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Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore, Magilligan, County Londonderry (2014).

Manannan Mac Lir: God of the Sea and Guardian of the Afterlife


Manannan mac Lir is likely the most prominent sea deity of Irish mythology and literature. With his sea-borne chariot, affiliation with horses and cloak of invisibility, he guards the otherworld and the afterlife, incorporating aspects of the ancient Greek gods Poseidon and Hades. Manannán can also be associated with the Arthurian land of eternal youth, Avalon (Tír na nÓg in Celtic mythology), because his Irish daughter Niamh is one of the queens of this realm and his Welsh son Bran the Blessed possesses the cauldron a rejuvenation, not unlike the mythical Holy Grail.

Manannán is also a popular character on the Isle of Man and a similar version of him is widespread in Wales. This prevalent appreciation and adoption of a god is not uncommon, however the Isle of Man is named for Manannán while the Welsh version of him, Manawydan fab Llŷr, is so like his Irish counterpart that their stories are easily confused.

As with other deities such as Lugh and Nuada, Manannán was associated with both the Tuatha de Danann and the Fomorians, two supernatural opponents consistently at odds. The Tuatha de Danann (the last supernatural invaders of Ireland) and the Fomorians (believed to have been the magical natives of Ireland after the Great Flood) had long been enemies, as they both vied for the land of Ireland. Manannán is not only an important figure in Irish culture however, but it appears that there was a variation of him worshipped on the Isle of Man and in Wales.

The Fomorians, as depicted by John Duncan (1912)

The Fomorians, as depicted by John Duncan (1912) ( Public Domain )

The Irish version remains the most popular, but in Manx Manannán was viewed as the island's defender, using his magic to create a mist to confuse and intimidate any invaders. He also apparently aided Lugh (one of many children Manannán is known to have fostered) in preparation for the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, a great fight between the Tuatha de Danann and Fomorians, gifting the former with his impenetrable coat and breastplate, a helmet with stones that flashed when he moved, and his all-powerful sword called the Answerer, a wound from which no enemy could survive. The Answerer, called such because no one could ever tell a lie if it was held against one's throat, could penetrate any shield or obstacle as well thereby making it a highly valuable item.

The Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe" (1911)

The Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe" (1911) ( Public Domain )

Manannán is also akin to the Welsh god Manawydan fab Llŷr, of which three of his children are the primary focus of two narratives in The Mabinogion. In the Welsh tales, Manawydan is the father of the god of regeneration, Bran the Blessed (though sources vary on whether Bran was a king or a god). Bran possessed a magical cauldron that, if drank from, could restore a deceased warrior to life. Now this cauldron should not be confused with the golden cup of the Irish Manannán, which was given High King Cormac mac Airt by Manannán during his forty-year reign. According to the Irish Annals, the golden cup would break thrice if three lies were spoken over it, and repair itself if three truths were. Until Cormac's death, this goblet aided Cormac during his reign; upon his death, it vanished, presumably returning to Manannán. Regardless, Manannán seems to be in some way associated with regeneration and life…

Manannán is extensively recognized due to the tale of his offspring, recorded quite bluntly in "The Children of Lir". Though Lir's spouse varies by text (in Táin Bó Cúailnge, "The Cattle Raid of Cooley", she is Fand, for instance), this myth recognized Aoibh as his wife, daughter of the current king of the Tuatha de Danannn: Bobd Derg. Together, they had four children—one girl and three boys—however Aoibh soon died, leaving the children motherless. Their aunt, Aoife, was sent by Bodb to replace her. As with most tales in which an easily jealous woman replaces a beloved mother, Aoife disliked the children's continued love for Aoibh and Lir.

Aoife by John Duncan.

Aoife by John Duncan . ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Aoife, in her jealousy, used her magic to transform the children into swans when her servants refused to kill them and she could not bring herself to complete the task herself. Interestingly, Aoife was punished by her father and not Lir, and the children remained swans for 900 years until they were blessed by a monk—in this case, Saint Patrick.

Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore, Magilligan, County Londonderry (2014).

Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore, Magilligan, County Londonderry (2014). ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Although Manannán does not take an active role in the majority of the stories about him, his importance in the Irish, Manx and Welsh cultures is astounding. Manannán's real purpose in these tales is the gifts he gives to various other characters—whether those gifts are tangible items or his children, such as Bran. Despite this secondary role, Manannán remains one of the better known gods in folklore, though he is most often referred to by the moniker Lir.

Top image: Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore, Magilligan, County Londonderry (2014). Copyright Michael Kight / Flickr

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Early Irish Myths and Sagas. 1982. (trans. Jeffrey Gantz.) New York: Penguin Classics.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Manannan mac Lir", accessed July 16, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Manannan-mac-Lir

The Mabinogion. 2008. (trans. Sioned Davies.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge. 2002. (trans. Thomas Kinsella.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tochmarc Etain. 2009. (ed. Kuno Meyer) CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork. http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G301021A/

Tochmarc Emire. 2001. (ed. Cecile O'Rahilly) CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork.

Yeats, WB. 2011. The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore (Celtic, Irish). New York: Dover Publications.

Comments

Nice article, but you make it sound like Mannanan and Lir/Llyr are the same mythological character when traditionnally Mannanan is the son of Lir and they are not the same individual.

The scottish "Mac" and the welsh "Fab" both means "son of", and the old texts present Lir as a god of the sea, with his son Manannan following his path and taking progressively proeminence over him in the people's minds.

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