BabelStone Blog

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Byrhtferth's Ogham Enigma

It probably comes as a surprise to most people to find out that the earliest extant manuscript to include any text written in the Ogham script is an early 12th century English manuscript copy of a work by the late Anglo-Saxon monk Byrhtferth (Byrhtferð) rather than one of the more famous Irish manuscripts that include descriptions of the Ogham script, such as the Book of Ballymote or the Yellow Book of Lecan. But although the origin of Old Irish texts about Ogham such as Auraicept na n-Éces ("The Scholar's Primer") and In Lebor Ogaim ("The Book of Oghams") undoubtedly predates Byrhtferth's work, the only extant manuscript copies of these texts are later than the Byrhtferth manuscript.

Byrhtferth was a monk who worked at the Abbey of Ramsey in Huntingdonshire during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. He is mainly remembered for his Enchiridion or Handbōc (Ashmolean MS 328), a work on the arts of computus and numerology which exhibits an obsession with ordering the universe on a numerological basis. Various other texts derived from a now lost computistical miscellany by Byrhtferth are preserved in two other manuscripts :

On folio 7v of St. John’s MS 17 (and folio 8r of Harley 3667) there is a complex diagram entitled De concordia mensium atque elementorum "On the concord of the months and the elements" (also known as the "Diagram of the Physical and Physiological Fours") that describes the interrelationship of the elements of the universe.

Byrhtferth's Diagram in St. John’s MS 17

The contents of the diagram are summarised succinctly by Byrhtferth himself :

Hanc figuram edidit Bryhtferð [sic] monachus Ramesiensis cñnobii de concordia mensium atque elementorum.

Retinet haec figura .xii. signa et duo solstitia atque bina equinoctia et bis bina tempora anni; in qua descripta sunt .iiii. nomina elementorum et duodenorum uentorum onomata atque .iiii. ñtates hominum. Sunt insimul coniuncta bis binñ litterñ nominis protoplastis Adñ.

Bryhtferth [sic], a monk of the abbey of Ramsey, composed this diagram on the concord of the months and the elements.

This figure contains the twelve signs and the two solstices and the two equinoxes and the twice two seasons of the year; and in it are described the four names of the elements and the names of the twelve winds and the four ages of man. At the same time are added the twice two letters of the name of the first man, Adam. [translation by Peter Baker]

Peter Baker has written a very useful exposition of this diagram, but it is unfortunately no longer available on the internet so is is probably not worth clicking on the preceding link (but you can still get it from the Wayback Machine). The copy of the diagram below is taken from Peter Baker's study of the diagram (click on the diagram to toggle between the original Latin and a modern English translation).

Peter S. Baker, De concordia mensium atque elementorum pages 7 and 8

What is of most interest to me is the details in the middle of the diagram. At the very centre is a wheel-shaped figure, and above it is a horizontal frame that contains a number of mysterious symbols and letters, as well as a single line of Ogham text.

As the diagram in St. John’s MS 17 is probably at least a second or third generation copy of the original diagram that Byrhtferth must have drawn about a hundred years earlier, there is plenty of scope for corruption of these mysterious symbols and letters–that we can assume would have been incomprehensible to Anglo-Saxons less erudite than Byrhtferth. It would therefore have been helpful if we were able to compare different manuscript copies of the diagram, but unfortunately for us the scribe who copied Harley 3667 obviously could not make any sense of the wheel figure and the material in the cartouche, and so he left the middle of his copy of the diagram entirely blank. Thus we only have St. John’s MS 17 to rely on for the heart of the diagram.

Byrhtferth's Diagram in MS Harley 3667

Before we take a closer look at the heart of the diagram it may be useful to take a glance at folio 5v of St. John’s MS 17 (the material on this page is not present in MS Harley 3667), which comprises lists of Runic futhorcs, Latin ciphers and Cryptic alphabets :

Table of Runic Futhorcs, Latin Ciphers and Cryptic Alphabets in St. John’s MS 17 folio 5v

Although David Parsons has reluctantly concluded that the material on this page, in its present form, is unlikely to have been composed by Byrhtferth himself, as some of the dotted Rune forms shown on this page only first appear in the second half of the 11th century (see "Byrhtferth and the Runes of Oxford, St John's College, Manuscript 17" (in Runeninschriften als Quellen interdisziplinärer Forschung (1995) pages 439-445), it is still quite possible that this material is based on an original Byrhtferth source. And even if it is not derived directly from Byrhtferth, we know that Byrhtferth had a great interest in writing systems and cryptography, and this page is indicative of the sort of material that he would undoubtedly have been familiar with : Runic futhorcs (which were known by few in England by the time of Byrhtferth), substitution ciphers and cryptic alphabets. In this context, the appearance of a line of Ogham writing in a Latin text written by an Anglo-Saxon monk begins to make some sense, and can be seen as simply another cryptographic device employed by someone familiar with various exotic cryptographic systems.

We are now in a positionto examine the centre of St. John’s MS 17 folio 7v in more detail.

