Manannán mac Lir

"Manannan" redirects here. For the Isle of Man Steam Packet ship, see HSC Manannan.
Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore, Magilligan, County Londonderry (2014).[1]
The boat from the 1st century BC Broighter Hoard, which was found near Magilligan and may be a votive offering to Manannán[2]

Manannán or Manann (Old Irish Manandán), also known as Manannán mac Lir (Mac Lir meaning "son of the sea"),[3] is a sea deity in Irish mythology. 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 (féth fíada). He is seen as the guardian of the Otherworld and one who ferries souls to the afterlife. Manannán is furthermore identified with the trickster figure Bodach an Chóta Lachtna ("the churl in the drab coat").[4]

Manannán appears also in Scottish and Manx legend, and some sources say the Isle of Man (Manainn) is named after him, while others say he is named after the island. He is cognate with the Welsh figure Manawydan fab Llŷr.

Names and eponymy

Manannán is also known as Oirbsiu or Oirbsen, from which Lough Corrib takes its name.[5]

His name is spelt Manandán in Old Irish, Manannán in modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Mannan in Manx Gaelic. He is also given two surnames. The most common is Mac Lir, which may mean "son of the sea" or "son of Ler". It has been suggested that Ler was a sea god whose role was taken over by Manannán. The other is Mac Alloit or Mac Alloid. Allot or Allod may be another name for Ler.

The late medieval Yellow Book of Lecan (written c. 1400) says there were four individuals called Manandán who lived at different times. They are: Manandán mac Alloit, a "druid of the Tuath Dé Danann" whose "proper name was Oirbsen"; Manandán mac Lir, a great sailor, merchant and druid; Manandán mac Cirp, king of the Isles and Mann; and Manandán mac Atgnai, who took in the sons of Uisnech and sailed to Ireland to avenge their deaths.[6]

His name is derived from that of the Isle of Man, which itself may come from a Celtic word for "mountain", i.e. "he of [the isle of] Man; he of the mountain".[7] In medieval Irish tradition, it appears that Manannán came to be considered eponymous of the island (rather than vice versa); in the earliest Irish mythological texts, Manannan is a king of the Otherworld, but the Sanas Cormaic identifies a euhemerized Manannán as "a famous merchant who resided in, and gave name to, the Isle of Man".[8] Later, Manannán is recorded as the first king of Mann in a Manx poem dated 1504.[9]

In Manx tradition, he is known as Mannan beg mac y Leir, "little Mannan, son of the sea". Manannán's Welsh equivalent is Manawydan fab Llyr.

In Irish mythology

Manannán appears in all of the four cycles of Irish mythology, although he only plays a prominent role in a limited number of tales.

In the Ulster Cycle tale, Serglige Con Culainn ("The Sickbed of Cúchulainn") Manannán's wife, Fand, has an ill-fated affair with the Irish warrior Cúchulainn. When Fand sees that Cúchulainn's jealous wife, Emer is worthy of him (and accompanied by a troop of armed women), she decides to return to Manannán, who then shakes his magical cloak of mists between Fand and Cúchulainn so that they may never meet again.[11][12]

In The Voyage of Bran, Manannán prophesied to Bran that a great warrior would be descended from him.

The 8th-century saga Compert Mongáin recounts the deeds of a legendary son, Mongán mac Fiachnai, fathered by Manannán on the wife of Fiachnae mac Báetáin.


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."[13] 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").[14]

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.[14]

Manannán had many magical items. He gave Cormac mac Airt his magic goblet of truth; he had a ship that did not need sails named "Wave Sweeper"; he owned a cloak of mists that granted him invisibility, a flaming helmet, and a sword named Fragarach ("Answerer" or "Retaliator") that could slice through any armour and upon command when pointed at a target could make that target answer any question asked truthfully. He also owned a horse called "Enbarr of the Flowing Mane" which could travel over water as easily as land. Some sources say that, to Manannán, the sea is like a flowery plain.[15]

Mannanán also had swine whose flesh provided food for feasting by the gods, and then regenerated each day, like that of Odin's boar Sæhrímnir in Scandinavian myth.[16]

Familial relations

Manannán's father is the sea-god Ler ("Sea; Ocean"; Lir is the genitive form), whose role he seems to take over. According to Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), his wife is the beautiful goddess, Fand ("Pearl of Beauty" or "A Tear" – later remembered as a "Fairy Queen", though earlier mentions point to her also being a sea deity). Other sources say his wife was the goddess Áine, though she is at other times said to be his daughter. Manannán had a daughter, whose name was Niamh of the Golden Hair. It is also probable that another daughter was Clídna, but sources treat this differently. Either way, she is a young woman from Manannán's lands, whose epithet is "of the Fair Hair". Mongán mac Fiachnai is a late addition to the mac Lir family tree. The historical Mongán was a son of Fiachnae mac Báetáin, born towards the end of the 6th century. According to legend Fiachnae, who was at war in Scotland, came home with a victory because of a bargain made with Manannán (either by him, or by his wife) to let Manannán have a child by his wife. This child, Mongán, was supposedly taken to the Otherworld when he was very young, to be raised there by Manannán. The Compert Mongáin tells the tale. In the Dinsenchas Manannán is also described as the father of Ibel, after whose death Manannán cast draughts of grief from his heart that became Loch Ruidi, Loch Cuan, and Loch Dacaech.[17]

Manannán is often seen in the traditional role of foster father, raising a number of foster children including Lugh of the great hand and the children of Deirdre.

