Manannán mac Lir was powerful sea deity of Irish folklore. This mysterious figure has been shrouded in legends for centuries, painting him as a supernatural being with mastery over the sea, the dead, and the veil between worlds.
With the ability to control the weather and command a magical ship that could never sink, Manannán mac Lir has captured the imagination of generations. But where did he come from?
Who was Manannán mac Lir?
Manannán mac Lir is a central figure in old Irish and Manx mythology. He was a legendary warrior, and leader of the Tuatha De Danann (a legendary people said to have lived in Ireland during the Bronze Age) and is often interpreted as a sea god.
Manannán mac Lir is also said to have been the Isle of man’s first ruler. It is from him that the island got its original name, Manand.
He appears in all four cycles of Irish mythology and is often represented as the ruler and protector of the “Otherworld”, where souls journey after death. He was a master of tricks and illusions who had many magical possessions.
It was said he had a horse, Aonbarr, who could run on water, and a ship called the “wave sweeper” that could propel itself and never sank. He also had a magic cloak that gave him invisibility and he could summon mist to disappear.
His prized possession however was his sword, Fragrach (answerer). Just the sight of the sword could fill men’s hearts with fear, making them weak. Any person wounded by the sword would not survive.
This might all make him sound rather fearsome, but Manannán mac Lir was also known for his generosity. He was said to give gifts and blessings to all that pleased him, and it was he who ferried the souls of the dead to the afterlife.
A Complicated Tale
This is where things get slightly complicated. Versions of Manannán mac Lir appear in Irish, Manx (Isle of Man), and Welsh mythology and these different versions of him tend to appear in different myths playing varied roles. On top of this Manannán mac Lir appears in all four cycles of Irish mythology with his role changing over time.
In Manx mythology Manannán usually plays the role of defender, using magic to veil the island in a mist that confuses and intimidates potential invaders. In Manx mythology, he also aided Lugh (one of his many foster children) in preparation for the Second Battle of magh Tuireadh. This was a battle between the Tuatha de Danann (mentioned above) and the Fomorians (magical natives of Ireland who predated the Tuatha de Danann).
In the preamble to this battle, he gifted the Tuatha De Danaan several magical gifts; his invincible coat and breastplate, a helmet, and his prized sword, the Answerer. The Answerer was so-called because if you held it against a person’s throat, they couldn’t lie. It could also penetrate any shield and could essentially cut through pretty much anything.
In Welsh mythology, Manannán goes by the name Manawydan fab Llŷr and the focus is largely on his three children. Manawydan fab Llŷr plays a different role to the Manannán of Manx and Irish folklore. He is the father of the god Bran the Blessed, the god of regeneration (or sometimes a king depending on the source). Bran owned an enchanted cauldron that if drank from could bring a dead warrior back to life.
This cauldron has been confused with the golden cup owned by the Irish version of Manannán which he gifted to High King Cormac mac Airt. While Bran’s cauldron could heal the dead, Manannán’s cup served a similar purpose to Answerer. It would break if lies were told in front of it and repair itself if it heard the truth. In Irish folklore the cup was of great use throughout King Cormac’s 40-year reign, disappearing after his death (most probably reclaimed by Manannán).
In most legends Manannán appears in he tends to play a background role, offering support to the major players rather than being a main character himself. For example, perhaps the most famous legend featuring Manannán is “The Children of Lir”, a story predominantly about his children.
Manannán’s spouse varies from source to source. In the Tain Bo Cuailnge his wife is the goddess/ Fairy Queen Fand while in other sources, she is said to be a different goddess, Aine, (who rather confusingly is also sometimes his daughter). However, in this tale, his wife is Aoibh, the daughter of the Tuatha de Danann’s king, Bobd Derg.
Manannán has four children with Aine Aoibh, one girl, and three boys. Soon after the final birth Aoibh dies, leaving Manannán to raise the children alone. Deciding that this won’t do King Bobd sends his other daughter, Aoife, to replace Aoibh. Similar to many classic fairy tales Aoife becomes jealous of her dead sister and soon starts playing the role of an evil stepmother.
Her jealousy drives her to transform the children into swans (she first orders her servants to kill them, but they refuse). Rather bizarrely Manannán doesn’t seem too bothered about his children and leaves it to King Bobd to punish Aoife. The children stay in swan form for 900 years until they’re blessed by a monk, Saint Patrick.
While most legends that feature Manannán either focus on his offspring who have him simply offering aid there are a handful in which he plays a more pivotal role. These usually revolve around Manannán using his magic to trick or to test mortals.
A classic example is the legend of O’Donnell’s Kern. In this tale, Manannán appears at the courts of various historical figures from 16th-century Ireland disguised as a kern (serving man). He tests each figure, rewarding those who pass (such as MacEochaidh of Leinster, whose leg he heals) and teaches those who fail lessons in humility.
A God of the Shadows
It is easy to see why Manannán has remained such a popular figure in folklore. While he doesn’t always take an active role, he often serves as an aid to a story’s hero, giving them the tools they need to succeed.
In a lot of folklore, the gods are often terrifying and dreadful but Manannán is usually a protector and benevolent leader, blessing and helping those in need. In tales where he is portrayed as a trickster, he is still likable, he may play games and test the heroes, but only so they might better themselves.
The legacy of Manannán mac Lir continues to this day, with many people still paying homage to him in various ways. Some modern pagans consider him to be a deity and still practice rituals in his honor. It is unlikely the stories of Manannán mac Lir will ever completely fade.
Top Image: Statue of Manannán mac Lir in Gortmore, Ireland, facing the sea. Source: Kenneth Allen / CC BY-SA 2.0.