Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom

Author: Erynn Rowan Laurie

Publisher: Megalithica Books, Stafford, England

Copyright: 2007

ISBN: 9781905713028

Synopsis: With two decades of experience with the ogam and more than 30 years of working with divination, the author offers insights into the many profound meanings hidden in the ogam letters and their lore. She explains each letter in context and shows how to expand the system in new and innovative ways.

Review: I’m always weary when I look at books about Ogam.  For the longest time I’ve put off reading anything on them because of all the “Tree Ogam” books out there.  I’m one of these people who prefer history to mix with practice even if this practice is divination, which is by nature subject to the interpretation of the reader/diviner.  I found what I was looking for in this book.  

Erynn clearly states in the beginning of her book that this is her personal system based on certain reputable sources (yep I checked them out and one of them I’ve reviewed on this site already A Guide to Ogam) and her intuition.  So I knew up front what I was getting into.

She does a good job setting up the basics and where her point of view comes from.  I get all the history and reasonable reasons to use Ogam as a divination tool, as opposed to just an alphabet.  I also like that she gives her reasons as to why she would rather work with the word Ogams and meanings rather than tree, without telling people who do work with trees that they are wrong or right.  Her reason makes a lot of sense.  Simply put trees can change from one region or country to another but words and meanings can go anywhere.

She goes into how a beginner can start developing their own associations based on what is in the book, and in the sources she uses.  She talks about how to use the Ogam for divination and rituals, and how to make your own set of Ogams.

I was very impressed with the book as a whole.  It is one that a beginner in Ogam can feel comfortable with especially if they are like me and don’t like interpretations that don’t have a basis in identifiable sources.   

An Irish Literature Reader: Poetry, Prose,Drama

Author: Maureen O’Rourke Murphy and James MacKillop
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Published: 2006 (first edition 1987)

Synopsis: In a volume that has become a standard text in Irish studies and serves as a course-friendly alternative to the Field Day anthology, editors Maureen O’Rourke Murphy and James MacKillop survey thirteen centuries of Irish literature, including Old Irish epic and lyric poetry, Irish folksongs, and drama.  For each author the editors provide a biographical sketch, a brief discussion of how his or her selections relate to a larger body of work, and a selected bibliography.  In addition, this new volume includes a larger sampling of women writers.

Review: I can’t say more about the contents of this volume than was already said in the synopsis so I’m not going to, instead I’m going to talk about what I thought if the volume.

I think that this is a must read book for anyone interested in Irish literature of any kind.  It will give the reader a look at all the important authors and poets of Irish history and some of their works to wet the apetite.

I found myself reading all kinds of poetry and enjoying it all, not to mention the familiar myths and some stories that I’ve never heard of too.

I didn’t want to put it down once I started and it was a joy and pleasure to read (or devour which ever works best).

A Guide to Ogam

Author: Damian McManus
Series: Maynooth Monographs number 4
Publisher: An Sagart, St. Patrick’s College
Published: 1991
ISBN: 1870684753

Review: I read this book as part of my research into Ogam. I wanted to see what its history was and where it first began as well as where it was found.

The author of this book does an excellent job of discussing the history of the Ogam alphabet, where it was found, what it was used for and when it might have originated and where.

The book certainly gave me a lot to think about. It discusses the two types of Ogam, gives some meanings to the original script, and gives us sources to look at in mythology and else where as to the uses of Ogam and how some of the misconceptions about it may have started.

A word of warning though, the book does go into the inscriptions themselves and does some translating so some chapters are just about that with only a little information, I found myself skimming them since they were mostly names of people, interesting though that might be it was not what I was after. In the end though I got A LOT out of this book. And feel ready enough to read the more recent books on the subject from a divination stand point.

Early Irish Literature

Author: Myles Dillon
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Published: 1948 (University of Chicago Press), 1994, 1997
ISBN – 13: 1851821775 pbk

Synopsis: Great classic of Celtic studies. Survival of pre-Christain Druid beleifs in Medieval Christian manuscript texts.

Review: The author started his Preface with why he decided to write the book and what he provided the reader with when he wrote it. He wrote the book because at the time (1948) books about Irish literature were either out of print or about a later time period than the one he discusses here. Dillon decided that this book would present “the imaginative literature of Ireland in a coherent order, choosing only the best that has survived,”. (p.V) He is not providing a history of literature not is he providing a critic of it.

