the delta of the Rhône where it enters the Mediterranean. Some of this marshland still exists as the Camargue. In the middle of this region was Istria (modern Istres), the name of which is from the same root as 'estuary'. Unless the author meant to indicate the Rhône which linked Belgic territory to Masillia, the causeway of the Great Estuary could well be in this region. Then again, it could also refer to Masillia itself.
One wonders if Einigen, the continental Celt who invented the ten gogyrfen, was actually Amergin. I suspect that he was, particularly since the Auraicept tells us that Amergin was also called Aingin. I will show the relationship between the Ogham and the gogyrfen later. However, I will first have to explain the principles upon which the Ogham are created and the theology behind it.