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Association of Polytheist Traditions

Ogma - The Honey-Tongued

Copyright © by Robin Herne 2006

Ogma image The Syrian rhetorician Lucian mentioned a depiction of Ogmios from Marseilles, which portrayed a bald old man leading a group of smiling followers with chains linking their ears to his tongue - an obvious symbol for the potency of words. He wore a lion skin and carried a club and bow. His name is also mentioned on Austrian curse tablets. Some scholars have scorned the notion that Ogmios and Ogma are one and the same deity, but personal experience suggests they are.

The main titles given the god in Ireland are Cermait (Honey-tongued), Trenfher (Strongman) and Grianianech (Sun-faced). The first two reference his eloquence and power, the third his association with sunlight - perhaps also to his sunny disposition! Ogma is a god who weaves language, a patron of the filidh (Gaelic poets-seers).

Irish mythical genealogies are often contradictory. He is either the child or brother of An Dagda, and husband to Etain. The identities of his children vary, but include Cairbre the satirist and Tuirenn. Mac Cecht, Mac Coll and Mac Graine are also linked to him. The first is son of the plough. (Ogma is not otherwise associated with agriculture, so perhaps this is more to do with the mother.) The second is son of the hazel, tree of wisdom - an obvious link to learned Ogma. The third is son of the sun, echoing the epithet of 'sun-faced'. Metaphorically he sires the Ogam alphabet, his whittling knife being the 'mother', carved on four great pillars.

When Lugh sought admittance to Tara, one of the trials he underwent was against Ogma. The old man hurled a massive flagstone out into a field. Lugh picked up the stone and threw it straight back so it landed in its original hole. It's tempting to draw a poetic link between intellect and the power to move great stones, but far too much nonsense has been spouted on that subject already.

During the shoddy reign of Bres the Beautiful, Ogma was forced to give up poetry and made to collect firewood. Whilst the Tree Alphabet as popularised by Graves is more fantasy than historical reality, the Ogam is nonetheless replete with wood and tree imagery. Gathering sticks, therefore, is rather appropriate for a deity so bound to that alphabet. However, the fact that the wood he gathered was destined for the flames could be taken as symbolic that, during Bres' kingship, knowledge and language were discarded rather than valued. A mythical echo of the book burnings beloved of tin-pot tyrants the world over.

He took up arms during the battle to overthrow Bres and the Fomori, and defeated the sea giant Tethra, claiming Orna the magical talking sword. Orna is an Anglicised version of the girl's name 'Odharnait', though the gender of Ogma's sword (if it had one at all) is not made clear in myth. He may have defeated the Fomori Indech during the battle, though some accounts described Ogma as the one killed. I am inclined to dismiss such tales as monastic propagandists wanting to portray the old gods as dead and gone (though I may be a tad biased in that view).

Some Gaelic deities have close parallels in Welsh myth. There is no direct cognate to Ogma. There are elderly learned figures, bardic figures, even bald characters (like Tegid Voel, husband of Ceridwen) - but I am not aware of any historical evidence (nor had any visionary experiences to suggest) that any of them are definitely the same Being. A pot inscription from Richborough bears the name Ogmia, suggestive of a British presence, but not conclusive.

Ogma comes to me as a professorial force who loves stories, poems, word games and books. He dislikes to see books neglected, and approves of me finding appreciative owners for them. To convey a little of what Ogma means to me, I thought the best to do so in verse.

THE HONEY-TONGUED

Ogma, carpenter of song
Harvest the forest of thought,
Carve the timbre of my voice,
That the nemeton be wrought.
Gnarled the Tree whence language born,
Old the God whom Ogam made.
Youthful yet the lips that speak
And the hand that wields the blade.
Orna praises the hero,
Makes memory history.
In Ogma's service he works,
Freed from dark Inis Toraigh.
Honey-tongue, caress my ears.
Amber tales in rivers run
Through the stream-beds of my heart,
Savoured by my loved one.
In the wildwoods of the mind,
Strange beasts rut, conceive new words
That sing in branches high above,
At the festival of birds.
Radiant-faced Ogma hears
The melding of words to verse.
Stories told, a joy to him
Who acts as Memory's nurse.

REFERENCES

Lucian, Herakles

Grey, E a (trans.), Cath Magh Tuireadh, Irish Texts Society

Calder, G (trans.), Auriacept na nEces, Four Courts Press