Manannán mac Lir is also known as simply Manannán or Manann. His surname, Mac Lir (Irish), Mac y Leir (Scottish) and fab Llyr (Welsh) mean “Son of the Sea.” In Irish myth, his father Lir appears to be a primordial sea god, about whom little else is known. Manannán is a significant reoccurring figure throughout Irish, and later Welsh mythology and Scottish folklore.
To the Irish, he is one of the Tuatha De Danann and a god of the sea, kingship, magic, and a guardian and gatekeeper of the Otherworld: Tír na nÓg. His resident domain in Tír na nÓg is Emain Ablach the Isle of Apples, which would later appear as Avalon in Arthurian legend. He is associated with the Otherworld provinces of Mage Mell, the Plain of Delights and Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise. His Otherworld provinces are always described as being in the West and can be reached by boat, provided Manannán would part the mists that divide the worlds.
Manannán is also known as Manannán mac Alloit, meaning “Son of the Land,” possibly signifying that his mother is a land goddess. He is named after the Isle of Man, whose inhabitants claimed him as their first king and dynasty ancestor, Mannin or Manau. In the Welsh Mabinogi he appears as the wise wizard-king Manawydan fab Llyr – one of the most famous figures in Celtic myth – leading scholars to conclude that his roots are deep and possibly pre-Celtic. In Irish myth, he is one of the chieftains of the Tuatha De, coming into power after the godly tribe leave Ireland to the mortal ancestors of the Irish people, referred to as the Milesians. Manannán leads his immortal people to forevermore dwell in the Otherworld and draws the mists between the two worlds, more or less permanently.
These world-dividing mists are described as his cloak, which shimmers like the multi-hued rippling of the sea. Lifting his cloak seems to make all the difference between scrambling about in a dark, dank, wormy barrow mound – or being lost in lonely waters – and finding transport into the elysian Tír na nÓg. His mists not only barricade the path between worlds but can also cause forgetfulness among those on either side: mortals who cross over do not recall in clear detail their journeys to the Otherworld, and those who dwell in the undying lands do so blithely unconcerned with the troubles of the mortal world.
When he travels about on land, he often does so in the form of a bird, such as a hawk or sparrow. He also can take on the form of a storm or “fiery wheel” (suggesting churning wind and lightening). In this form, his legs can sometimes be seen whipping about like a wheel, in a comedic fashion, like the Road Runner of Looney Toons fame. This image is the folkloric origin behind the flag of the Isle of Man, the three-legged triskelion.
He sometimes travels mortal lands as an anonymous warrior, who vaguely describes where he comes from as a place without death or dishonesty. There are places named after Manannán throughout Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland. In Ireland, most of them watery regions. On Man he was ceremonially offered rushes, wetland plants that were sacred to him.
Manannán is associated with magic and magical treasures, and is variously described as a Druid, illusionist and necromancer. His boat, the Squabe Tuinne (“Wave-sweeper”) can move on command without need for a sail or rowing. His horse Aonbharr and chariot can travel over water as well as land. He posses Fragarach, a sword which can pierce any armor and kill with even the slightest of blows. These items he loans to Lugh that he might succeed in the battle against the Fomorians and become the next king of the Tuatha De Dannan. Manannán possesses a magic wand, a silver branch with golden apples which produces enchanting music that sedates all who hear it. This, along with something called the Goblet of Truth, he gives to the aid of another great Tuatha king Cormac mac Airt, who becomes the High King of Tara (all of Ireland).
Manannán‘s wife is Fand, who falls in love with the Cu Chulainn. When things between her and the heroic demi-god do not work out, Manannán separates them with his misty cloak, giving his wife the gift of forgetfulness. He also appears to have had as a wife the goddess Aine with whom he fathered Niamh, an enchanting maiden who was able to cross back and forth between the mists on her horse.
Manannán is an over-king of the Tuatha De when they retreat through the mists, and he divides up the fairy kingdoms and sidh mounds (gateways between the worlds) amongst the surviving immortals. His mists hold back the passing of age and time, such that those on the Otherworld side do not age. Like Dagda, he possesses immortal pigs who grant a never-ending supply of pork, the eating of which, like Iðunn’s apples in Germanic myth, grant renewed youth and vitality.
Manannán created the treasure Crane-Bag, which he made from Aoife, a reoccurring female figure in the myths who was turned into a crane by a Druid’s curse. In this form she died, and Manannán used her crane-form’s skin to make the sacred bag. This was a “bag of holding” of nigh-infinite capacity. Its contents could only be seen during high tide, and it appeared completely empty at low tide. The bag contains all of the magical treasures of the Tuatha De Dannan, and Manannán shared it widely. It later appears in the story of Rhiannon, another of his wives.
