Manannán mac Lir is also known as simply Manannán or Manann. His surname, Mac Lir (Irish), Mac y Leir (Scottish) and fab Llyr (Welsh) mean “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, and later Welsh mythology and Scottish folklore.
To the Irish, he is one of the Tuatha De Danann, a god of the sea, kingship, magic, and a guardian and gatekeeper to the Otherworld: Tír na nÓg. His resident domain in Tír na nÓg is Emain Ablach, the Isle of Apples, which would later reappear 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. His Otherworld provinces are described as being in the West and can be reached by boat, provided Manannán parts the mists that divide the worlds.
Manannán is also known as Manannán mac Alloit, meaning “Son of the Land,” possibly signifying that his mother is an earth goddess. He is named after the Isle of Man, whose inhabitants claimed him as their first king and dynasty 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 – leading scholars to conclude that his roots are possibly pre-Celtic. 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. Manannán leads his immortal people to forevermore dwell in the Otherworld and draws the mists between the two worlds, more or less permanently.
These world-dividing mists are described as his cloak, which shimmers like the multi-hued rippling of the sea. Lifting his cloak seems to make all the difference between scrambling about in a dark, dank, wormy barrow mound – or being lost in lonely waters – and finding transport into the Elysian Tír na nÓg. His mists not only barricade the path between worlds but can also cause forgetfulness among those on either side: mortals who crossover do not recall in detail their journeys 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, he 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 lightning). 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. This image is the folkloric origin behind the flag of the Isle of Man, the three-legged triskelion.
He sometimes travels mortal lands as an anonymous warrior, who vaguely describes where he comes from as a place without death or dishonesty. There are places named after Manannán throughout Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland. In Ireland, most of them are watery or water-associated regions. On Man he was ceremonially offered rushes – wetland plants that were sacred to him.
Manannán is 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. His horse Aonbharr and chariot can travel 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 that he might succeed in the battle against the Fomorians and become the next king of the Tuatha De. Manannán possesses a magic wand, a silver branch with golden apples, which produces enchanting music that sedates all who hear it. This, along with something called the Goblet of Truth, he gives to the aid of another great Tuatha king, Cormac mac Airt, who becomes the High King of Ireland.
Manannán‘s wife is Fand, who famously falls in love with the Cu Chulainn. When things between her and the heroic demi-god do not work out, Manannán separates them with his misty cloak, giving his wife the gift of forgetfulness. He also appears to have had as a wife the goddess Aine with whom he fathered Niamh, an enchanting maiden who was able to cross back and forth between the mists on horseback.
Manannán is an over-king of the Tuatha De when they retreat through the mists, and he divides up the fairy kingdoms and sidh mounds (gateways between the worlds) amongst the surviving immortals. His mists hold back the passing of age and time, such that those on the Otherworld-side do not age. Like Dagda, he possesses immortal pigs who grant a never-ending supply of pork, the eating of which, like Iðunn’s apples in Germanic myth, grant renewed youth and vitality.
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 this form she died, and Manannán used her crane-form’s skin to make the sacred bag. This was a “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 Danann, and Manannán shared it widely. 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 Mabinogi, Manannán appears as Manawydan, and he has two brothers. He is described as one of the three humble chieftains of the De Danann, because he sought to rule through the virtue of having deserved and being given his position, rather than through war-lording his way to his own kingdom. He travels from Ireland to London to bury the head of his giant brother, the great king Bran the Blessed. He ends up at the court of the noble king Pryderi Dyfed in Wales, the son of Rhiannon, to woo his mother. Manawydan sought to retire from the life of a warrior-king 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, entrapped to a golden grail or bowl. Manawydan untangles a complex web of wizardry to save his wife and his nephew, and restore fertility to the land.
In the Irish, and later told in Scottish folklore, Manannán prophesies the birth of the rightful king Mongan, who he then conspires to help the future conception of. Mongan is said to be the reincarnation of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. To do so, he calls upon the mighty power of his mists.
Manannán‘s folk memory lasted long into the early modern era, in many folk tales and oral traditions as a wandering wizard throughout the land.