Centre of the Diagram

The cartouche above the central wheel has on the left the standard Greek abbreviation χρ̅ς for Χριστός "Christ", with what looks like an et ligature below it, and below that the letter e followed after a space by the letter f and then after another space the ligatured letters ſt. To the right of these letters is something that looks like a comet above a circle with a cross inside it (which is an alternate form of the symbol for earth ). And to the right of these two symbols is a strange alien-robot symbol made up of a rectangle with two dots inside it and two dots below it and a P-shaped arial above it. And finally to the right of this is a line of Ogham letters on a stemline.

This is all very abstruse and difficult to interpret, but Patrick Sims-Williams has attempted to decipher its meaning in a paper entitled "Byrhtferth’s Ogam Signature" (in Essays and Poems Presented to Daniel Huws (Aberystwyth, 1994) pages 283–291). Unfortunately this paper is not available on the internet and so I have been unable to read it, although I have been able to get the gist of Sims-Williams' decipherment from David Parsons' article that I cited above.

Sims-Williams interprets the pictures in the centre of the cartouche as a rebus : the comet above the earth stands for Old English byrht (beorht, bryht) "bright"; and the symbol to its right is a human figure that stands for Old English fer(h)þ "mind, spirit, life"; which together make the name Byrhtferth ("Bright Mind"). The line of Ogham writing to the right he reads as MEGFDLU ᚋᚓᚌᚃᚇᚂᚒ, which he then transforms into the Latin me fecit "made me" by applying a simple substitution cipher to the last five letters (i.e. G - 1 = F, F - 1 = E, D - 1 = C, L - 1 = I, U - 1 = T). Thus we get Byrhtferth me fecit "Byrhtferth made me". This is a clever and almost plausible interpretation, but I'm afraid that I find it difficult to accept.

The first problem with this interpretation is the rebus. Whilst a comet may be a good metaphor for bright (but is this even a comet ?), why is there any need to show the earth below it ? And then what about the symbol that Sims-Williams interprets as a "human figure" ? To me it looks nothing like a depiction of a human figure, or even a corruption of a drawing of a human figure. However you draw them, human figures don't have rectangular bodies or dots for legs. And even if we accept it as a human figure, why then would it stand for fer(h)þ which means "mind, spirit, life" ?

Even more problematic than the rebus interpretation is the reading and decipherment of the Ogham writing. Firstly, I'm not convinced by the raw reading of MEGFDLU. Let's look at the Ogham text letter by letter.

At the left is a single short vertical line intersecting the stemline. It looks most like the letter A but Sims-Williams interprets it as the letter M . M is a possibility if we assume corruption of the letterform during the process of manuscript transmission, but my impression is that it is not a letter at all, but an initial feather mark as letters do not normally occur on the far edge of a stemline, and feather marks at the left edge of the stemline are normal in manuscript Ogham.

Next are four ʃ-shaped lines intersecting the stemline. These Sims-Williams interprets as the letter E . However, I do not believe that this is correct, as this ʃ-shape is frequently seen in manuscript Ogham where it is used for the strokes of the M-series of letters (see for example three of the cryptic Ogham series on Royal Irish Academy MS 23 P 12 folio 169v shown further below). So I think the strokes have to be read as either MMMM ᚋᚋᚋᚋ, GG ᚌᚌ or Z (a letter that does not occur in monumental Ogham inscriptions, but which is read as "STR" in Ogham manuscripts). Given the spacing between the strokes I am inclined to think this is MMMM or GG.

Next are two backward-slanting lines that intersect the stemline, which Sims-Williams interprets it as the letter G . There are two problems with this : firstly the lines are slanting the wrong way; and secondly we have already seen that the M-series strokes are written as ʃ-shapes, and it is highly unlikely that the same author would draw the strokes of M-series letters in two different ways in two letters on the same stemline. I think that the most likely possibility is that they are unusually slanting vowel letters, and represent the letter O , .

The next four groups of strokes are clear and unambiguous : FDLU ᚃᚇᚂᚒ. Notice how the letter D slants backward (as the H-series letters sometimes do), but the letter L slants forward, which is anomalous.

So my provisional reading is MMMMOFDLU ᚋᚋᚋᚋᚑᚃᚇᚂᚒ rather than MEGFDLU ᚋᚓᚌᚃᚇᚂᚒ. However, let's assume for the moment that MEGFDLU is correct. Sims-Williams takes this raw reading and transforms it into me fecit by assuming that the last five letters are alphabetically offset by one due to the application of a substitution cipher. There are three reasons why I do not believe in such a transformation : firstly, it makes no sense to assume that the last five letters have been transformed by means of a substitution cipher, but the first two letters have not; secondly, L - 1 ≠ I as the Old English alphabet had a letter K between I and L (see for example the alphabets given in St. John’s MS 17 folio 5v shown above); and thirdly, why would there be any need to apply a substitution cipher to text which has already been more than adequately obfuscated by transcription into Ogham ? In fact, why would there be any need to obfuscate anything as innocuous as me fecit in the first place ?