Manx sources

Manannán appears to have etymological ties to the Isle of Man. An early Manx poem, dated to 1504, identifies the first king of the island as one Manannan-beg-mac-y-Lheirr, "little Manannan, son of the Sea" (or, "son of Leir"):[18]

Manannan beg va Mac y Leirr / Shen yn chied er ec row rieau ee; / Agh myr share oddym's cur-my-ner, / Cha row eh hene agh An-chreestee.
"Little Manannan was a son of Leirr; he was the first that ever had it [the island]; but as I can best conceive, he was himself a heathen."

The poem goes on to describe how Manannan defended the island by magic, by conjuring up mists and creating the illusion of a defending army. In Manx Fairy Tales (1911), this theme is developed into Manannan creating the illusion of a fleet against the Viking invaders.[19][20]

Manx legends[21] also tell of four items that he gave to Lugh as parting gifts, when the boy went to aid the people of Dana against the Fomorians. These were:[21] "Manannan's coat, wearing which he could not be wounded, and also his breastplate, which no weapon could pierce. His helmet had two precious stones set in front and one behind, which flashed as he moved. And Manannan girt him for the fight with his own deadly sword, called the Answerer, from the wound of which no man ever recovered, and those who were opposed to it in battle were so terrified that their strength left them." Lugh also took Enbarr of the Flowing Mane, and was joined by Manannan's own sons and Fairy Cavalcade. When he looked back on leaving, Lugh saw[21] "his foster-father's noble figure standing on the beach. Manannan was wrapped in his magic cloak of colours, changing like the sun from blue-green to silver, and again to the purple of evening. He waved his hand to Lugh, and cried: 'Victory and blessing with thee!' So Lugh, glorious in his youth and strength, left his Island home."

Lady Gregory's retellings

In her Gods and Fighting Men (1904),[22] Augusta, Lady Gregory includes a number of tales about Manannán from the Book of Invasions (part I. book IV, chapters 814).

The tale "Manannan at Play" (IV.9) features the god as a clown and beggar who turns out to be a harper. Manannán (here in his trickster guise of the Bodach), plays a number of pranks, some of which result in serious trouble; by the end of the tale, he compensates for the pranks that got him in trouble.[23]

In the tale "His Three Calls to Cormac" (IV.11), 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.[24]

See also


  1. The return of sea god sculpture Manannán Mac Lir, Derry Journal, 26 June 2015.
  2. Wallace, Patrick F., O'Floinn, Raghnall eds. Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities, 2002, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, p. 138.
  3. Charles Squire. Celtic Myth and Legend
  4. Bodach an Chóta Lachtna in the Oxford Dictionary of Irish Mythology. Eachtra Bhodaigh an Chóta Lachtna ("Tale of the Carle in the Drab Coat") is the title of a 17th-century Fenian tale.
  5. by misdivision from Loch Oirbsean. Macalister, Vol. 4 (1941), p. 104.
  6. Skene, William F. "Chapter VI. Manau Gododin and the Picts" in The Four Ancient Books of Wales
  7. Kneale, Victor (2006). "Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man). Britonia". In Koch, John T. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. p. 676. If the name of Man reflects the generic word for "mountain", it is impossible to distinguish this from a generic "he of the mountain"; but the patronymic mac Lir, interpreted as "son of the Sea", is taken to reinforce the association with the island. e.g. Wagner, Heinrich. "Origins of Pagan Irish Religion". Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie. v. 38. 1-28.
  8. cited after Catholic World 37 (1883) p. 261.
  9. The Dublin Review 57 (1865), 83f.
  10. Serglige Con Culainn, ed. Myles Dillon (1953). Serglige Con Culainn. Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series 14. Dublin: DIAS.; tr. Jeffrey Gantz (1981). Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin. pp. 155–78.
  11. "Serglige Con Culainn", Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
  12. The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain transcribed from The Lost Yellow Book of SlaneBy Maelmuiri mac Ceileachair into the Leabhar na h-Uidhri in the Eleventh Century
  13. "Folk-lore of the Isle of Man: Chapter I. Myths Connected with the Legendary History of the Isle of Man". Retrieved 2014-01-16.
  14. 1 2 This tale exists in several manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; i. e. Book of Ballymote, and Yellow Book of Lecan, as edited and translated by Stokes, in Irische Texts, III. i. 183-229; cf. Voy. of Bran, i. 190 ff.; cf. Le Cycle Myth. Irl., pp. 326-33.
  15. Koch, John T. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2006. p.959
  16. David B. Spaan, "The Place of Manannan Mac Lir in Irish Mythology," Folklore 76 (1965), p. 185; Miranda J. Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth (Routledge 1998), p. 170 online and Celtic Myths (University of Texas Press, 1995), p. 17 online. See also J.G. Oosten, The War of the Gods (Routledge, 1985), p. 73 online.
  17. The Dublin Review 57 (1865), 83f.
  18. "So Manannan made little boats of the sedge, a good number of them, and sailed his boats in the stream. And when the little fleet floated out of the harbour, he caused them to look like great ships of war, well manned with fighting men. Then terror seized on the Northmen when they saw the Manx fleet, and they cut their cables, hoisted sails, and cleared away as fast as they could, and Manannan and his island were left in peace." Morrison, Sophia (1911) "Manannan Mac Y Leirr" in Manx Fairy Tales. London, David Nutt / Long Acre
  19. Evans Wentz, W.Y. "IV. In the Isle of Man" in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).
  20. 1 2 3 Boyhood of Lugh: Manx Fairy Tales, Peel, L. Morrison, 1929
  21. Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory. 1904.
  22. Gregory (1903) "Part I Book IV: Manannan at Play"
  23. Gregory, Lady Augusta (1903) online "Part I Book IV: His Three Calls to Cormac" in Gods and Fighting Men. Buckinghamshire, Colyn Smyth
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