In the Mabonogi, Manannán appears as Manawydan, and he has two brothers. He is described as one of the three humble chieftains of the Tuatha De Dannan, because he sought to rule through the virtue of having deserved and being given his position, rather than through war-lording his way to his own kingdom. He travels from Ireland to London to bury the head of his giant brother, the great king Bran the Blessed. He ends up at the court of the noble king Pryderi Dyfed in Wales, the son of Rhiannon, to woo his mother. Manawydan sought to retire from the life of a warrior-king and settle down with the immortal queen who had outlived her human husband Pwyll. Manawydan and Rhiannon’s domestic bliss is interrupted by an enchanted, mysterious mist which swallows up all the kingdom’s resources, its people, livestock, possessions, and even the land’s fertility. Leading the adventure to undo this mist, Rhiannon and Pryderi become spellbound, entrapped to a golden grail or bowl. Manawydan untangles a complex web of wizardry to save his wife and his nephew, and restore fertility to the land.
In the Irish, and later told in Scottish folklore, Manannán prophesies the birth of the rightful king Mongan, who he then conspires to help the future conception of. Mongan is said to be the
reincarnation of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. To do so, he calls upon the mighty power of his mists.
Manannán‘s folk memory lasted long into the early modern era, in many folk tales and oral traditions as a wandering wizard throughout the land.
Thoughts on Manannán
Like all the Tuatha De Dannan, Manannán is depicted as a handsome, strong, and exceptional warrior. However, he is closer to what we in a modern age might think of as a wizard. He is a divine escort and ally to earthly kings, seeking to install them in their sacred positions. He seems to be one of the origins of the Arthurian Merlin. His episode with the mists in siring Mongan with Caintigern bears striking similarities to Merlin leading Uther into Tintangel to seduce Igraine through the power of illusion and mist, towards the conception of Arthur. His endeavors are always to ensure that the land continues to be fruitful – a role that ancient kings were required to perform.
A significant theme for Manannán is that of benefactor of the Good King. He himself is such a king, and he works towards the begetting, educating, counselling and ennobling of other kings – to ensure the installment and functioning of Goodly Kings. In the Irish lore, he works to liberate the land and her people from the Fomorians, the previous generation of gods under whose rule the people must sacrifice the land’s fertility in tribute. The Fomorians travel by sea, often accompanied by fowl weather and mists. In the Welsh lore, it is the mysterious mist (sans Fomorians) which appears to steal away the land’s fertility, setting off a series of events in which the goddess of the land’s sovereignty and its rightful heir (Rhiannon and Pryderi) become trapped. It is Manawydan who must solve this mystery and restore rightful power and prosperity to the land.
His wandering the lands in and out of the mists is reminiscent of Óðin, wandering as a grey wizard, stirring events to ensure that men achieve their destiny and recruiting heroes to his cause. Manannán strongly resembles Norse Heimdallr. Heimdallr is also born of the sea, the son of the Nine Waves, sea goddess daughters of Aegir and Ran, the primordial powers of the sea in Norse tradition. Heimdallr is associated elsewhere with sheep and rams, which are poetic names for the waves. He wanders mortal realms in disguise, and ensures the installment of the social orders, signifying who will be the jarls, and who will work the land. Like Manannán, Heimdallr is the doorman, the guardian of the gate to the Otherworld, the watchman of the Rainbow Bridge into Ásgard, the abode of the gods.
Manannán also has similarities with Njörðr, god of the sea, who likewise represents abundance. Like Manannán, he is associated with a happy populace, with magical ships which move of their own accord, and with numerous place names by water. Njörðr is similarly an older deity, of the Vanir tribe, and the existing literature focuses on the tribe that came immediately after.
Tír na nÓg is commonly now referred to as Fairyland, or simply as Faerie, with various spellings. As god of the Otherworld and of right kingship, he is clearly a guide to the pursuit of something greater, to the project of living for something greater than oneself. He functions as something of a spiritual tourist, taking kings on journeys of the Otherworld, and showing mortals
glimpses of the magic beyond. He might be in modern times thought of as a god of calling and life purpose. He also seems to be a deity who counsels, and so might be a helpful reminder of helping others live in their own integrity as goodly kings in their own domains.
Manannán’s Manx name, Manau scored him a part in the 1997 movie The Craft as the deity conjured by the teenage girls’ witchcraft.
Signs and Symbols
Triskelion, especially the three-legged wheel on the flag of the Isle of Man. Ships, the sea, and all things nautical. Cloaks, mists, fog, and storms. Wetland plants and apple trees. The Otherworld, Tír na nÓg, Fairyland, Faerie, islands, Avalon. Wizards and magic.
Manann, Mannin, Manau, mac Alloit, Manawydan fap Llyr, Oirbsiu, Oirbsen, Orbsen, Duartaine O’Duartaine, Cathal O’Cein (“Great Warrior”) , Gilla de (“Boyservant”), Gilla Decair (“Troublesome Boyservant”).