Manannán mac Lir is also known as simply Manannán. He is also known by Manann Mac Lir (Irish), Mac y Leir (Scottish) and fab Llyr (Welsh) which means “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 figure throughout Irish mythology, and later Welsh mythology and Scottish folklore. Manannán is sometimes called Manannán mac Alloit, meaning “Son of the Land” – possibly signifying that his mother is an earth goddess.
The Isle of Man is named after him, and its inhabitants claim him as their first king and dynastic 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. 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.
He is one of the Tuatha De Danann and becomes their chieftan after being defeated by the Milesians and retreating to Tír na nÓg (the Otherworld). He is god of the sea, kingship, magic, and the gatekeeper to Tír na nÓg. His resident domain in the Otherworld is Emain Ablach, the Isle of Apples, which later appears as Avalon in Arthurian legend. He is associated with the Otherworld provinces of Mag Mell, the Plain of Delights, and Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise. These provinces are described as being located in the West and can be reached by boat, provided Manannán parts the mists that divide the worlds.
Manannán‘s first wife is Fand, who famously falls in love with Cu Chulainn. When things between her and the heroic demigod do not work out, Manannán separates them with his misty cloak, giving his wife the gift of forgetfulness. He also had the goddess Áine as a wife, with whom he fathered Niamh, an enchanting maiden who was able to cross back and forth between the mists on horseback.
His cloak is used as a metaphor for the world-dividing mists, and it shimmers like the multi-hued rippling of the sea. The 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 the details of their journey 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, Manannán 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 will sometimes travels mortal lands as an anonymous warrior, who vaguely describes where he comes from as a place without death or dishonesty. There are place names for Manannán throughout Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland. In Ireland, most of them are water-associated regions. On Man he was ceremonially offered rushes – wetland plants that were sacred to him.
Manannán is closely 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 oars. His horse Aonbharr can pull his chariot over water as well as land. He possesses Fragarach, a sword which can pierce any armor and kill with the slightest of blows. These items he loans to Lugh so that he might succeed in the battle against the Fomorians. Manannán uses a magic wand in the shape of a silver branch with golden apples, which produces enchanting music that sedates anyone who hears it. This, along with something called the Goblet of Truth, he gives to the aid of another great Tuatha king, Cormac mac Airt.
Like the Dagda, he possesses immortal pigs who grant a never-ending supply of pork, and eating them grants renewed youth and vitality, like Iðunn’s apples in Germanic myth. Manannán created the treasure “Crane-Bag”, which he made from Aoife, a female figure in the myths who was turned into a crane by a Druid’s curse. In crane form she died, and Manannán used the crane’s skin to make this “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. It later appears in the story of Rhiannon (who is another of his wives, or perhaps simply a title for his wife, as Rhiannon means “Great Queen”).
In the Mabonogi, Manannán appears as Manawydan. He is described as one of the three humble chieftains of the Tuatha, because he sought to rule through the virtue of deserving and having earned his position, rather than becoming king through war. He travels from Ireland to London to bury the head of his giant brother, Bran the Blessed and ends up at the court of king Pryderi Dyfed in Wales, the son of Rhiannon. Manawydan sought to retire 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, trapped inside a golden grail or bowl. Manawydan untangles a complex web of wizardry to save his wife and his nephew, and restores fertility to the land.
Manannán‘s 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 might think of as a wizard. He is a divine escort and ally to earthly kings, seeking to install them in their appointed positions. He seems to be one of the informants of the later Arthurian character Merlin. His episode with the mists in siring Mongan with Caintigern is strikingly similar 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 continuing fertility and prosperity of the land. He works to liberate Ireland and her people from the Fomorians, the previous dynasty of gods under whose rule the people must sacrifice the land’s fertility in tribute, and in doing so may, or may not appease the fickle Fomorians. The Fomorians travel by sea, often accompanied by fowl weather and chilling mist. In the Welsh lore, it is the mysterious mist (sans Fomorians) which appears to steal away the land’s fertility, and 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 at key turning points is reminiscent of Óðin, another wandering grey wizard associated with moody weather, stirring events to ensure that men achieve their destiny, recruiting heroes to his cause and escorting them to the Otherworld. Manannán also 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. The rainbow of colours is a multi-hued mist, and the same description is given for Manannán’s cloak.
Tír na nÓg is commonly now referred to as Fairyland, or simply Faerie, with various spellings. As god of the Otherworld and of right kingship, he is clearly a guide to the pursuit of something greater, 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.
Within each of us are rightful rulers, also known as our set of values. When the mists settle in and we feel listless, lost and stuck, it may be beneficial to seek out the true king, identify your top values, and then bit by bit, seek to do things each day that help honour these values.
Manannán’s Manx name, Manau is famous in Hollywood. His name was adapted for the 1997 movie The Craft as the deity conjured by the teenage girls’ witchcraft. The rumours on set are that whenever his name was called by the actors during a scene on a beach, that the ocean weather would become stormy and make shooting very difficult.
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, enchantment 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”).