Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust: Deities - Manannan Mac Lir

Celtic Mythology


Manannan Mac Lir is one of the most popular deities in Celtic mythology. He is Lord of the sea and of the three great waves of Ireland, and son of the mystical god Lir, ruler of Time and Deep Space. While very little is known of Lir himself, his son Manannan appears in many of the old legends. It is said that he travelled around Ireland in many different shapes and guises. As a master of tricks and illusions (which he enjoyed acting out on mortals) he was known as Gille Decair, the Bad Servant, an apparently foolish clown who could disappear at will. Despite his trickery, however, he never brought harm to any mortal.

Manannan himself is said to have undergone many different incarnations, including as Culain the Smith, Fionn MacCumhal and Mongan, who was taken away to Manannan's Land of Promise when he was just three nights old. He was also the foster-father of the great warrior Lugh. He wrapped the young child in his vast cloak and took him away in his boat to his Otherworld lands beyond the sea.

The Isle of Man takes its name from this ancient Celtic deity who has his stronghold on South Barrule mountain. As guardian of the Blessed Isles of the Celts he also has strong associations with Emhain Abhlach, the Isle of Apple Trees, where the magical silver apple branch lies. To the Celts, the Blessed Isles that lie beyond the sea are the gateways to the Otherworlds, where the soul journeys to after death. Manannan is the guardian of these gateways between the worlds. He is the Ferryman, who comes to transport the souls of the dead through the veils.

Yet it is sometimes possible for the brave warrior to go to these islands and still return to this world to tell the tale. The voyage of Bran Mac Febal is one of the best known legends of a voyage to the Land of the Living. One day Bran heard strange music which lulled him to sleep. When he awoke, a silver branch laden with apple blossom lay beside him. He encounters a woman of the Sidhe who tells him of the fair, distant isle in the Land of Promise:

"I bring a branch of the apple tree from Emhain, from the far island around which are the shining horses of the son of Lir... To be without grief, without sorrow, without death, without any sickness, without weakness; that is the sign of Emhain... There are riches, there are treasures of every colour in the Gentle Land, the Bountiful Land..."

The Sidhe woman describes in vivid detail the wonders of this isle, and so Bran sets sail to find it. On the third day he sees Manannan coming towards him in a chariot drawn by a white mare that is riding over the waves as swiftly as if it were on dry land. This is the Ocean Sweeper, the magical boat of Manannan that would obey the wishes of whoever sailed in it, and had neither oars nor sails. Manannan tells Bran that he will reach Emhain before the setting of the sun. When Bran and his companions finally return to the shores of Ireland, they discover that many years have since passed and their voyage is recounted in stories.

Another mortal who goes to the Land of Promise is King Cormac. He was given a silver branch with three golden apples on it by a grey- haired warrior. When shaken, the branch would play music that lulled mortals to sleep. Cormac journeys to the Land of Promise where he gains from Manannan a magical golden cup of Truth. Any false statements uttered beneath this cup would cause it to break. He is also shown the Well of Knowledge from which five streams flow, and over which there are nine purple hazel trees and five salmon in the streams eating the hazelnuts. It is Manannan who reveals to Cormac the meanings of all these wonders.

Manannan is the keeper of many magical treasures. He possessed a sword, Fragarach (The Answerer) which no armour could resist and which was entrusted to Lugh, and a breastplate that no weapon could pierce. He wore a cloak that could change into any colour. It was this cloak that he shook between his Sidhe wife Fand and her mortal lover Cuchulain, to prevent them from ever meeting again. Thus Manannan's cloak, like the mist with which he is associated, signifies the veil between the worlds. The most interesting of all his magical treasures is the crane skin bag, made from the skin of Aoife. At first glance it appears to contain a strange collection of items, such as 'the bones of Assal's pig', the belt and smith- hook of Gobhniu, the helmet of the King of Lochlan, and so on. Yet on deeper reflection we may realise the hidden meanings of the contents. The crane is the sacred bird of Manannan and the crane- skin bag is given in turn to Lugh, then Cumhal MacTredhorn and then to Fionn MacCumhal.

As magician of the mystical race of beings known as the Tuatha De Danaans, Manannan commands a very high status among his people. After their defeat by the Milesians, it was Manannan who gave to the De Danaans the power of invisibility. He found retreats for them in the hollow hills and put hidden walls about them so that no mortals could find them. He also gave to the De Danaans the 'Feast of Age'. No-one ever grew old at this feast, infact they became immortal. The pigs that were kept by Manannan and killed for the feast became whole again the next day.

There is an old tale that tels us of Manannan's death, and how he was buried standing on his feet. A great lake burst forth in that place and was called Lake Orbson, another of Manannan's names. Yet how could this be? Manannan is immortal, and will live forever in the hearts of the Celts.

If you ever happen to stand alone on the shore of Emhain on a stormy night, and feel the sea surging and raging before you, perhaps you too may glimpse Manannan in his boat riding across the waves through the grey sea-mist, or hear the sweet music of his enchantments from the silver apple branch of Emhain Abhlach.

[(c) S. McSkimming/L.MacDonald GODS OF THE CELTS 1992]

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