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The ancient Celts didn’t have a written language, but they had a mysterious set of sigils known as the Ogham. These sigils were used to represent certain trees and shrubs, and eventually developed into letters. Let’s take a closer look at the significance of ogham both as an alphabet and as magical sigils.
What Are the Ogham Sigils?
The ogham sigils are estimated to have been used between the 4th and 10th centuries CE to write on giant stone monuments. The symbols were written vertically along a line and read from the bottom to the top. There are around 400 such stones that have survived to this day, found throughout Ireland as well as in the western regions of Britain. Most of these ogham stones showcase personal names.
The ogham sigils are called feda, which means trees—and sometimes nin or forking branches. The alphabet originally consists of 20 letters, divided into four groups, or aicme, each containing five letters. The fifth set of five symbols, called forfeda, were only a later addition.
The ogham alphabet is inspired by trees, which forms the mytical basis of these symbols. Hence the ogham alphabet is also called a tree alphabet. The names of various trees correspond with each letter.
When the Roman alphabet and the runes were introduced to Ireland, they took the function of memorial writing, but the use of Ogham became restricted to the secret and magical realms. In the 7th-century CE Auraicept na n-Éces, also known as The Scholars’Primer, the ogham is described as a tree to be climbed, since it’s marked vertically upwards along a central stem.
Today, ogham remains a mystical set of symbols, illustrating the close connection that the Celts had with nature. They are used in art, tattoos, and jewelry, and make for mystical, intriguing images. If you would like to see what your name looks like in ogham, check out this online transliterator. If not, keep reading for an in-depth look into each ogham symbol.
The first letter of the ogham tree alphabet, Beith stands for birch, and corresponds to the letter B. Also called Beth, it represents new beginnings, change, and rebirth. In Celtic legend, the first ogham ever written was Beith, which served as a warning and protective talisman of the god Ogma.
Its symbolism is derived from the birch, a pioneer tree that first repopulated the region after the Ice Age. The symbol has strong associations with spring and the Beltane festival, being the chosen tree for the maypole and the fuel for the Beltane fires. The birch is also associated with Bloddeuwedd, the Welsh goddess of flowers and springtime.
Symbolically, Beith protects one against all harm, physical and spiritual. The birch is also known as the white tree, associating it with purity, and is used for purification and removing bad luck.
The second ogham character is Luis, which symbolizes insight and protection. It corresponds with the rowan or quickbeam tree, and with the letter L of the alphabet. The tree was sacred to Brigid, the Celtic goddess of poetry, prophecy and divination, who had three fiery arrows made of rowan.
In ancient times, rowan served as protective and oracular trees. In Scotland, they’re planted outside the front door of a house to ward off evil. No wonder, the Luis symbol is also used as protection against enchantment, as well as to develop one’s powers of perception and prediction.
F is for Fearn or Fern, which corresponds with the alder tree. In modern interpretation, the symbol represents an evolving spirit, though ancient associations include prophecy and sacrifice.
In Celtic mythology, the alder is the sacred tree of the god Bran, who is known for his oracular head. Ancient Celts believed that the head was capable of life after death.
The name fearn is the Old Irish for the alder, which is derived from the Old German elawer, which means reddish. When cut, the wood inside turns red—the color of blood, fire, and the sun—so it’s considered sacred in modern Wicca and is used for building needfires during festivals. In The Song of the Forest Trees, it’s described as the battle-witch of all woods and the hottest in the fight.
Associated with the willow tree, Saille corresponds to letter S. Willow trees are associated with the moon and water. However, the tree used in the ogham alphabet isn’t the famous weeping willow, but the pussy willow.
Since it’s sacred to the moon, it also embodies the association of imagination, intuition, and instinct, as well as flexibility and flow. Also, it’s regarded as sacred to the Welsh goddess Ceridwen who rules over the moon.
Nuin or Nion is the fifth letter of the ogham alphabet, and has the phonetic value of N. The symbol represents strength and uprightness, associating it with the strength and straightness of tree branches. The name ash, along with its Old English name aesc and Latin name fraxinus, means spear. It was also the Celts’ favorite choice for making spear shafts—a primary weapon before the Iron Age.
