The Irish god Ogma combines aspects of Mercury and Hercules – he is the inventor of the ogham writing system and an orator and poet, but he is also the champion of the deities, their official warrior.
Ogma was one of the Tuatha de Danann, brother of their leader, the Dagda. The two often act together in the myths. He married Etain, daughter of Dian Cecht the divine healer, although according to one myth she also had an affair with Cúchulainn. Their two sons were Cairbre mac Ethne the satirist and Tuireann.
Some of the stories give his parents as Elatha and Eithne, although these two characters take on very different roles in other myths. Carey thinks that since Elatha means “Art, Skill” and this version of Ogma’s family links him to Brigit and the “three gods of skill”, all presumably deities favoured by the poets. (Carey: 57)
Ogma was also known by the by-names grianeach, sunny-faced, and cermait, honey-mouthed. His name, however, means “strong [god], champion” (Duval: 220-1) and most of the sources emphasize this role.
Ogma: the Irish Champion
Although Ogma’s normally imagined as a god of writing and poetry, he had another side: he was also the champion of the Tuatha de Danann. The epic poems called The First Battle of Magh Tuiread and The Second Battle of Magh Tuiread, perhaps because of its subject, mainly features Ogma’s more forceful side.
In the First Battle, for example, Ogma is at the front of the fight with others like Midir and Dian Cecht. He was a serious fighter, too, as the text tells us:
41. Ogma, son of Ethliu, made an attack on the host, and his track was marked by pools of crimson blood.
The battle finishes with Ogma, the Dagda, All and Dealbeath searching for the Fir Bolg king Eochaid after he killed their brother, and the epic battle that ends with Eochaid’s surrender.
Ogma, son of Ethliu, made an attack on the host, and his track was marked by pools of crimson blood. From the east side Cirb entered the fray and made an onslaught on the hosts, and three hundred of the Tuatha Dc fell before him.
For example, when the young god Lugh arrives at the feast the Tuatha hold before the battle, he offers himself and his many skills to them, only to have each one refused because the Tuatha already have someone with that ability. Just to give you a sample:
He said: ‘Question me: I am a champion.’ The doorkeeper answered: ‘We need thee not. We have a champion already, even Ogma son of Ethliu.’
Lugh gets around the doorkeeper by pointing out that no one present has all the skills he has, and so he has to prove to the company that he can back up his words:
Then the doorkeeper lets Lugh pass him, and he entered the fortress and sat down in the sage’s seat, for he was a sage in every art.
Then the great flag-stone, to move which required the effort of four-score yoke of oxen, Ogma hurled through the house, so that it lay on the outside of Tara. This was a challenge to Lugh. But Lugh cast it back, so that it lay in the centre of the palace; and he put the piece which it had carried away into the side of the palace and made it whole.
After Lugh demonstrates that he indeed has the skills he boasted of, the Tuatha’s current king, Nuada, steps aside for him, and Lugh begins to plan out their battle strategy. He asks each of the Tuatha what their contribution will be, and Ogma’s answer shows that he is still the Tuatha’s strong man:
‘ And thou, O Ogma’, saith Lugh to his champion, ‘what is thy power in the battle?’
‘Not hard to say’, quoth he: ‘repelling the king and repelling three enneads of his friends, and capturing the battalion up to a third by the men of Ireland’.
The text seems to say that Ogma fell in the battle, although he appears later in the story, helping the Dagda and Lugh rescue the Dagda’s harper, and in another intriguing incident involving a speaking sword:
In that fight, then, Ogma the champion found Orna the sword of Tethra, a king of the Fomorians. Ogma unsheathed the sword and cleansed it. Then the sword related whatsoever had been done by it; for it was the custom of swords at that time, when unsheathed, to set forth the deeds that had been done by them. And therefore swords are entitled to the tribute of cleansing them after they have been unsheathed. Hence, also, charms are preserved in swords thenceforward. Now the reason why demons used to speak from weapons at that time was because weapons were worshipped by human beings at that epoch, and the weapons were among the safeguards of that time.