So if we reject Sims-Williams' decipherment of Byrhtferth me fecit "Byrhtferth made me", what does it all mean ? I only wish I knew. But at present I do not have any convincing alternative theory. I just feel that as the diagram is already openly labelled at the top as Hanc figuram edidit Bryhtferð "Bryhtferth composed this diagram", there is no need to hide the diagram's authorship in the centre of the diagram using such a complex and twisted cryptographic system. Moreover, would Byrhtferth have thought it appropriate to place his name in the centre of a diagram that represents the universe ? For a Christian monk the centre of the Universe should obviously be God, and God is the one entity that is conspicuously absent from the diagram; so I would look for something of more religious significance in the centre of the diagram than the author's signature. And we can certainly see something of religious significance in the occurence of the abbreviation χρ̅ς for Χριστός "Christ" at the very left of the cartouche. And if we try playing with substitution ciphers perhaps we can transform the letters e f ſt to deus "God". Using the simple off-by-one cipher (a variant of which is shown on St. John’s MS 17 folio 5v) : E - 1 = D, F - 1 = E, and if we hypothesise an extended cipher alphabet which includes ligatures and abbreviations in addition to the basic letters, then just maybe the ST ligature (ſt) transforms to the standard US abbreviation (). Thus we might possibly get χρ̅ς et deꝰ = Χριστός et deus "Christ and God" on the left (if you can't see the letter US please install the latest version of either the Code2000 font or the Everson Mono font).

How best to interpret the line of Ogham writing that I read as MMMMOFDLU ? It does not appear to be Latin, Old English, Old Irish or any other spoken language. But what about a number ? M, D, L and U (=V) are all Roman numbers, so perhaps MMMM = 4,000 and DLU (DLV) = 555 (an interesting number). But what of the OF inbetween these two numbers? It could be Old English of, but I can't make any sense of it between two numbers.

I'm afraid that none of the above is at all convincing, and as my thoughts about the pictographs to the left of the line of Ogham writing are even more random and incoherent, it's probably best to move straight on to the wheel figure at the very centre of the diagram. As I have been unable to ascertain what interpretation of the wheel Sims-Williams has been able to provide, I will just have to offer up some idle speculation of my own.

This figure is immediately reminiscent of an Ogham wheel that is found in the In Lebor Ogaim ("The Book of Oghams"), but only in the version of this text that is given in the Book of Ballymote (Royal Irish Academy MS 23 P 12) :

Royal Irish Academy MS 23 P 12 folio 169v (Ogham wheel on the right)

In Lebor Ogaim includes 93 "scales", which are various cryptic ways of writing the Ogham letters. The Ogham wheel seen above is hidden amongst the cryptic ogham codes, but is itself not one of the 93 scales, and is given with no explanation. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to read. The personal names Cille, Cuilibadh, Colum and Ceallach are written around the circumference of the wheel in Latin script, whilst each of the spokes of the wheel represents a single Ogham letter, which is read inwards towards the hub. The arrow head on the spoke pointing to one o'clock is the typical manuscript form of the "feather mark" that marks the start of an ogham line of text, and therefore indicates that this is the first letter of the text. So reading clockwise from this letter we get the seven letters CELLACH, or ᚛ᚉᚓᚂᚂᚐᚉᚆ when written as normal linear Ogham. This is obviously an alternate spelling of the name Ceallach given outside the wheel. As this Ogham wheel only occurs in the Book of Ballymote version of In Lebor Ogaim it was perhaps added by the scribe of the manuscript as a signature.

Unfortunately Byrhtferth's Ogham wheel is not so easy to read. It has eight spokes and so should represent an eight-lettered word, but all of the spokes except the north-west spoke have three strokes, and mirror the opposing spoke, which is rather suspicious. The north-west spoke perhaps only fails to mirror the south-east spoke because the abbreviation χρ̅ς for Χριστός "Christ" occupies the space that should be taken by two of the strokes. I think that the key to understanding the wheel is the north-east spoke, which has the letter b written under each of its three strokes, thus suggesting that it should be read as triple B; which it can be if we read out from the hub of the wheel (i.e. the opposite way to which the Ogham wheel in the Book of Ballymote is read) : ᚁᚁᚁ (BBB). If we then assume that all the spokes have tripled Ogham letters, we can read the wheel (starting due north and going round clockwise) as AAA, BBB, BBB, AAA, AAA, BBB, BBB, A[AA]. If we further assume that we should read around the wheel three times (an outer, middle and inner rotation) we get the word ABBA ᚐᚁᚁᚐ repeated six times. ABBA reminds us of the Byrhtferth's teacher Abbo of Fleury, but that is probably a coincidence. What I think this ABBA is intended to represent is the Aramaic word ʼabba "father" which is used in transliteration in both the Greek and Vulgate recensions of the New Testament three times, each time referring to God the Father, once by Jesus in Mark 14:36 (Abba, Father, all things are possible to you), and twice in the epistles of St. Paul (Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6).

Mark 14:36 in Codex Sinaiticus

Mark 14:36 in Codex Gigas

Thus we have the invocation "Father, Father, Father, Father, Father, Father, Christ !" at the very centre of the diagram, which I think is just the sort of thing that we would expect to find there.

Byrhtferth's Diagram on Film and Television

Merlin Series 2 : Beauty and the Beast Part 1 (2009-10-24)


Manuscripts | Ogham

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