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ogham, ogam, or ogum (all: ŏgˈəm, ōˈəm), ancient Celtic alphabet of one of the Irish runic languages. It was used by the druids and abandoned after the first few centuries of the Christian era. The ogham runes remain only in gravestone inscriptions found mostly in W Ireland and also in England, Scotland, and the Shetland Islands. The origin of ogham is uncertain; it contained 25 letters formed of straight lines and may have been adapted from a sign language. A treatise on ogham, The Book of Ballymote (15 cent.), confirms that it was a secret, ritualistic language.


See R. A. Macalister, The Secret Languages of Ireland (1937).

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Ogham stone, Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone. Courtesy Allen Kennedy/Fortean Picture Library.


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The oldest form of Goidelic writing used by the Celts and found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, and the Isle of Man. The majority of examples have been found in Kerry and Cork counties of Ireland. The oldest of these inscriptions were composed of notches carved onto the edge of an upright stone.

The system would seem to be founded on the Latin alphabet. Some stones have bilingual inscriptions, which have helped in their translation. The main key, however, was found in a treatise on Oghamic writing contained in the fourteenthcentury Book of Ballymote.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a phonetic writing system used by the Celts and Picts of the British Isles (see Figure 1). It is known from fourth-century inscriptions in Old Irish (Ireland, Scotland, Western Brittany, and the Isle of Man) and in Pictish (inscriptions from Scotland, the Shetland Islands, and the Orkney Islands, which have not yet been deciphered). Ogham was displaced from regular usage by the Latin alphabet but survived in Ireland as a cryptographic device until the 17th century.

Figure 1. Ogham system

The core of an ogham inscription was a line (which could also be the edge or corner of a stone slab or a wooden object) on which dots were marked, with groups of dots representing the vowel sounds; groups of lines leading to one or both sides of the vertical line indicated consonants. A letter consists of a combination of one to five identical lines or dots. Additional letters of a more complex shape were introduced into the ogham system at a later date. The origin of ogham is unknown.


Ferguson, S. Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Edinburgh, 1887.
Macalister, R. A. S. Studies in Irish Epigraphy, vols. 1–3. London, 1897–1907.
Vendryes, J. “L’Écriture ogamique et ses origines.” Etudes celtiques, 1939, vol. 4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.