Like all the Tuatha De Dannan, Manannán is depicted as a handsome, strong, and exceptional warrior. However, he is closer to what we in a modern age might think of as a wizard. He is a divine escort and ally to earthly kings, seeking to install them in their sacred positions. He seems to be one of the informants of the Arthurian character Merlin. His episode with the mists in siring Mongan with Caintigern bears similarities to Merlin leading Uther into Tintagel 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, counseling and ennobling of other kings – to ensure the installment and functioning of Goodly Kings. In the Irish lore, he works to liberate the land 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 Fomorians. The Fomorians travel by sea, often accompanied by foul weather and mist. In the Welsh lore, it is the mysterious mist (sans Fomorians) which appears to steal away the land’s fertility, setting off a series of events in which the goddess of the land’s sovereignty and its rightful heir (Rhiannon and Pryderi) become trapped. 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 is reminiscent of Óðin, wandering gray wizard associated with moody weather, stirring events to ensure that men achieve their destiny and recruiting heroes to his cause. 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.
Tír na nÓg is commonly now referred to as Fairyland, or simply as Faerie, with various spellings. As god of the Otherworld and of right kingship, he is clearly a guide to the pursuit of something greater, to 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 kin
Manannán appears also in Scottish and Manx legend, where he is known as Manannan mac y Leir ("little Mannan, son of the sea"). The Isle of Man (Mannin) is named after him, while others say he is named after the island. He is cognate with the Welsh figure Manawydan fab Llŷr
Manannán rode his chariot over the sea, meeting with Bran and his crew sailing by ship, in the tale Imram Brain ("Voyage of Bran"), considered an early work.] In this story he told Bran that sea was not actually water to him but rather "I [Manannán] see in the Plain of Feats/red topped flowers without fault." He goes on to tell Bran about how he is heading to Ireland to have relations with Caintigern who would go on to bear Mongán.
In late sources, Manannán visits the land of the living, his movement is compared to the wind, a hawk or swallow, and sometimes takes the form of a thundering wheel rolling across the landscape, such as in the "Pursuit of the Gilla Decair", a 16th-century comic tale. There is also the local lore the Manannán moved like a wheel turning on his three legs, a tradition widespread on the Isle of Man (cf. triskelion), but also found in some eastern Counties of Leinster according to John O'Donovan, though this folklore was unfamiliar to Whitley Stokes.
After the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated by Érimón of the Milesians (humans), Bodb Derg was chosen as king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Manannán as co-king or perhaps the king's overseer. In one passage Manannán declares he has assumed over-kingship above the petty kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Manannán was tasked with allotting which sídhe or fairy mounds the surviving members of the Tuatha Dé Danann were to be settled. Manannán's own dwelling was at Emain Ablach, in the city of Cruithin na Cuan, as the tale later reveals. Manannán ensured the welfare of the Tuatha Dé Danann by concealing in the féth fíada or a mist of invisibility, holding the Feast of Goibniu (Fleadh Goibhneann) which conferred eternal youth, and feeding them Manannan's Swine (Mucca Mhannanain) which gave an inexhaustible supply of food.
Manannán in the tale "Echtra Cormaic" owned two magical items which he gave away to Cormac mac Airt, high king of Tara: a soothing musical silver branch with apples made of gold, and the Goblet of Truth.
Manannán initially appeared in the guise of a warrior, and described without naming his homeland as a place where old age, sickness, death, decay, and falsehood were unknown. He eventually coaxed the king to arrive as guest to this Land of Promise (Tír Tairngire).
Manannán had other magical items according to the Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann, a romance that only survives in early modern Irish recensions.
He had a self-navigating boat called "Manannán's currach (coracle)" aka Sguaba Tuinne (Scuab-tuinne) or "Wave-sweeper" was self-navigating, as well as a horse that could travel over land or sea called Aonbharr of Manannan, translated in popular re-telling as "Enbarr of the Flowing Mane". Both the horse and boat were on loan to Lugh Lamhfada, but the Sons of Tuireann managed to borrow the boat.
