Introduction to ogham

There are a few different schools of thought on ogham1 – as there are with most forms of divination. The original way (or ways) of using ogham for divination were lost, so reconstructionists have done what they can using old legends, songs, poems, and historical texts of dubious accuracy. The resulting systems are fascinating in their own rights, and can each offer deep and meaningful readings. 

The most common2 of the modern systems uses an old, out-dated understanding of the ogham alphabet that associates each of the letters with a tree (or other type of plant) as it’s name. To put it another way… where we call A ‘ay’ and B ‘bee,’ in this system, A is ‘ailm,’ which means ‘pine tree’ in English, and B is ‘beithe,’ or ‘birch tree’ in English.

Each letter’s meaning in divination was then constructed from folklore associated with that tree. The system is fairly easy to learn because a great deal of tree-lore survives to this day (though, often in a bastardised form). Phrases like ‘strong as an oak’ or ‘heart of oak’ are still in use, even though large numbers of urban people wouldn’t know what an oak was if it fell on them. Children’s books are still full of illustrations of willows dangling over streams, and fairies dancing in rowan branches. Even here, in Australia, European trees are everywhere in decor and gardening magazines. Never mind that eucalypts are much easier to grow in this climate.

I digress. The ‘tree alphabet’ or ‘arboreal tradition’3 school of thought has since been disputed, due to new evidence found in old manuscripts and engravings. Current academic thought only associates some of the ogham letters with trees. The rest have associations that relate to man-made objects, body parts, emotions, and so-on. This change in the academic understanding of the script drastically changes the literal divinatory meanings of a lot of the letters, so a new school of ogham divination was developed.

That doesn’t mean that the arboreal meanings are useless, or that they never had any value. Divinatory systems don’t gain power through age or scholastic accuracy. They might gain power over time through improvements to the system made by their users, like how the court cards in tarot have lost their hair-colour associations over time (those were restrictive and kind of useless, so it’s good they were abandoned by most tarot readers). But, if a system died out completely and has since been re-started, we’ve lost all those little details. Arboreal ogham is now older than the more scholastically accurate form of ogham. It has had more time to be improved on by readers. But divinatory systems don’t need long periods of improvement by users to reach a point where they’re good either – if it’s built well from the beginning, it’s a good system. Consider modern oracle cards: Some oracle card decks are fantastic, others are kind of… meh. It’s to do with the depth of meanings available in the deck, and the way the cards are meant to be read.

Divinatory systems are all just tools that help a person see signs that they can readily interpret. If you create a good enough set of meanings and system of interpretation, anything can become a great tool for divination. Dominoes, playing cards, tea leaves – these were new systems once. They survived because they were easy to access, and worked pretty well. There’s no reason why ‘tree alphabet’ ogham can’t live on.

There’s also no reason why the newer, more academically rigorous version of ogham should be rejected. As with all systems of divination, choose what feels right for you. I’m a gigantic nerd, so I’m personally more drawn to the new form. I want to feel like I’m a little closer to re-creating the original way things were done. But, I still love the old ‘tree alphabet,’ and there’s no reason why I can’t use both systems. So long as I’m clear before I begin a reading as to which system I will be using.

If you’d like to have a go at reading ogham yourself, there are a two websites I recommend for the arboreal tradition – ThoughtCo has a really nice, in-depth set of meanings, and What’s your sign? has a good set of simple keywords, plus some more in-depth info.

The scholastic tradition is a little harder to find online, so for that, I recommend the book Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie.

May the staves fall in your favour,

  1. It’s also spelled ‘ogam’ – I use the spelling with an H because it’s more common and less likely to generate useless search results on google. But, both are correct.
  2. At least, it seems most common to me. I haven’t done a scientifically validated poll or anything.
  3. I’ve seen it called both, which can be a little confusing for lay-people (those are people who aren’t academics in the field in question). Academics often like coining their own special terms to talk about the same thing. Sometimes with good reason… other times it’s just to make themselves look different and smart. I think this is a case where people just wanted to look smart.

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