Ogma, or Oghma, is one of the Tuatha De Dannan. His name means “To Cut” or “Cutting One” in reference to his pioneering the early Celtic writing system Ogam – named for him. Ogam involved cutting lines into wood or stone to create its alphabet. As the creator of writing, Ogma is considered not only the god of writing, but oration, speechcraft and poetry as well. Poetry in the ancient Celtic sense included the memorization and recitation of vast bodies of knowledge and lore, specific to genealogy, geography and language – it was quite an undertaking! Poets were also skilled in lampooning and had a broad knowledge of politics.
Ogma’s titles included Grianainech (“Sun-Faced”) and Trenfher (“Strongman”). He is the warrior god of athleticism, battle poetry, and is called “The Father of Ogam” for the reasons described above. Ogma is often depicted in a triad with his brothers, Dagda and Lugh, forming a trinity called the Tri Dee Dana, the “Three Gods of Skill.” He is attested to in the X, Y, Z and the Ogam Tract, where he declares he is the father of the alphabet and his carving knife, its mother.
In the Irish texts Ogma’s father is Elatha, a Fomorian king. His mother is Ethliu (also known as Eriu) the Formorian goddess who gives her name to Ireland. Ogma is the brother of Bres, who marries Brigid to help unite the Tuatha and Fomorian tribes, and takes the throne after Nuada. Ogma is the father of Dalbaeth and Tuireann. He is also the father of Taranis, a thunder god associated with Dagda and very similar to Thor. Ogma is depicted as a mighty, heavily muscled older man wielding a club and bow and arrows.
When King Nuada loses his arm – and thus his right to the throne – King Bres demotes his brother from the role of Champion to the King and giving him the menial labor of carrying firewood. During his time of indentured servitude, Ogma impresses Bres with his display of athleticism and combat prowess in competitions.
When Bres is overthrown and Nuada is reinstated as king of the Tuatha, Ogma is reinstated as the king’s Champion. However, with Lugh on the scene, Ogma must defend this position. He does so by challenging Lugh to a boulder-hefting competition, shot-putting rocks which otherwise would take eighty oxen to drag. Lugh wins the contest by hurling the rocks back to the position Ogma lifted them from. When Lugh is given command of Nuada’s armies, Ogma is honored to become Lugh’s Champion. In the final battle against the Fomorians, Ogma wins the sword of the Fomorian king, the Orna, which proclaims the victories of its wielder when drawn. In the Irish tales, Ogma and Indech, champion of the Formorians, defeat each other in combat.
Scholars have linked Ogma to the Gallic deity Ogmios, god of eloquence, who is associated with rousing and inspiring his warriors with impassioned speeches. In the archeological record, Ogmios is depicted as a massive warrior with chained warrior bands in tow. The chains extend from Ogmios’ mouth or tongue, and are attached to the ears of his band. These “prisoners” are described as happily enslaved, following their war chief’s inspiring words, inciting them to victory.
In the Mabinogi, Ogma has been identified as Eufydd fab, son of the mother goddess Don. He is described as a magician and assists his brothers just as Ogma aids his brothers in the Irish lore.
The Roman sources syncretized him with Hercules, and he is thus often referred to as Gaullish Hercules.
Ogma excels in body and in mind: there is no academic nerd and rugby jock dichotomy here. In Celtic culture, eloquence is one of the gifts of old age. Elderdom was not denigrated as it is now, and it bestowed many gifts. Ogma is depicted as a swole, jacked granddaddy – an elderly man who has lived a full life and has a tale to tell. Alongside the wise old wizard motif perhaps suggested by the likes of Óðin, Merlin, or Manawydan, perhaps Ogma provides a template for aging men in staying in robust shape and virile health. His incredible shape – he is compared to Hercules – gives us a vision of becoming an old man that is healthy and robust. In this regard, old age is something to look forward to.
He is similar to a modern-day sports coach. His inspirational speeches and cheering his team along – pumping up his players. Even Ogma’s sword proclaimed his exploits, not unlike a sports announcer.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between Ogma and Óðin, who is a fellow warrior-poet, and god of might in battle and in knowledge. Like Ogma he is depicted as an old man who is virile and strong. Like Ogmios, Óðin is depicted with a retinue of warriors whom he is collecting to march into battle. Ogma’s descendance from the Formorian gods parallels the Æsir gods, who descend from an older generation of deities – the Jötnar – and of the Vanir hostage exchange, whereby gods of one tribe join the other in diplomacy.
“God of Poetry” doesn’t have quite the same connotation in modern English as it did in ancient Irish. The poet, or filidh (“fee-lee”) did much more than rhyme about ex-girlfriends in coffee shops. In addition to essentially functioning as community journalist, Celtic poets had the important political role of roasting and lampooning their political enemies, inflicting the “poet’s curse” which could destroy a person’s reputation. Devastating in a smaller, tribal society. In such a culture, reputation was everything. Ogma was thus a god who won battles not only with strength, but also with words.
Warrior poets were, among other things, entertainers who sang and storied the heroic exploits of great heroes. They served a function in society that today is filled by action movies, from Die Hard, to John Wick, to the MCU. Ogma and his trinity of brothers were all-around superheroes, awesome at pretty much everything, and because of Ogma their stories live on to inspire us.