The Preface is certainly a good place to start if you are looking for books on the analysis of Early Irish literature. Dillon lists an interesting group of books to look through though most of them are old, but still very useful.

The Introduction has a short discussion of how the Celts came to Ireland, what the irish society looked like and how the land was divided. It also has a short discussion of the manuscripts that the stories came from and the places they can be found.

Chapters One through Eight discuss the Ulster, Fenian, Mythological and Historical cycles, Adventures, Voyages, Visions and Irish Poetry. All the chapters are a simple retelling of some of the sagas and poetry in the irish Literature tradition with a little introduction at the beginning of each chapter. The whole book makes for a good introduction to Early Irish literature that is not complicated or very academic though still very scholarly. A good book to have in one’s library for sure.

Medieval Gaelic Sources

Author: Katharine Simms
Series: Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History (Number 14)
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Published: 2009
ISBN 13: 9781846821370 hbk

Synopsis: This book is intended to serve as a practical guide to Gaelic language sources (as opposed to administrative or ecclesiastical records in Latin, French, or English) for the history of these communities in the high Middle Ages, laying emphasis on published texts for which English translations are available. Under six headings (annals, genealogies, poems, prose tracts and sagas, legal material, colophons and marginalia), it discusses not only the nature of the sources themselves, the purpose for which they were originally created, and their survival and availability to researchers, but also how to glean usable historical information from them.

Review: The aim of this book is to introduce people to medieval sources in the Gaelic languages, to explain the purpose of their creation, how they survived, whether they are available in published form, and how to get usable historical information from them. There is a complementary book to this one, which the author herself talks about in her introduction, called Medieval Record Sources (Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History, number 4); in that book the records discussed are in English, French and Latin. I’ve ordered that book and will be reading and reviewing it when it arrives.

The manuscripts that are discussed in the book are written in three stages of Gaelic; Old Irish (650 – 900 CE), Middle Irish (900 – 1200 CE), and Classical or Early Modern Irish (1200 – 1650 CE). The author gives a short history of the three divisions of the language and a history of how reliable the translations are that I found engaging and very interesting.

The book is not a very large one, all together only 131 pages long. But it is a treasure trove of information in the sense that by the end of it you know about the Gaelic sources, their strengths and weaknesses. You know the background of how and where they came into being and who wrote them as well as who influenced the writers and how. You get a sense of who translated them and how reliable these translations are and what you can as a modern reader get from them if you are looking for historical information. Another impressive part of this book is of course the Further Reading section and the Index.

Another highly recommended book if you are looking for the origins of the sources you are reading.

An Introduction to Early Irish Literature

Author: Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin
Publisher: Four Court Press
Published: 2009
ISBN 13: 9781846821769 hbk

Synopsis: This book discusses the rich written heritage of the Old and Middle Irish period, 600-1200, and is suitable for students of medieval Ireland as well as the general reader who wants to learn about the stories, poetry and themes of early Irish literature. Early chapters deal with the poets, druids, monks, the beginnings of writing, manuscripts as well as an introduction to each of the saga cycles. These sagas contain the stories of heroes such as Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill as well as kings, such as Cormac mac Airt. Further chapters focus on the poets and their poetry, the heroes visiting the Otherworld, the births and deaths of famous heroes as well as stories about kings, kingship and sovereignty goddesses. Included also is a bibliography and a comprehensive index including personal and place names.

Review: The book starts out with an introduction where the author gives us the aim of the book, a general look at what to expect and a time frame for the manuscripts discussed. The aim of the book is to give an overview of the literature of early Ireland between the period of 600 CE to 1200 CE. The texts written from 600 CE to 900 CE are written in Old Irish and the texts written from 900 CE to 1200 CE are written in Middle Irish. Most of the literature, the author tells us, have general features. These features include the fact that they all talk about one of the provinces of Munster, Leinster, Ulster or Connacht. They might talk about one of the four fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, or Lugnasad. Noblemen and kings play chess while women embroider, and the stories might feature music and musicians, especially harpers. At the end of the Introduction the author provides a further reading list on history and literature that includes some great books (though some of them are a bit old).