To the Celts, there were five sacred living trees in Ireland, which were called world trees. Of the five trees, three were ash trees. These were known as the Bile Usneg, the sacred tree of Usnech, the Bile Tortan, the sacred tree of Tortiu, and the Craeb Dathi, the bushy tree of Dathi. All of these trees were felled when Christianity dominated the region, taken as symbols of victory over the pagan druids.
Symbolic of the hawthorn tree, the Huath corresponds to the letter H. It’s associated with passionate love, commitment, healing, and protection. The name huath is thought to have been derived from Old Irish uath, which means horrible or frightful.
In Ireland, the hawthorn is considered a fairy tree, and believed to bring bad luck and destruction to those who tamper with one. The flowers of hawthorns are traditionally used as the crown of the May Queen during the festival of Beltane.
A representation of the oak tree, Duir corresponds to the letter D and is associated with strength, stability, and growth. The term duir also means door, so the oak groves are believed to be places where the sky world, the earth, and the otherworld meet. It’s believed that the symbol enables one to see the invisible, as well as things hidden from view at present.
To the druids, every part of the oak was sacred and used in ritual and divination. In fact, the term druid, means one with the wisdom of the oak. The oak tree is associated with the ancient tradition of the oak king, the fertility god of the green world and is a symbol of male sovereignty.
The eighth ogham letter, Tinne corresponds to the holly tree and to the letter T. The name tinne is related to the Old Irish word teann, meaning strong or bold, and the Irish and Scots Gaelic word teine which means fire. Therefore, the ogham symbol is associated with strength and power. It’s also sacred to the Celtic smith god Govannon or Goibniu, and the Saxon smith god Weyland, who are associated with strength, endurance, and the attainment of skill.
Associated with the hazel tree, Coll corresponds to letter C, sometimes read as K. It represents wisdom, knowledge, and creativity, which led to the use of hazel wood in magic wands. In the bardic ritual of Diechetel do Chenaib or cracking the nuts of wisdom, hazelnuts were chewed to induce poetic inspiration and insight.
The tenth ogham letter, Quert stands for the crab apple tree. It’s associated with immortality, vision, and wholeness. The letter Q is nonexistent in Old Irish, and the quert has been interpreted to mean hound or wolf—a synonym for warrior. In some interpretations, it can refer to the Old Irish term ceirt or rag, which is a reference to wandering lunatics. In these contexts, it represents the individual’s ability to face death and gain entry to the otherworld.
M is Muin, which is thought to refer to the grape vine—and sometimes to the blackberry vine. They’re both used to make wine, whose intoxicating properties were often associated with inducing prophetic verse during the ancient times.
Therefore, the symbol is also associated with prophecy and divine wisdom. Modern interpretation also includes truthful speaking because people under its influence are incapable of being dishonest and deceptive.
The 12th ogham symbol, Gort corresponds to the letter G. In the modern interpretation of the ogham, it represents ivy and is associated with growth, change and transformation. It’s said that the vine grows as a small herb-like plant, but after centuries of growth becomes a serpentine tree on its own right. However, the term is also related to the Irish word gorta, meaning famine or hunger, associating it with scarcity.
The phonetic equivalent of Ng, Ngetal is an ogham symbol interpreted in many ways. It’s said to represent the reed, though some sources link it to the fern, the broom, or even the dwarf elder. Since the Old Irish term giolcach means both reed and broom, it can also refer to bamboo, rushes, and raffia.
Ngetal is regarded as the ogham symbol of written communication, due to the reed’s use as a pen, preserving memory and knowledge. In the Celtic calendar, it’s the ogham of La Samhain, the beginning of a new year and the festival of the dead. Its association also includes healing, flexibility, and independence.
The ogham symbol Straif has the phonetic value of St, and corresponds to the blackthorn or sloe tree, which is known for its magical power. Staves made from its wood were carried by wizards, warlocks, and witches.
In Irish sagas, the blackthorn has association with battle, sacrifice, transformation, and death. It’s also said to be sacred to Donn of the Milesians, the Irish god of death, as well as to goddess Morrighan who oversees matters of war and death.
