The Case of the Missing P

The ogham alphabet, which some contemporary Druids and Pagans use in divination, served writers of early Irish for about half a millennium, starting in the 400s. The writing system consists of mostly straight lines, well-adapted for incising letters on wood and stone, which keep saying “we don’t do curves”.

Ogham stone, Rathass Church, Kerry, Ireland./Wikipedia Images.

You can read scholarly speculation about ogham’s origins here on Wikipedia and elsewhere. Accounts in the later medieval Lebor Gabala Erenn (“The Book of the Taking of Ireland”) and the Ogam Tracts variously attribute its origins to the god Ogma/Ogmios and to wise Celtic ancestors.

Among other modern writers, Robert Graves (1895-1985) launched the ogham into the modern world in his book, The White Goddess. Did he know what he was doing? Well, it’s subtitled A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Depending on your point of view, that’s utterly contradictory, or an image of our common human reality. Things rarely have a single “cause” but instead are part of a web or network of beings and energies, each aspect or person or deity contributing its portion.

Whatever you make of its origins, as a proven divination system the ogham can open doors to insight.

But as a friend of mine recently discovered, it has some practical disadvantages in non-magical use. For one thing, it has no letter to represent p, in part because Irish had no need for a letter to represent this sound, which disappeared over the course of its development. Historical linguistics offers examples: Proto-Indo-European *pater “father” became early Irish *athir; PIE *pisk– “fish” became (modern) Irish iasc, and so on. (With Christianity, Irish came to adopt the Latin alphabet, convenient for all the words beginning with p that it eventually borrowed from Latin.)

I find in these things some helpful reminders. Sometimes what works — works well, works wonderfully — on one level of reality may not fit well or at all on another level. Deploying the gift of a magical alphabet like ogham, I might discover something profound about my purpose in this life, but not be able to write the word “purpose” using that same alphabet.

Though a p is a possible sound, you might say, I may not need it in particular — there are other sounds, a whole spectrum. (Arabic, for instance, doesn’t have a p either, and gets along fine. From the perspective of many other languages, how can English speakers possibly have a language without the “raspy throat sound” in Bach or Ḥanukkah? [That’s a velar or pharygneal fricative, if you want to show off.] English used to have that sound — the evidence lies in all those archaic spellings with -gh- like “night, light, sought, though, bright, laugh” etc. And the way languages keep changing, we could one day have that sound back again.)

I fall into a ready trap if I expect the cosmos to line up obediently according to my partial understanding of it. (Don’t ask me how many times I’ve had to re-learn that lesson. And by the looks of things, I’m not yet done, either.) When I asked Ogma for help with a constructed Celtic language, I attempted to align with an energy connected to language and words. The results reflect both the blessing the god was willing to offer, and also my human effort. Centuries from now, if someone attempts to “explain the origins” of “my” language, could they even come close to the muddy, messy reality of human interest, a spiritual door opening, a gift of inspiration, some experience with Celtic languages, time dedicated to manifestation, and who knows what else in the mix? I may want my magic pure and my life comprehensible, but they refuse to cooperate.

Maybe because the p’s are missing.

/|\ /|\ /|\

%d bloggers like this: