What Planet is This?

16 Aug 2005

Virgular Quinquecostate Ogham

The Book of Ballymote is an important 14th century manuscript written in Irish at Ballymote Castle in County Sligo. It contains a version of the Historia Brittonum, and hence the De Mirabilibus Britanniae, as well as a copy of Virgil's Aeneid amongst other things. Its home is now at the other end of the Sligo railway line, in the archives of the Royal Irish Academy, or Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann, in Dublin.

In one of Tom Stoppard's plays, Travesties, Henry Carr has a dream in which he interrogates James Joyce in a trial, asking "what did you do in the Great War?" since Joyce didn't fight. Joyce replies, "I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?" Though he wrote Ulysses in Switzerland and France, it was of course set in Dublin, the city of a thousand stories. Every word in Ulysses seems to contain a thousand other stories behind it, for example these few words from chapter seventeen: "virgular quinquecostate ogham writing". This chapter is set as a series of questions and answers, and the question whose answer those words appear in is "in what common study did their mutual reflections merge?", referring to Bloom and Dedalus.

Virgular means being branched. Quinquecostate means fiveiform, or more specifically a structure which has five ribs. The latter is mainly a very rare botantical term, and the former is only a little less rare, referring also to rod like marks in, for example, musical scores. Ogham is an ancient alphabet used mainly in Ireland to record special inscriptions, a few hundred of which still survive on megaliths. The alphabet flourished most in the 5th century AD, and though its origins are obscure, its quinquecostate nature links it to the digits of the hand. The series of five different characters each in Ogham are called aicmí. Mary Jones has an interesting ASCII Ogham system, in which "Ogham" would be >--||-//-'-|-/--, i.e. ᚛ ᚑ ᚌ ᚆ ᚐ ᚋ  in Unicode.

Much of what we know about Ogham comes from the Auraicept na N-Éces, The Scholars' Primer, which is a section of the Book of Ballymote. It actually depicts dozens of variants of Ogham, some of which are virgular, and gives kennings for each of its letters. It also provides the background for the alphabet, steeped in mythology, answering "quot sunt genera of the Ogham?" with "not hard", though now we're having a fair bit more difficulty. It's not even known what the etymology of the word Ogham is, with theories ranging from the Greek for groove to Old Irish ghuaim, "bardic wisdom" or "skilled use of words".

Irish is a Goidelic Celtic language, as opposed to the Brythonic languages such as Welsh and Cornish. The former are said to be of the Q-Celtic branch and the latter of the P-Celtic branch because Proto-Celtic *kw became *k in the former branch and *p in the latter. You'd think it would be the K and P branches, but it isn't, so it's all too easy to get them mixed up. One way of keeping it straight is to use the mnemonic words Pwelsh and Quirish.

This entry's been taking shape over a few days, and I doodled it down as a directed labelled graph on a piece of paper eventually to work out which order I'd put it in. I thought that moving from Ballymote to Joyce and back through Ogham to Ballymote again would be a nice way of showing the connections. Though it may be oversystematization, often you want to follow a paragraph with two different ideas, but you can only choose one of them, so it's best to have it all planned out beforehand. That's especially true of these shorter pieces of writing, where you can't ebb and flow between topics returning to something later as easily.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Virgular Quinquecostate Ogham", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/virgular


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"Virgule" is the name of the / character, and I suspect that's what Joyce had in mind rather than any reference to branchiness.

John Cowan, Tue Aug 16 15:16:36 2005


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