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The origin of the name of Ogma the god who is said to have invented the Irish ogam
system of writing has been the subject of much speculation, past and present. A good
summary of the different theories is provided by Damian canus,
who is "uite rightly
wary of speculation. In this note, however, I fly a #ite or two, which may attract comment and
further the discussion.
canus points to three passages in the literature that relate to Ogma and his
the proposed etymological conne%ion between the word ogam and the name Ogma as
put forward in In Lebor Ogaim, &The 'oo# of Ogams()
Ogma(s activities as described in Cath Maige Tuired, &The +second, 'attle of ag
Tuired( -CMT.)
0ucian(s well1#nown description of the 2aulish god Ogmios, whose name has been
lin#ed to that of Ogma.
I ta#e each of these themes in turn, but in a slightly different order from canus$
0ucian(s description of Ogmios
the "uestion of etymology
the role of Ogma in CMT
4ach section contains essentially the same information as provided by canus, but I have
added comment or two. I also offer an additional suggestion on a possible meaning of ogma
which may lin# 0ucian(s description of Ogmios and the role of Ogam in CMT.
1. Lucians desci!"i#n #$ O%&i#s
In an often "uoted passage, 0ucian -Heracles ! ff.. reports that the 2auls referred to the 2ree#
god 5era#les -6oman 5ercules. as Ogmios, who is dressed and e"uipped li#e 5era#les with
lion(s s#in, club, "uiver and bow. The pu77ling thing, however, is that Ogmios is not only
depicted as an old man, rather than a virile warrior, but also has a number of people chained
by their ears to his tongue. This image is e%plained to 0ucian as symboli7ing the god(s
elo"uence, which reaches fruition in later life) those chained to his tongue are following him
It might be e%pected that the god connected with elo"uence would have been 5ermes
-6oman ercury. rather than 5era#les. In citing this passage, however, canus and others
have failed to point out that 5era#les was closely associated with the 8hoenician god
el"arth, the city god of Tyre, and later 9arthage, who was a god of civili7ation and the
'oth 5era#les and el"arth were associated with the coloni7ation of the
editerranean coasts by the 8hoenicians and 2ree#s. el"arth had a famous sanctuary in
2ades;2adeira -9adi7., and in southern 2aul he will have been familar through contact with
the 9arthaginians) he was the divine protector of 5annibal and his family.
As canus emphasises, the significance of 0ucian(s account of Ogmios in relation
to Ogma is twofold. On the one hand, the description is consistent with that of Ogma in In
Lebor Ogaim -l. :3<=. as a fer ro-eolach a mberla 7 a filidecht, &a man s#illed in speech and
poetry.( On the other hand, Ogmios(s attributes of lion(s s#in club, etc., are consistent with
Ogma(s role as trnfer, &warrior(, in CMT ->> <*, !=:.. 4tymologically, however, any
association of the names Ogmios and Ogma, and of the name of the writing system ogam, is
'. E"(&#)#%(
In In Lebor Ogaim -ll. :3<?1<@.,
an Isodorian1type etymology is presented for the word
ogam -the earlier forms of which are in fact ogom or ogum
.$ &Ogam +is, from Ogma suo
inventore rimo according to its sound, !uidem) and from "g-#aim, +&perfect sewing( or
&alliteration(, according to matter. The father of ogam is Ogma and his hand or #nife is its
Bollowing up on this lead, 9arney suggested
that the first syllable , og1, might
represent the word meaning &point, part of a sharp weapon(, rather than $g, meaning &perfect(.
The sense of the combination og-#aim could then be something li#e &a seam made by the
point of a sharp weapon(, as a description of a line of ogam characters. This sense would not
only fit the notion of a #nife being the mother of ogam, but also tie in with words for writing
in other languages, such as 2ree#, , 0atin, scribere -cf. 2erman schreiben., and
4nglish, %rite -cf. Old Corse r&sta., all of which reflect an act of cutting or scratching in
conne%ion with writing. canus finds this idea attractive but objects that the second
element, 1#aim, has a lenited final 1m and as a verbal noun ending in m should be a u-' a- or
n-stem, whereas the word ogam is an o-stem with unlenited Dm.
Other conjectures cited by canus for possible etymological lin#s between Ogma,
Ogmios and ogam include two discussed by Thurneysen$
Eogmos, EOgmios, which Thurneysen rejects, because the Old Irish refle%es would
have been E$m, E(mae, with loss of g before the nasal and compensatory lengthening
of the preceding vowel) and
Eogosmo1 or Eugosmo1 for ogam, which would not, however, have allowed an
e"uation of Ogma and Ogmios without assuming an irregular syncope for 2aulish
acCeill(s idea
that Ogma was a late borrowing of 2aulish Ogmios is unli#ely in
canus(s view because the name would have to have been borrowed after Eogm1 F E$m1,
which would have been some time after the period of ogam inscriptions. Also unli#ely
sources for ogam, according to canus, are 6ichardson(s suggestion
of agma as the letter1
name for the letter ng, ) -a supposedly characteristic ogam letter., and Gilleen(s suggestion
of 2ree# , &furrow(. Apart from the problem of the g before m, the initial a1 in agma is
problematic, and is not attested in 2ree# with the metaphorical meaning of &writing(.
Thus, an etymological conne%ion between ogam' Ogma and Ogmios remains dubious.
'ut the tradition of a conne%ion between a 5era#les1li#e god Ogma and the inventor of a
writing system is supported by the description of Ogma(s activities in Cath Maige Tuired.
*. T+e #)e #$ O%&a in CMT
canus does not thin# that the Ogma as described in CMT fits the bill as alphabet inventor.