(Note the Christianized gloss with its dig at pagan superstitions.) Irish lore has other tales where a sword speaks, often to testify to the deeds of its owner, for good or ill. (Bernhardt-House: 12)
The cause of the battle in the first place was the hard conditions that the Fomorian king, Bres, imposed on the Tuatha, which robbed them of their dignity and led to the second war. While Ogma’s particular assignment might seem to exploit his strength, there may be a deeper meaning:
Ogma’s task is both apt and abject. That the Tuatha de Danann’s trénfher, “strong man”, must haul wood is bad enough, but the significance goes deeper. Although the saga author leaves it unmentioned, Ogma was said to be the inventor of the ogham alphabet. In Irish the word for a letter of that alphabet was fid, “wood”, so that it may be that the wood he is forced to carry was intended to be a parody of the letters he created.
(Wlliams also points out that the Dagda, formerly king of the Tuatha, is doubly degraded by having to dig ditches and build ramparts for the Fomorian king’s fort. A king who does manual labour loses his honour price, and the greater the number of ditches and ramparts around a hill fort, the greater its status. The Dagda’s work robs him of status while adding to Bres’.)1
And God of Writing
The Scholar’s Primer, or Auraicept na N-Éces, credits Ogma with the invention of the Irish alphabet, or ogham:
What are the place, time, person, and cause of the invention of the Ogham (Ogam)? Not hard. Its place the island of Ireland where we Irish live, In the time of Bres son of Elatha king of Ireland it was invented. Its person Ogma son’ of Elatha son of Delbaeth brother to Bres, for Bres, Ogma and Delbaeth are the three sons of Elatha son of Delbaeth there. Now Ogma, a man well skilled in speech and in poetry, invented the Ogham.
The cause of its invention, as a proof of his ingenuity, and that this speech should belong to the learned apart, to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen…
Ogham from Ogma was first invented in respect to its sound according to matter, however, ogum is og-uaim, perfect alliteration, which the poets applied to poetry by means of it, for by letters Gaelic is measured by the poets; the father of Ogham is Ogma, the mother of Ogham is the hand or knife of Ogma.
The Primer was part of a larger book called The Book of Ballymote, and covers everything ogham, from the basic letters to the many kinds of ways they can be used.
Ogma’s role as founder of the alphabet links him to the Gaulish god Ogmios, who will get his own post since he is a fairly complex god.
Ogma, the Dagda and Lugh
The Second Battle of Magh Tuiread, after the coming of Lugh, often shows Lugh, the Dagda and Ogma working together to win the battle and tie up the loose ends afterwards. (They team up to rescue the Dagda’s harper, kidnapped by the Fomorians.) The Dagda was once king of Ireland, and Ogma, as his brother, would have been a trusted advisor. Lugh was the new king of Ireland, presumably drawing on their expertise.
They are sometimes called the trí dée dána, the three gods of skill, as in The Wooing of Etain (18), although other groupings of gods also carry that name, especially the trio of Goibniu the smith, Creidne the brazier and Luchta the carpenter. (In the version I’ve linked to, the phrase is translated as the “three gods of Dana”, which is also a valid reading.)
Their skills would have overlapped, and all three were clever and capable. Ogma might not have been king, but as the king’s champion, and the inventor of a method of communication for the elite, he would have been a welcome addition to their company.
1. Bernhardt-House (10) connects Ogma’s wood-carrying, and the carving of ogham on wooden staves or slips, with the Gaulish god Esus, shown cutting wood in two differing carvings.↩
References and Links
Berhardt-House, Phillip A. 2009: “Warriors, words and wood: oral and literary wisdom in the exploits of Irish mythological warriors,” Studia Celtica Fennica 6: 5-19. (Archives)
Carey, John 1989-90: “Myth and mythography in Cath Maige Tuired,” Studia Celtica 24-5: 53-69. (Scribd)
Duval, Paul-Marie, “Ogmios,” trans. Gerald Honigsblum, Mythologies (American, African and Old European), University of Chicago Press, ed. Yves Bonnefoy: 220-1.
Williams, Mark 2016: Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Princeton University Press. (Google Books)