Manannán mac Lir: The tale behind the myth

Sculptor, John Darren Sutton.
Sculptor, John Darren Sutton.
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The story of the theft of a sculpture of the Celtic god of the sea from Gortmore close to Limavady last week has made news across the globe and has even made the pages of the New York Times. But, what is the story behind the mythological deity? Here is the story of the sea deity.

Manannán mac Lir—also known simply as Manannán or Manann—is a sea deity in Irish mythology. ‘Mac Lir’ means “son of the sea”. As well as being a sea god, he is also seen as a psychopomp and is associated with the Otherworld and the veil between the worlds. He is affiliated with both the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. In the tales, he is said to own a boat named Scuabtuinne (“Wave Sweeper”), a sea-borne chariot drawn by the horse Enbarr, a powerful sword named Fragarach (“The Answerer”), and a cloak of invisibility. Manannán appears also in Scottish and Manx legend, and the Isle of Man (Manainn) is named after him. He is cognate with the Welsh figure Manawydan fab Llŷr.

Sculptor, John Darren Sutton with the sculpture.

Sculptor, John Darren Sutton with the sculpture.

He is also referred to as Oirbsiu or Oirbsen (modern spellings Oirbse, Oirbsean), from which Lough Corrib takes its name.

Manannán appears in many Celtic myths and tales, although he only plays a prominent role in some of them.

In the tale “His Three Calls to Cormac,” Manannán tempts the Irish King Cormac mac Airt with treasure, specifically a “shining branch having nine apples of red gold,” in exchange for his family. Cormac is led into the Otherworld and taught a harsh lesson by Manannán, but in the end his wife and children are restored to him. Also, Manannán rewards him with a magic cup which breaks if three lies are spoken over it and is made whole again if three truths are spoken. Also he is said to protect the Isle of Man with his cloak of mist when trouble comes.

Manannán has strong ties to the Isle of Man, where he is referenced in a traditional ballad as having been the nation’s first ruler. At Midsummer, the Manx people offer bundles of reeds, meadow grasses and yellow flowers to Manannán in a ritual “paying of the rent”, accompanied with prayers for his aid and protection in fishing. He is also believed to have been a magician who could make an illusory fleet from sedge or pea shells to discourage would-be invaders.

According to the Book of Fermoy, a manuscript of the 14th to the 15th century, “he was a pagan, a lawgiver among the Tuatha Dé Danann, and a necromancer possessed of power to envelope himself and others in a mist, so that they could not be seen by their enemies.”.It was by this method that he was said to protect the Isle of Man from discovery.

Manannán was associated with a “cauldron of regeneration”. This is seen in the tale of Cormac mac Airt, among other tales. Here, he appeared at Cormac’s ramparts in the guise of a warrior who told him he came from a land where old age, sickness, death, decay, and falsehood were unknown (the Otherworld was also known as the “Land of Youth” or the “Land of the Living”).

As guardian of the Blessed Isles as well as Mag Mell he also has strong associations with Emhain Abhlach, the Isle of Apple Trees, where the magical silver apple branch is found. To the Celts, the Blessed Isles that lie beyond the sea are the gateways to the Otherworlds, where the soul journeys to after death. Manannán is the guardian of these gateways between the worlds.

Mannanán’s powerful role in the cycle of life and death is also expressed in his possession of magic swine whose flesh provides food for feasting by the gods, and then regenerates each day, like that of Odin’s boar Sæhrímnir in Scandinavian myth.

Manannán has strong ties to the Isle of Man, where he is referenced in a traditional ballad as having been the nation’s first ruler. At Midsummer, the Manx people offer bundles of reeds, meadow grasses and yellow flowers to Manannán in a ritual “paying of the rent”, accompanied with prayers for his aid and protection in fishing. He is also believed to have been a magician who could make an illusory fleet from sedge or pea shells to discourage would-be invaders.

According to the Book of Fermoy, a manuscript of the 14th to the 15th century, “he was a pagan, a lawgiver among the Tuatha Dé Danann, and a necromancer possessed of power to envelope himself and others in a mist, so that they could not be seen by their enemies.” It was by this method that he was said to protect the Isle of Man from discovery.

Manannán was associated with a “cauldron of regeneration”. This is seen in the tale of Cormac mac Airt, among other tales. Here, he appeared at Cormac’s ramparts in the guise of a warrior who told him he came from a land where old age, sickness, death, decay, and falsehood were unknown (the Otherworld was also known as the “Land of Youth” or the “Land of the Living”).

As guardian of the Blessed Isles as well as Mag Mell he also has strong associations with Emhain Abhlach, the Isle of Apple Trees, where the magical silver apple branch is found. To the Celts, the Blessed Isles that lie beyond the sea are the gateways to the Otherworlds, where the soul journeys to after death. Manannán is the guardian of these gateways between the worlds.

Mannanán’s powerful role in the cycle of life and death is also expressed in his possession of magic swine whose flesh provides food for feasting by the gods, and then regenerates each day, like that of Odin’s boar Sæhrímnir in Scandinavian myth.