According to this myth, Ogma(s role is that of trnfer, &warrior(, Hwhose considerable
strength ... is diminished only by undernourishment during the reign of 'res +his half1brother,
when he is made to perform the menial tas# of fetching firewood. As Thurneysen noted,
is not distinguished in CMT for the "uality of elo"uence with which In Lebor Ogaim credits
him and there is no indication whatsoever that the author of CMT was familiar with the
ascription to him of the important role of inventor of a writing systemI
. 5owever, it would
appear that both canus and Thurneysen have missed the point.
Ogma(s patronym of mac *lathan -J elatha, elada, &art, science(. is not the only thing
that points to the god(s association with writing. I have already emphasised the relation of
5era#les to the 8hoenician god el"arth and his grandfather 9admus, the importer of the
alphabet into the 2ree# world. The tas# of fetching wood allotted to Ogma may have been
menial. 'ut 5era#les too had menial -even if formidable. tas#s among those he was allotted
by his tas#1master #ing.$ the cleaning of the Augeias(s stables was one. Kurely, Ogma(s
specific tas# of fetching or gathering firewood is nothing more nor less than a reference to
writing. Cot only is Irish fid used in the senses of both &tree, wood( and &letter( -as the
2ermanic Estab1 for &stave, staff, letter(, cf. O4 r+nst,f' b"-st,f) OC b$-stafr' latinustafr)
O52 r.nstab' buohstab.) the action of &gathering( reflects the words derived from 0atin
legere, &gather, read(, that are used for reading in Brench -lire. and 2erman -lesen..
when Ogma &gathers firewood(, he is actually &reading letters(. 5is menial tas# is &elevated(
in the eyes of those educated in such things.
,. O%&a as su!!#"?
A gloss in a law tract, cited by /IL,
gives oghma .i. fulang. The interpretation fulang can be
translated as &support, prop(, being a verbal noun related to the verb fo-loing +bears, supports,
sustains,. Another noun related to the same verb is fulach' folach +bearing, supporting,. The
gloss may have nothing to do with the name Ogma, but it raises the posibility that the name of
the god was used metaphorically in the sense of &a support -to his foloowers.(. There are a
number of words meaning literally &beam( or &pillar( which are used metaphorically in this
way. They include$
!. cl0 champion, support, pillar -/IL, letter 9, col. */A, line !A.
columa champion, defender, support -/IL, letter 9, col. //!, line =3.
*. deil -of a hero. prop pillar, support -/IL, letter D*, col. =:, line <A.
sail -of persons. prop, supporter -/IL, letter K, col. *:, line ?A.
sess support, champion -/IL, letter K, col. !@?, line A.
taca supporter, helper, mainstay -/IL, letter T, col. =A, line =/.
#aithne post, prop, support -metaphorically of people. -/IL, letter L, col. *=, line :?.
There is no record of oghma being used in the literal sense of &beam, pillar, post(, but it may
be in the tranferred sense of &a pillar -of society.( that the name Ogam was being interpreted
in the gloss. The idea of a hero or leader being a support to his followers is a commonplace.
5owever, in view of other associations between Ogma and 5ercules, it is tempting to lin# the
concept of ogma as &support( to the specific image of 5ercules supporting the heavens on his
shoulders, although there is no evidence of Ogma ever playing a similar role.
,. -#nc)usi#n
Despite the problematic etymology, the description of Ogmios as a 2aulish 5era#les and of
Ogma as an incarnation of 5era#les gathering wood are not at odds with the notion of a
divine promotor of writing$ Ogmios15era#les, a counterpart of 8hoenician el"arth,
grandson of 9admus) and Ogma15era#les, &humbly( gathering wood, i.e. reading his letters.
canus, D. !@@!, 1 2uide to Ogam, !:=1:/, aynooth. An internet search for information on Ogma, Ogmios and
ogam will produce a sprin#ling of primary sources, but also a plethora of views which are largely based on the
publications of either Damian canus or -the more popular but less reliable. 6obert 2raves.
9alder, 2. !@!< -reprint !@@:., 1uraicet na n34ces -The KcholarMs 8rimer., *<*1/, 4dinburgh
2ray, 4.A. !@?*, Cath Maige Tuired, Irish Te%ts Kociety :*.
5armon, A.. !@!/, Lucian I, 0oeb 9lassical Keries, A* ff..
6ibichini, K. !@??, &'eliefs and 6eligious 0ife,( in$ The 5hoenicians' Catalogue of the e6hibition at the 5ala77o
2rassi'8enice, ilan, !=?1*3 -republished in$ K. oscati -ed.. *===, The 5hoenicians, 0ondon N Cew Oor#, !*=133..
9alder !@!<, *<*.
Kee /ictionar9 of the Irish Language, s.v. ogum -ogom., letter O, col. !!*, line =A/.
9arney, P., in$ Ktevenson, P. !@?@, &The beginnings of literacy in Ireland( 5roceedings of the :o9al Irish 1cadem9 ?@,
Thurneysen, 6. !@/<, &Qum Ogom(, ;eitr<ge 7ur 2eschichte der deutschen =rache und Literatur A!, !@:1A.
acCeill, 4.;P. !@!@, 5hases of Histor9, !<=1!.
6ichardson, P.D. !@3/, &The word ogham(, Hermathena A*, @A1!=:.
Gilleen, P.P. !@A:, &The word ogam(, Lochlann /, 3!:1!@.
Thurneysen !@/<, !@:.
canus !@@!, !:!.
A summary of the 2ermanic vocabulary on reading and writing is given by 2reen, D.5. *===, Language and histor9
in the earl9 2ermanic %orld, *:31<=, 9ambridge -8aperbac# edition) hardbac# !@@?..
/ictionar9 of the Irish Language, s.v. ogma, letter O, col. !!*, line !A.