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Saint Patrick’s Day spirit is beginning to pervade the land and the mind turns to all things Hibernian. Last week, Ferrebeekeeper investigated Leprechaun tattoos and, though visually interesting, that subject quickly turned dark and scary. This week, we plunge into the green forests of ancient Celtic Ireland to pursue the roots of Ogham, the mysterious tree alphabet of the Druids. Get out your golden sickles and put on your mistletoe haloes, the nature and origin of Ogham are shadowed by primeval mystery and this whole journey could easily veer off into the fantastic realms of pre-Christian myth.
To begin with the basics, Ogham was a runic alphabet from early medieval times which was in use throughout the lands ringing the Irish Sea, but which seems to have been most prevalent in Munster (Southern Ireland). Ancient objects inscribed in Ogham are most commonly found in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but are also known in Wales, Scotland, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Man, and the Devon coast. Stone monuments inscribed in Ogham are usually written in Old Irish or an unknown Brythonic tongue—probably Pictish. The alphabet seems to have been primarily used from the 4th century AD to the 8th century AD (although correct dates are a subject of contention).
There are many historical theories explaining the origin of Ogham, but none are conclusive. Some scholars hold that the script originated during the Roman conquest of Britain as a sort of non-Roman code language used between Celtic people. Others assert that the language grew up as a means for denoting Celtic sounds—which the Roman alphabet is not well suited for—and became more complex and complete only as Christian scholars set up communities in Ireland. Wilder theories involve ancient primitive peoples as diverse as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the lost tribes of Israel, and the mysterious Sea People who destroyed Minoan palace civilization in the Mediterranean (please, please don’t tell my Irish history professor that I let you know about any of these hare-brained ideas). My favorite mythical (as in “not-real”) story of the origin of Ogham involves the legendary Scythian king, Fenius Farsa, who invented the Gaelic language and then crafted Ogham out of scraps recovered from the fallen Tower of Babel (there’s more than a soupçon of world-famous Irish blarney in this folktale).
Whatever the actual origins of Ogham were, a large number of inscribed stones have been found in what were once Celtic lands. Most of these were territorial markers and memorials—the oldest of which come from Ireland (although it is believed there was a heritage of inscribing the lines on sticks and bark which predated stone inscriptions). Some scholars believe the Welsh, Manx, Scotish, British, and Orkadian Ogham stones date from Post-Roman Irish incursion/invasions. Ancient tradition assigns the names of trees or shrubs to each of the letters of Ogham (although such a naming convention may only date from the tenth century). A comprehensive glossary of letter names can be found here along with a translation of an ascetic Ogham joke (of sorts).
In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster. This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology. Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.
Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art. The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440. The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise. The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys. Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.
The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum. Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).