Symbolized by the elder tree, Ruis is the 15th ogham symbol and corresponds to the letter R. The elder has regenerative abilities, so its symbolism revolves around ideas of transformation and regeneration. As an ogham of timelessness, it represents the aspects of existence—the beginning, middle, and end. In modern interpretation, it suggests the maturity and awareness that comes with experience.
The Celtic symbol of strength, Ailm corresponds to the letter A, as well as to the pine, or fir tree. It represents the strength that one needs to rise above adversity, and is also associated with healing, purity, and fertility. Its symbolism derives from its practical and magical use in the past as a medicinal herb, as incense, and fertility charms for men.
Also called Ohn, Onn is the 17th ogham symbol and corresponds to the letter O. It represents the gorse or furze tree, which is associated with continuous fertility, creativity, and vitality, since it blossoms year-round. Its flower and wood are widely used for amulets and love spells, associating it with eroticism, passion and desire.
The 18th ogham letter Ur corresponds to the letter U and the plant heather, which is considered to be a lucky plant. Ur once meant earth, but in modern Irish Gaelic and Scottish it means fresh or new. Therefore, the symbol is believed to bring freshness and luck to any venture.
Heather is also associated with life and death, as its purple flowers are said to be stained from the blood of fallen warriors. The fermented drink made of heather flowers was loved by the Celts, as it was believed to heal wounds and restore spirits after the horrors of battle.
Symbolic of the aspen or white poplar, Eadha corresponds to the letter E. In the ogham tract, it’s featured under several spellings such as ebad, ebhadh, and edad. It represents the power of one’s will overriding destiny, as well as overcoming death.
In Celtic traditions, aspen is strongly associated with the festival of Samhain. It’s also believed to have magical uses for alleviating fears and communicating with the spirits of the dead. It was even thought that the voices of the dead could be heard in its rustling leaves, interpreted by shamans.
The 20th ogham letter, Idho corresponds to the letter I and to the yew tree, which is thought to be the longest living trees on earth. In the 14th-century Book of Lismore, it’s said that ‘Three lifetimes of the yew for the world from its beginning to its end.’
In Europe, the yew is believed to be a tree of eternal life, sacred to various saints and divinities of regeneration and death. No wonder, the ogham letter Idho is also associated with life and death; rebirth and mortality; and beginnings and endings.
In the ogham tract, the forfeda are the later addition of five trees and plants, probably because of the letters and sounds present in Greek and Latin alphabet that are nonexistent in Old Irish.
The first of the last five letters, Ea stands for the sound Ea, but is sometimes known as Koad, which corresponds to the letter K. Like the ogham Eadha, the Ea is also symbolic to aspen or white poplar and is associated with the dead and the otherworld. In modern interpretation, it’s associated with attracting the harmonies of life through spiritual growth.
Oir represents the spindle tree and has the phonetic value of Oi. The spindle tree associates the symbol with women’s magic and skills, as well as childbirth. By the 1970s, the symbol was called Tharan with the phonetic value of Th, associating it to the ogham symbols Huath and Straif.
Uinllean has the phonetic value of Ui. In The Book of Ballymote, it’s associated with honeysuckle, which is often used for money spells and matters of friendship and love. It’s also used for dealing with feelings of sadness and regret, encouraging one to become fully present in the here and now.
Also known as Io, Iphin is symbolic of gooseberry, which is traditionally used for childbirth. It’s believed to be sacred to the Celtic goddess Brigit and other goddesses like her who oversee matters of women’s cycle and childbirth. Gooseberry is also used in all sorts of healing charms and spells to ward off illness.
Amancholl has the phonetic value of Ae, and corresponds to the witch hazel—sometimes pine. However, it doesn’t refer to the common witch hazel in North America, but to the witch elm, whose British name is witch hazel. It’s also given various names such as Xi, Mor, and Peine. In Celtic lore, the elm is associated with the underworld, though modern interpretation links it to cleansing and purification.
The ogham alphabet was used by the ancient Celts of the British Isles, and is mentioned in several myths and legends. They were seen as relics of ancient Druidism, but the adoption of Christianity and Roman alphabet reserved the ogham alphabet for divination—not for everyday writing. Nowadays, ogham symbols remain symbolic representations of certain trees, and is used in magic and divination, as well as in art and fashion.