The history of the Ogham alphabet is unclear; even scholars cannot agree exactly when it was first used, and their estimates of an originating date range between 200 and AD 400, but it may be much older than that. Some Irish scholars believe that it was used in Ireland from as early as 500 BC until Christianity arrived in Ireland sometime around 500 AD. Ogham is Celtic writing. Some people call Ogham the Celtic Tree Alphabet. Ogham writing looks like tally marks in a line, because it is so very different from modern alphabets it may be that examples of Ogham may have been destroyed, or not recognized, in the past, because people did not realize that they were writing.
Some scholars state categorically that it was only used in Ireland, and indeed most known examples are in Ireland, but other examples have been found all over the British Isles, including Scotland, the Isle of Man and, surprisingly, in the South of England. One Ogham inscription was found in unusual circumstances in West Virginia in the United States of America. Ogham writing is found carved on Standing stones, gravestones and stone boundary marks.
In Irish folklore, Ogham was named after the Irish god Ogma, but in Greek, the word Ogmos means a line, row or furrow, which is very descriptive of Ogham. Another Ancient Greek word, “ogygia,” means primeval or before time, and would be a good way to describe Ogham, if it is truly as old as some scholars believe it to be, for it was used to describe very ancient things. The word for Ogham in the Scottish Gaelic language, “oidheam,” means a notion, an idea, an inference or a hint of anything, a very apt description of a written language.
When carved in stone as inscription, one reads Ogham writing from the bottom left upward, continuing, for long inscriptions, across the top and down the right side. When reading Ogham in manuscript, one reads the writing from left to right.
Some scholars, such as Carney and Mac Neill believe the Irish invented Ogham in response to Roman invasion since it was unreadable to outsiders, although this theory still causes hot debate among scholars. Others believe that Ogham came from Wales. It is likely however that, before the Romans, Celtic people wrote on perishable substances which, unlike their stone inscriptions, did not survive. In addition, there is some tantalizing hints in Roman writings that the Romans so feared Ogham that they may have deliberately destroyed Ogham writings. “The Book of Ballymote,” an Irish book, written in the 14th century, along with Ogham stones, is the means by which scholars translate Ogham inscriptions.
The Book of Ballymote is in turn based on a much earlier book, “The Scholar’s Primer,” which was written in the 7th century. The two books indicate that there were different forms of Ogham; this would chime with Irish folklore, which maintains that there were different forms of Ogham for different people and different purposes. For example, the Ogham in which poets and bards wrote songs, stories, and poetry is different to the Ogham used by priests and scholars and different again to that used by ordinary people. Irish folk stories indicate at least five different forms of Ogham; “The Book of Ballymote” seems to indicate that there may have been many more than five forms of Ogham.
Scholars are still hotly debating the history of the Ogham Alphabet; it is remote and obscure. There are so many previous misconceptions about Ogham to dispel, as well as leftover feelings that Ogham writing was somehow barbaric, pagan, wicked or backward-looking. However, as more and more Ogham inscriptions are found and translated and archeologists excavate more sites, scholars will understand more and more about the Ogham alphabet and more about Ogham writing and the origins of writing and communicating ideas.