Manannán or Manann (Old Irish Manandán), also known as Manannán mac Lir (Mac Lir meaning “son of the sea”), 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”).
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.
Manannán is also known as Oirbsiu or Oirbsen, from which Lough Corrib takes its name.
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.
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”. 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”. Later, Manannán is recorded as the first king of Mann in a Manx poem dated 1504.
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.
According to other sources, Mongán mac Fiachnai, 7th century King of Ulster, is the protagonist of several legends linking him with Manannán mac Lir. The Menapii are the only known Celtic tribe specifically named on Ptolemy’s 150 AD map of Ireland, where they located their first colony – Menapia – on the Leinster coast circa 216 BC. They later settled around Lough Erne, becoming known as the Fir Manach, and giving their name to Fermanagh and Monaghan. Celtic seafarers and traders, their ships had sailed the Irish Sea for centuries BC, establishing trading colonies on the Irish, Scottish,Welsh and Manx coasts, as confirmed by ancient and modern placenames. They worshipped Manannán mac Lir, their Celtic sea-god; a renown navigator, merchant and druid. They spread across Ireland, evolving into historic Irish (also Scottish and Manx) clans.
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: Tochmarc Étaíne (“The Wooing of Étaín”), Serglige Con Culainn (“The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn”), Tochmarc Luaine “The Wooing of Luan”
- In the Cycles of the Kings: Immram Brain maic Febail (“The Voyage of Bran son of Febal)”, Echtra Cormaic maic Airt (“The Adventure of Cormac mac Airt”), Compert Mongáin(“The Birth of Mongán”)
- In the Mythological Cycle: Lebor Gabála Érenn (“The Book of Invasions”), First Recension, Altram Tige Dá Medar (“The Nourishment of the Houses of Two Milk-Vessels”)
- other Old Irish texts: Sanas Cormaic (“Cormac’s Glossary”), The Voyage of Bran, Compert Mongáin, His Three Calls to Cormac (“Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise”)
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.
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.” 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” (Tír na nÓg) or the “Land of the Living”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”):
- 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.
Manx legends 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: “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 “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), Augusta, Lady Gregory includes a number of tales about Manannán from the Book of Invasions (part I. book IV, chapters 8–14).
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.
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.