Ogham – The Beginning of a Druid’s Education

“Ogum on the stone, The stone over the monument, That Ogum which is on the stone, Around which many were slain; If Finn of the many battles lived, Long would the Ogum be remembered.”Book of Leinster, 12th century

The Ogham represent a way of looking at the world, much like the Runes. They are central to the memories and magic of the Druids. It is for these reasons that the Ogham and the traditional tales were taught at the very beginnings of a Druid’s education. After the Druids were replaced by Christian priests, the Irish Filidh survived as a formal group preserving much of the knowledge of the Druids for over a thousand years as the inheritors of their ways.

If one were to look at the curriculum of the Filidh, one of the few groups that survived into modern times still practicing ancient Druidic techniques, the structural part of the memory theater would be the Ogham. They are much more than an alphabet or an ancient bar code, as is commonly thought. Ogham are lists that are tailored for use in memorizing related sets of information. The hundreds of different Ogham types were also tied to a study of hundreds of tales, as well as a practical knowledge of music. The Ogham were probably also used to score melodies for harps and pipes from the earliest use of such instruments. Before that, they were used to score the music of the voice in song and chant. A common way to direct musical performances was through the use of hand symbols. Among the Ogham, these are known as Basogam or Palm of Hand Ogham, Cossogam or Foot Ogham, and Sronogam or Nose Ogham. Conducting was done through indication the Ogham symbols against a different part of the body. ‘Guido’s Hand’ is a similar system that was later implemented during Medieval times.

Map of Ogham stones by Leefeni de Karik

It’s known that a Druidic student would first learn their BLN’s and tales, as well as some lessons in natural philosophy and ethics. Possibly these lessons would have included topics in herbalism and wood lore. After that, would have come lessons in poetry, language, music, science and law. Following these would be taught more esoteric matters such as divination, dream interpretation and spellcraft. I think that this is pretty much how some modern Druidic orders also attempt to teach.

After establishing a correlation of the ancient knowledge that was known in Ireland as the Coimgne, and a training of the mind to retain such information, a fledgling Druid was taught lessons in philosophy. This was most probably done through a discussion of moral values and object lessons as found within the traditional tales that were already committed to memory, and the Triads. Both of these sources are mnemonic lists and contain examples of cultural values.

Ogham stone, County Kerry, Irish Folk Duchas, The Photographic Collection

It was only after a student had studied the traditions in the tales explained through the Coimgne, committed them to memory through a training of the mind using Ogham and had grasped a deeper understanding of Philosophy and the Mind, that they were taught the techniques of Imbas. The three forms of Imbas, which are divination, prophecy and divinely inspired wisdom or seership, are known among the Irish as Imbas Forosnai, Dichetal Do Chennaibh and Teinm Laegda. Each of these techniques attempts to place the mind and spirit of the Druid/Fili into an altered state of consciousness, allowing them to see beyond the physical world into the Otherworld of knowledge, inspiration and wisdom.

After mastering the three forms of Imbas through control of the energy centers known as Coire Goriath, Coire Earmae and Coire Soís, the student was then taught a secret language. After learning this secret language and practicing techniques of Imbas, the advanced students learned to construct complex poems, invocations, satires, blessings and maledictions. In modern speech, we call these spells, which is particularly apt since their structure and power relationships were related and maintained through Ogham.

Ogham stone, County Kerry

If I were to start up a Druidic pathway and attempt to educate myself in their knowledge, I’d first try to learn as they learned, using their techniques and their mindsets regarding matters of the Self and the Three Worlds of Land, Sea and Sky as well as An t-Saoil Uile, or Annwfn. For raw materials in this education, I’d study the ancient Celtic tales (as recorded in Medieval Times) and I’d pay particular attention to the Ogham tract to be found within The Book of Ballymote and in the translation know as Auraceipt na E’ces that was compiled by George Calder. I’d also attempt to find the “Cauldron of Poesy” materials as originally transcribed by Anne Powers and later translated by P. L. Henry, Liam Breatnach, Caitlin Matthews and Erynn Laurie. For an idea of how to control the breath, I’d try to read a few authentic books on Yoga. For an idea of what Celtic verse and incantation was like, I’d read Carmina Gadelica compiled and edited by Alexander Carmichael. For an idea into the value system of the Druids and the ancient Celts, I’d study Audacht Morainn, as translated and edited by Fergus Kelly, who also has an excellent treatise on Brehon law titled: Ancient Irish Law. For an inkling into matters of the spirit and the self, I’d recommend Anamchara by John O’Donohue though it has a Christian orientation, at least it’s validly Celtic Christian. After a study and a melding of the concepts, the Ogham, the tales, the techniques and the languages, one will find that Druidic experience ceases to be an elusive quarry, becoming more a seeker of oneself.

