Ogham and the Two Currents
The Alphabet of Magic
The Foundations of Druid Magic
The elements are only part of the full symbolism of the Ogham alphabet, however. Another part can best be approached through the work of two of the twentieth century's most influential writers on Ogham. The first of them, Robert Graves, was neither a Druid nor an occultist. He was a poet and writer, one of the “War Poets” whose work voiced the bitterness of the generation that survived the trenches of the First World War, and a passionate if somewhat eccentric student of mythology.
In 1944, as Graves waited out the Second World War in a small village in Devonshire and worked on a novel about the Argonauts, he found his mind haunted by the Ogham and its relationship to mythology. Setting the novel aside, he launched into a book on Ogham and myth called The Roebuck in the Thicket, finishing a 70,000-word manuscript on the subject in three weeks. After the war ended, he returned to his home in Majorca and turned the manuscript into the book that introduced Ogham to the Neopagan scene: TheWhite Goddess.
Graves and his mythic interpretation of Ogham have come in for more than their share of controversy in recent years. Some people in the Pagan community accepted Graves' theories as historical fact. Others reacted against this by dismissing Graves as a purveyor of hokum. Both missed the point that Graves was a poet, not a historian, and The White Goddess is an intensely personal poetic vision of mythology, not a history textbook.
As a brilliantly constructed work of poetic symbolism and myth, TheWhite Goddess makes very poor history but excellent poetry—and as suggested earlier in this chapter, what makes good poetry also makes good magic. This insight guided the second of our two Ogham authors, Colin Murray, in making sense of Ogham as a Druid magical alphabet for today.
Murray, an architect and antiquarian with a passion for Celtic studies, was a major presence in the British Druid scene in the second half of the twentieth century. The Druid order he founded, the Golden Section Order (GSO), always remained small but had a massive influence on other Druid groups all over the world. Among his other achievements, he created the first Ogham divination system in modern times, and nearly all books on Ogham printed since the 1970s borrow from his work.
One of the chief things Murray drew from Graves was a way of arranging the twenty primary Ogham letters in a dolmen arch, as shown in Figure 2-2.
Graves created this diagram to explain one of the features of his Ogham system, a lunar calendar with thirteen months named after thirteen of the Ogham consonants. The months begin at the winter solstice with the letter Beith, marked here as B, on the bottom of the left-hand pillar, and rise up to Saille, marked as S, on the lintel stone above. Straif, shown as Z, shares Saille's month, which is why it appears on the end of the lintel stone next to S. The months then proceed from left to right from Saille through Huath, Duir, and Tinne to Coll and Quert, which share a month. The calendar turns down the right-hand pillar at C, and descends through Muin, Gort, and Ngetal to Ruis at the bottom. The five vowels Ailm, Onn, Ur, Eadha, and Ioho mark the ground below the arch, because they represent specific days—the solstices and equinoxes—rather than months.
Figure 2-2 The Dolmen Arch
Murray noted that the figure puts Duir the oak-few at the top center and Ur the heather-few at the bottom center. The oak, because it attracts lightning and is sacred to sky gods in many cultures, has long been a symbol of the power of the heavens. The heather, because of its magical powers and its place as an ingredient in heather ale, a magnificently intoxicating beverage, has long been a symbol of the power of the Earth. The meanings of the two Ogham letters link them to two forms of an ancient magical symbol—the pentagram (Figure 2-3).
A pentagram is a star made of five equal lines meeting at five equal angles. Since the time of Pythagoras, who brought sacred geometry to the Western world in the sixth century BCE, it has been one of the core symbols of Western magic and spirituality. It has had many meanings down through the years. Modern Pagans who think of it as a purely Pagan symbol, for instance, may be startled to find it in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an emblem of Christian virtues!
Figure 2-3 The Pentagram
In modern magical practice, it stands for the power of the element of spirit in relation to the four material elements. A moral dimension goes along with this interpretation in most magical writings: a pentagram with a single point upward is considered “upright” and stands for spirit ruling over the four elements, while a pentagram with a single point downward is called “reversed” and stands for spirit submerged beneath the four elements. The upright pentagram thus serves as a symbol of good, and the reversed pentagram an emblem of evil.
All this, however, depends on the assumption that spirit is always and only above—in the terms introduced in chapter 2, that the solar current is good and the telluric current is evil. That assumption is very common in modern occultism, but it's no less wrong for being popular. Recognize the telluric current as a power just as holy and necessary as the solar current, and the relationship between the pentagrams takes on a new and more balanced meaning.
Murray applied this insight to Graves' Ogham diagram and turned it into a potent tool for Druid magic. Map the pentagrams onto the dolmen arch, and the Ogham fews give new names to each form. The upright or solar pentagram touches Duir with its uppermost point, so in Druid practice this form is called the “oak pentagram” (Figure 2-4). The reversed or telluric pentagram touches Ur with its lowermost point and is therefore called the “heather pentagram” (Figure 2-5). As symbols of the solar and telluric currents respectively, the oak and heather pentagrams allow you to work with the two currents in ritual.
Figure 2-4 The Oak Pentagram