Chapter One Background: This chapter was certainly an eye opener in more ways than one. While I knew most of the information in it, it still made me stop and think more than once. The whys and hows of the information is just as interesting as the information itself. We know that the Irish Monks wrote done the stories of the oral traditions but I certainly didn’t know that there are even stories of how and why that began. The comparison with other cultures is certainly also very interesting.

The texts are written in both prose and poetry with prose being the main vehicle for the stories and poetry inserted at certain intervals. Each story has a place, person, time and cause of invention for it to be complete. Sagas can be seen in genealogy and the stories can be used to give a political, historical or even a legal message. It is interesting to me that the writing started out in Latin but quickly it changed to Latin and Irish then Irish. They didn’t forget Latin though and translated many Latin texts into Irish.

The chapter also has a discussion about the difference between Druids, Bards, Ovates and Filids, how they were portrayed in the texts and why. The only thing that was a bit weird to read was the author saying that there is no evidence that the Irish, and the Gauls were related in anyway. Uh, how about the language?

Branches of literature, oral traditions and written literature and Ogam, writing and manuscripts are discussed at the end of the chapter. The final part of the chapter gives the reader an example of of the Irish language around 1000 CE.

Chapter Two The Mythological Cycle: The author tells us that the Mythological cycle talks about the Gods and Goddesses and takes place in the Time of the Gods, she also tells us that the Irish myths always describe the shape of the land or place that the myths take place in. This gives us the criteria for the sagas; time, place, and person. Each story gives its own conflict.

This chapter was an interesting (though not always accurate) discussion of some of the “major” Irish Gods, the fire festivals, the myths included in the Mythological cycle and theories of myth in general.

Chapter Three The Heroic Cycle: The Heroic Cycle is also known as the Ulster cycle and it talks about the conflict between Connacht and Ulster. It is one of the largest corpus of material in all the cycles and it contains around 75 stories.

This chapter is a discussion of the major stories in the cycle.

Chapter Four The Fenian Cycle: The Fenian cycle concentrates on Leinster and Munster and Finn mac Cumaill and his band of warriors. The stories of the Fianna are considered the closest to Paganism, which maybe why they didn’t receive as much attention as the other cycles.

This chapter as with the others discusses the stories in the cycle but it also offers a short discussion on what is an outlaw, as well as the imageries of wolf, dog and deer and what they mean for this cycle.

Chapter Five The Cycles of the Kings: The Cycles of the Kings contains 100 stories about the prehistoric and historic kings of Ireland. Another name for this cycle is the “Historic Cycle” even though the historical content of these tales is really questionable. The stories center around the relationship between the Ué Néills, the men of Leinster and Tara. The chapter goes on to discuss some of the stories in this cycle.

Chapter Six The Otherworld: The Otherworld is associated with four different types of stories in Irish mythology. Some of these stories were written in Latin as well as Irish; these stories are Adventures (Echtraí), Voyages (Immrama), Visions (Físi) and frenzy (baile).

The chapter on the Otherworld discusses its location, nature, visits, Heroic biographies and some of the actual tales as well as comments on them from different literature scholars like J. Carney, and Myles Dillon.

Chapter Seven Kings, Goddesses and Sovereignty: A short chapter on kingship, what it takes to be a king (physical attributes as well as the virtues of the king) and the Sovereignty Goddesses that facilitated that. It talked about the relationship between these Sovereignty Goddesses and the king, the manifestations of these Goddesses and a short note at the end of the chapter on madness in Early Irish literature.

Chapter Eight The Hero and Heroic Biography: This is one of the most interesting chapters of this book. It talks about the Hero and the journey he takes from conception to death. It discusses each stage of the Hero’s life and what it means in Irish literature.

Chapter Nine Poets and Poetry: Another interesting chapter that discusses the role and status of the Poet, and I learned that the combination of prose and poetry that is used in Irish mythology is called prosimetrum. It also talks about some of the poets known and their poetry as well as Early Irish lyrics.

I LOVED this book. It is simple and strata froward, nothing too complicated, certainly AN INTRODUCTION and nothing more. If you know NOTHING about Irish mythology then you should read this book, if you know a bit about Irish mythology but want to refresh what you know and maybe learn a little more then read this book. I highly recommend it.