Just become as the sum of the Ogham in AE. Here is how the Auraicept na n-Éces defines the qualities of AE:

Fid, wood, that is, fedh AE, extent of them, since five forms of AE are in existence, AE that nourishes, AE that sings, AE that sues, AE that judges and AE that sits. Now AE that nourishes, i.e., while it is on the mind, and AE that sings at giving it, and AE that sues while asking the reward for it, and AE that considers about its greatness or its smallness, and AE that sits after being paid his reward.”

This is to say that:

1. There is a knowledge of what the ancient Druids did and thought.

2. There are techniques for discovering new Druidic information.

3. There is a method for evaluating the scientific and philosophical truth of what we do.

4. We have an obligation to seek the truth beyond the awareness of the world.

5. We are capable of connecting to spirit and deity when we find them.

We are each nourished by the knowledge of tradition as we find it. We all can sing the visions that we find because of our foundation in the traditions. We can choose to sue to find the truth in our new knowledge by outreach and observation. We are capable of considering its truth through inquiry and evaluation. When we have arrived at truth, we can sit in the presence of our God as an equal through the connection of spirit. Another way of saying this is that we become Druids through a study of the traditions, a seeking of imbas, an elevation of perception, a judgment of relative truth, and a finding of spiritual truth through a mastery of the three levels of knowledge.

If we study what Druids studied; if we seek as Druids sought; if we perceive as Druids perceived; if we judge as Druids judged; and if we live within the spirits and the gods as the Druids lived, then I maintain that we are Druids.

I periodically offer courses designed to provide students with a start along the Druid way. The classes are based upon the Ogham, the Three Cauldrons and the Nine Dúile (elements) of everything. The material is provided in 9 books with each book being modeled after one of the Druid elements or Dúile. I’m hoping that I’m able to offer this course starting during Samhain of 2022.

This study in the use of Ogham and the details of Druidic wisdom is based upon information that has survived from earlier times in primarily Irish, Welsh and British sources. Much of this information has been overlooked and misunderstood by Celtic scholars of both the past and the present. Where new translations reveal hidden meanings in the works and words of the Druids, they have been provided. Additional insights into the Druid way are detailed from the author’s personal experiences with the Ogham, as well as with the workings that he has accomplished through following their teachings. Comparative studies in Indo-European traditions have also provided additional insights into the hidden ways of the Celts and the Druids. Modern scholarly and esoteric references are used and cited throughout the nine books of this study to broaden and deepen our understanding of the ways and wisdom of the Druids.

County Kerry mountain stone circle

In the Ogham Keys to Wisdom course, each dúil is identified, described and discussed as the central topic of its own book and its associated course of instruction. There are nine individual books and course. The works are also grouped by cauldrons as three collections or  volumes. The nine books of the Ogham Keys and their three associated volumes and cauldrons are:   

Volume 1: The Cauldron of Formation

Book 1 – Opening the Pathways (The Testimony of Stone and Tradition)

Book 2 – The Truth of a King (The Lands of Self Knowledge)

Book 3 – The Song of the Trees  (Poetic Knowledge and Natural Philosophy)

Volume 2: The Cauldron of Vocation

Book 4 – The Hand and the Knife (The Ways of Contention and Prosperity)

Book 5 – Sound and Form (The Middle Ways of Harmony and Creation)

Book 6 – The Bed of the Couple (Ritual Practices and Hidden Knowledge)

Volume 3: The Cauldron of Celebration

Book 7 – Facing the Sun (Voyages of Discovery, Journeys of Wonder)

Book 8 – The Cattle of Tethra (Star Knowledge and Divinatory Practices)

Book 9 – The Cró of Lugh (Ogham Wisdom in Theory and Practice)

Celtic tradition is filled with books of many colors. Among these are the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Red Book of Hergest, the Yellow Book of Lecan, the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of the Blue Bard, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Speckled Book (the Great Book of Dun Doighre). In keeping with this tradition, a color has been associated with each book’s cover in the Ogham Keys to Wisdom. The color for stone knowledge is gray; earth knowledge is brown, and knowledge of the natural world is green. Similarly, knowledge that is experienced is blood red. Knowledge that inspires is purple. Knowledge that illuminates is blue. Higher forms of wisdom (such as knowledge of the clear light) are yellow, while knowledge of the hidden depths is black. The many forms of knowledge (that all come together as one) were considered to be either white or speckled in color.

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5 responses to “Ogham – The Beginning of a Druid’s Education”

  1. I look forward to your upcoming course and loved this article! Forgive my ignorance, but what is a BLN when you mention “BLN’s and tales”? I’m not great with abbreviations. Thank you!

  2. Thankyou for this, my family was moved from Ireland during the first world war from Kerry. Never got to know much of my family but my gg is 93 this year. Blessings and best of luck to all of you. Hope to see home some day

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