Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet, was used in the Celtic lands and has been found on inscriptions dating from the 4th to the 6th century C.E. The alphabet and its use probably predates the found inscriptions and may date back to at least the 1st century C.E. because the written text use pre 4th Century grammatical elements. The existing inscriptions have, for the most part, been carved into stone. There is no reason to think that Ogham was not inscribed on wood, skin, or other materials as well. It’s just that stone endures the ravages of time better than softer, organic materials.
Ogham, is pronounced [ˈoːm] or [ˈoːəm] in Modern Irish and [ˈɔɣam] in Old Irish. Its origins are uncertain. According to one tradition it was a gift of the Irish god Ogma. Others attribute the name to the Irish phrase og-úaim (point-seam) which refers to the seam made by the point of a sharp weapon. Ogham is also known as or ogham craobh (tree ogham) beth luis fearn or beth luis nion, after the first few letters of the alphabet.
The following chart shows the tree ogham letters, with their corresponding names and trees, in vertical form, that is, for writing top-down in columns. The letters can be rotated 90 degree clockwise for horizontal writing.
For fun, here is a link to a transliteration tool. Ogham may have been used for divination, much as the Rune was and is used; and I find it much easier to learn than the more complex Tarot. Each letter of the Ogham alphabet corresponded to a specific tree, hence the tree alphabet name. Here are two links to web sites that provide the meanings of each of the trees in the Ogham alphabet: Site 1, Site 2.
If you feel attracted to the Ogham then you might create your own set of Ogham stick for divination. You can use a Sharpie and write each letter on a Popsicle stick, cut and carve small branches and inscribe a letter onto each stave (ask permission of each tree for a branch and give a small offering of cornmeal or tobacco in return) or even purchase a ready-made set on Etsy (search for Oghma Staves).
It appears, from written records almost 2,000 years old, that the Celts had three groups of honored professionals, what I will call for lack of a better modern term, the Celtic Clergy. These were the bards, ovates and druids. These three roles appear in the writings of the Greek historian and geographer Strabo. In his Geographica, written in the 20s CE, he stated that these three roles were the poets and singers or bardoi, the diviners and specialists in the natural world known as the o'vateis, and those who studied "moral philosophy", the druidai.
Today we think of bards as traveling minstrels. One of the last and most well loved of the traveling minstrels was the blind Irish Harpist, Turlough O'Carolan, (1670 – 25 March 1738) . It is said that he visited an old friend the day before his death. That night, still in her house, he called for his harp and composed his final piece, the Farewell to Music. As much as I honor the tradition and the musicians of yesterday and today and the Bard of Avalon, it appears that the Celtic Bards were much more than traveling musicians and storytellers.
In a society where most could not read or write the bards were the living historical record of a people. They preserved the past, brought it to the present, and thus ensured the continuity of a society. After all, where would any society be if they had no history? Irish bards were members of a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets. The bards were steeped in the history and traditions of clan and country. They were also proficient in the technical skills of verse construction that was syllabic and used assonance, half rhyme and alliteration, among other conventions. Most of us know that well-written poetry is much easier to memorize and retain than is prose. For example, how many nursery rhymes can you remember from your youth? What about paragraphs from the books you read in first and second grade. In a literate societies rhyme and poetry are still because it is easier to remember and pass on from generation-to-generation.
As court officials of a king or chieftain the bards were the resident genealogists, chroniclers and satirists. They kept the past alive. They also praised their employers and damned those who crossed them. Often times well-direct satire or sarcasm is a much more effective weapon than a sword (the tongue is sharper than a two edged sword). It was believed that a well-aimed bardic satire, glam dicenn, could raise boils on the face of its target. It is said that the only person to whom a clan cheiftan would bow was to a bard, and that to avoid becoming the target of the bards verbal slings and arrows. As an aside, it makes me feel really good inside to think of a culture where poet/musicians were assigned a specific place in a religion's priesthood.
According to the Greek writers Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Poseidonius, the vates (οὐάτεις) were one of three classes of Celtic priesthood. The Celtic word vates is continued by Irish fáith "prophet, seer,". The Vates or Oblates had the role of seers and performed sacrifices (and yes there seems to be evidence the the Celts, like many other ancient civilizations, practiced human sacrifice).
It appears that many different skills or tools were used by Oblates. These probably included simple weather-witching, the interpretation of bird flight, the observation of animal behavior, and the interpretation of planetary configurations, what we would term astrology to working with sacred animals and plants. Recall from earlier posts (way earlier) that Andean shamans cast coca leaves and use the position (right-side up or upside down) and spacial locations of the leaves in a cast to divine the future.) In addition Medieval Irish stories, such as the Tochmarc Etaine suggest that they also worked with the Ogham, the tree alphabet. Given the intercourse between the Celtic lands and the Norse land and the Norse tradition of casting Rune, I expect that the Oblates cast Ogham, probably inscribed on small pieces of wood.
If the Bards and Oblates were the priests of the Celtic religion then I suppose that it might be appropriate to call the Druids the high priests. We don't have any first-hand accounts of the roles or beliefs of the Druid because no written records penned by them have been found. What we do have are accounts written by Greek and Roman historians and officers and stories written by medieval authors. Some recurring themes emerge in a number of the Greco-Roman accounts of the druids, including that they performed sacrifice, believed in a form or reincarnation, and held a high position in Gaulish society. The only evidence we have of a specific religious practice is the ritual of oak and mistletoe (future post) as described by Pliny the Elder.