Manannán also supplied Lugh with a full array of armor and weapon as the Tuatha Dé gathered their host to battle the Fomorians. Lugh rode Manannán's steed Aonbharr, and was girt with Manannán's sword Fragarach ("Retaliator or "The Answerer"). Any wound this sword gave proved fatal, and its opponent was reduced to the weakness of a woman in childbirth.
Lug also wore Manannán's helmet Cathbarr, which O'Curry amends to Cennbhearr, which he regards as a common noun and not a proper name. This helm was set with two precious gems on the front and one in the rear. Manannán's lúirech or body armour] and Manannán's scabal (neck-piece or breastplate) were also part of Lugh's panoply.
Manannán was also the owner of the "crane-bag" (Irish: corrbolg) full of treasures] according to the Middle-Irish Fenian lay "The Crane-Bag" (Duanaire Finn Poem VIII) datable to the 13th century,
To Manannán was sent a woman transformed into the shape of a crane. She was Aoife, daughter of Dealbhaoth (Irish: Áiffe ingen Dealbhaoíth), and mistress of Ilbhreac of many beauties (Irish: Ilbric Iolchrothaigh). Ilbhreac here may have been Ilbhreac son of Manannán. Aoife was transformed by the druidery of her jealous love-rival (Iuchra daughter of Ábartach), whose spell was to last 200 years.
When Aoife died, Manannán crafted her crane's skin into a magical treasure bag, whose contents were only visible when flooded during full tide, and would seem empty when the tide had ebbed.The bag was in the possession of Lugh Lamhfada, then taken by Lugh's killers, the three sons of Cermait. Later Manannán endowed it to Conaire Mór the high king at Tara. The crane-bag was eventually owned by Cumhall mac Trénmhóir, as told at the outset of this lay.Macgnímartha Finn. This is assumed to be the "treasure-bag" that was lost to Cumhall's "servant-turned-traitor", Liath Luachra, who treacherously wounded Cumall in the Cath Cnucha, but recovered later by Cumhall's son, Finn when he grew up.
Manannán also commissioned the craftsman Lucra (recté Luchta) to make him a shield to be made of wood, and this later passed on to Finn, according to the lay (duan) "Shield of Fionn". The wood came from a withered hazel tree, on the fork where Lugh had set the severed head of Balor. The venom had penetrated this tree, killing or blinding workers trying to uproot or handle it. Various owners are named, such as Tadg mac Nuadat, but was given by Manannán to Crimall mac Trenmor, Finn's uncle, after the death of Finn's father.
Manannán is furthermore identified with several trickster figures including the Gilla Decair and the Bodach an Chóta Lachtna ("the churl in the drab coat").
The similarity of Manannan's inexhaustible swine to Odin's boar Sæhrímnir in Scandinavian myth has been noticed. Mannanán also owned a speckled cow that he and Aengus retrieved from India along with a dun cow, two golden goblets, and two spancels of silk.
In Manx mythology:
According to the local lore of the Isle of Man, Manannán was the island's first ruler.
A document called the "Supposed True Chronicle of Man" (16th century) asserts that Manannan was the first "ruler of Mann" and "was as paynim (pagan), and kept, by necromancy, the Land of Man under mists", and imposed as tax a bundle of green rushes, which was due every Midsummer Eve at a place called Warfield (the present-day South Barrule). More or less the same thing is stated in verse within "The Traditionary Ballad" aka "Manannan beg va Mac y Leirr", whose third quatrain ran:[The poem thus identified the king of the island as one Manannan-beg-mac-y-Lheirr, "little Manannan, son of the Sea" (or, "son of Leir"). Manannan was later banished by Saint Patrick according to the poem.
As to the Manx offering rushes to Manannán, there is evidence these wild plants—which typically grow in wetlands—were sacred to him.
According to tradition, Manannan once held Peel Castle, and caused a single man guarding its battlements to appear as a force of a thousand, thus succeeding in driving out his enemies.] Manx storyteller Sophia Morrison repeats this story except reducing the amplification to hundredfold men, and referring to the rampart "a great stone fort on Peel Island". She also appends a story that Manannan once crafted makeshift boats out of sedges, creating an illusion of a larger fleet, causing the Viking invaders to flee in terror from the bay of Peel Island.