The role of Druid was not restricted to males. Irish has several words for female druids; the most common is bandruí "woman-druid" a term found in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Bodhmall and the Tlachtga. From the little that has been written about them we might conclude that the Druids, both male and female, were the organizers of and officiators at religious ceremonies and festivals, sorcerers with supernatural powers (especially as seen by early christian writers), and the lawyer/judges.
I am currently sketching out ideas for a one-year druid school with a common core for all students and tracks for those that feel an affinity or call to the specific work of either a bard, oblate or druid. If you are interested then drop me me a note and I'll keep you posted. I hope to have it designed and ready to go by Yule.
By most accounts the pre-christian Celts practiced a polytheistic religion from about 500 BCE to 500 CE. Celtic tradition and stories are full of gods and goddesses. However, the Celtic pantheon was/is unlike in Goddesses and Gods in Greece and Rome who, for the most part, had clear functions. Jupiter was the King of the Gods, and Juno was the Queen, Neptune was the God of the Sea, Mars was the God of War, and Venus was the Goddess of Love.
In the Celtic tradition the same clarity doesn't exist and not only that, the deities change from one Celtic group to another. The Gaulish (France, Southwest Germany, Netherlands, Holland, Luxembourg, and Northern Italy) and Brythonic (Great Britain and Brittany) deities differ from the Welsh (Wales) deities, who differ from the Gaelic (Ireland and Scotland) deities, who differ from the Celtiberian (Portugal and Spain) deities. In addition to the Big Pantheon, it appears that each tribe or tuath had its own local deity. This is reflected in the oath found in early Irish literature, "I swear by the gods my people swear by."
To keep this post simple I'm going to focus on my Top Ten Celtic Deities that seem to appear in most of the Celtic groups in one form or another. Obviously you may have others in your top ten list because the identification with deity is highly personal. Here are mine in alphabetical order:
To learn more about the Celtic Goddess and Gods I recommend the book, The Isle of the Many Gods: An A-Z of the Pagan Gods & Goddess Worshipped in Ancient Britain During the First Millenium CE Through to the Middle Ages by Rankine and D'Este. The title is rather ponderous but its one of the better books about the Celtic Gods. If you want to dive deeper into the lore of horned gods then Horns of Power: Manifestations of the Horned God by D'Este, Rankine and Huggens is quite good.
May you find peace on your path,
Legends about the Tuatha de Danann flow like a winding river through the ages in Irish lore. They have been the subject of both Irish poets and Christian monks who wrote fantastical histories of Ireland; or were their histories all that fantastical? I introduced you to the Tuatha de Danann in my last post. In this post we will explore where they came from and where they went in a little more detail.
According to legend, as reported in the Annals of the Four Masters, compiled by Franciscan monks between 1632-1636 CE from earlier texts, the Tuatha de Danann were a race of God-like people with supernatural powers. According to the Annals they invaded and ruled Ireland over four thousand years ago, from 1897 BCE until 1700 BCE. In less than two hundred year they became the stuff of legend. Again, according to the Annals, they arrived from four mythical Northern cities: Murias, Gorias, Falias and Finias. Their arrival is recounted in The Book of Invasions (compiled c. 1150 CE) which claims that they came to Ireland riding in "flying ships" surrounded by "dark clouds" and that they landed on Sliabh an Iarainn (the Iron Mountain) in County Leitrim where they "brought a darkness over the sun lasting three days".
The Tuatha de Danann defeated the ruling tribe, the Fir Bolg, in the First Battle of Moytura to gain control over Ireland. The Danann High King Nuada Argetlam lost his arm in this battle. A king had to be perfect in all respects and so he was forced to relinquish his throne. However, the physician Dian-Cecht replaced the lost arm with a fully functional "arm of silver" and the physician's son, Miach, later caused skin and flesh to grow over the silver (bionic?) arm. Once restored to his previous perfection Nuada was restored to the position as king by ousting his successor, the tyrant Bres.
The kingdom of the Tuatha de Danann ended in two battles with the the first Gaels in Ireland, the Milesians, The Milesians and Tuatha de Danann agreed that each would rule half of Ireland. The victorious Milesians got to choose their half of Ireland first and their ruler, Amergin, chose the half of Ireland which lay above ground. Thus the Danann were forced to occupy the Irish underworld. They entered their new domain via Sidhe mounds, led by Manannán, the god of the sea. Manannán shielded the departing Danann from human eyes by raising an enchanted mist, the Faeth Fiadha or "Cloak of Concealment". With the passage of time the Tuatha de Danann became known as the Sidhe or the fairy-folk.
And so, if you chance to take a shamanic journey to the underworld and set your intent to enter via a Sidhe mound you may be privileged to meet the fairy-folk, the Tuatha de Danan.
I'm Dr. Dave, an eclectic shaman. I lived and worked in Bolivia and Peru for over six years, where I and was trained by Andean Shamans, and today practice eclectic shamanism.