Manannán mac Lir

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"Manannan" redirects here. For the Isle of Man Steam Packet ship, see HSC Manannan.
Manannán mac Lir sculpture, Gortmore
The boat from the 1st century BC Broighter Hoard, possibly a votive offering to Manannán mac Lir

Manannán mac Lir—also known simply as Manannán or Manann—is a sea deity in Irish mythology. 'Mac Lir' means "son of the sea".[1] As well as being a sea god, he is also seen as a psychopomp and is associated with the Otherworld and the veil between the worlds. 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. Manannán appears also in Scottish and Manx legend, and some sources say the Isle of Man (Manainn) is named after him, while others say that he is named after the island. He is cognate with the Welsh figure Manawydan fab Llŷr.

He is also referred to as Oirbsiu or Oirbsen (modern spellings Oirbse, Oirbsean), from which Lough Corrib takes its name.

In mythology and folklore[edit]

Manannán appears in many Celtic myths and tales, although he only plays a prominent role in some of them.

In the tale "His Three Calls to Cormac," 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.[2] Also he is said to protect the Isle of Man with his cloak of mist when trouble comes.

The tale "Manannan at Play" features the god as a clown and beggar who turns out to be a harper. Manannán, here in his trickster guise, 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.[3]

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.[4][5]

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.


Manannán has strong ties to the Isle of Man, where he is referenced in a traditional ballad as having been the nation's first ruler.[6] At Midsummer, the Manx people offer bundles of reeds, meadow grasses and yellow flowers to Manannán in a ritual "paying of the rent", accompanied with prayers for his aid and protection in fishing. He is also believed to have been a magician who could make an illusory fleet from sedge or pea shells to discourage would-be invaders.[7][8]

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."[9] 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" or the "Land of the Living").[10]

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. To the Celts, the Blessed Isles that lie beyond the sea are the gateways to the Otherworlds, where the soul journeys to after death. Manannán is the guardian of these gateways between the worlds.[10]

Mannanán's powerful role in the cycle of life and death is also expressed in his possession of magic swine whose flesh provides food for feasting by the gods, and then regenerates each day, like that of Odin's boar Sæhrímnir in Scandinavian myth.[11]

Familial relations[edit]

As his name suggests, Manannán's father is the sea-god Lir (the genitive for "Sea; Ocean"), 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 surname 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.[citation needed]

Despite not being the biological father of many children, 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.

Magical possessions[edit]

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.[12]

Manx legends[13] 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:[13] "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[13] "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."

Other names and etymology[edit]

His name is spelt Manandán in Old Irish, Manannán in modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Mannan in Manx Gaelic. Manannán derives from an earlier name for the Isle of Man. The patronymic mac Lir may have been metaphorical and meant 'son of the sea'; mac is 'son' and ler is Old Irish for 'sea'. He is also known in Manx as Mannan beg mac y Leir, "little Manannan son of the sea" (beg is Manx for "small").

In the Irish manuscript, The Yellow Book of Lecan, there are said to be "four Manannans". The name given for the "first Manannan" is:

Manandan mac Alloit, a Druid of the Tuath De Danann, and in the time of the Tuath De Danann was he. Oirbsen, so indeed, was his proper name.... Oirbsen over the land, so that from him (is named) Loch Oirbsen. This was the first Manannan.[14]

Manannán's Welsh equivalent is Manawydan fab Llyr


Ulster Cycle
Cycles of the Kings
Mythological Cycle
  • Lebor Gabála Érenn ("The Book of Invasions"), First Recension
  • Altram Tige Dá Medar ("The Nourishment of the Houses of Two Milk-Vessels")

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Charles Squire. Celtic Myth and Legend
  2. ^ Gregory, Lady Augusta (1903) online "Part I Book IV: His Three Calls to Cormac" in Gods and Fighting Men. Buckinghamshire, Colyn Smyth
  3. ^ Gregory (1903) "Part I Book IV: Manannan at Play"
  4. ^ "Serglige Con Culainn", Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
  5. ^ The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain transcribed from The Lost Yellow Book of SlaneBy Maelmuiri mac Ceileachair into the Leabhar na h-Uidhri in the Eleventh Century
  6. ^ "Traditionary Ballad – Mannanan Beg Mac y Leirr". Retrieved 2014-01-16. 
  7. ^ Morrison, Sophia (1911) "Manannan Mac Y Leirr" in Manx Fairy Tales. London, David Nutt / Long Acre
  8. ^ Evans Wentz, W.Y. "IV. In the Isle of Man" in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
  9. ^ "Folk-lore of the Isle of Man: Chapter I. Myths Connected with the Legendary History of the Isle of Man". Retrieved 2014-01-16. 
  10. ^ a b This tale exists in several manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; i. e. Book of Ballymote, and Yellow Book of Lecan, as edited and translated by Stokes, in Irische Texts, III. i. 183-229; cf. Voy. of Bran, i. 190 ff.; cf. Le Cycle Myth. Irl., pp. 326-33.
  11. ^ David B. Spaan, "The Place of Manannan Mac Lir in Irish Mythology," Folklore 76 (1965), p. 185; Miranda J. Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth (Routledge 1998), p. 170 online and Celtic Myths (University of Texas Press, 1995), p. 17 online. See also J.G. Oosten, The War of the Gods (Routledge, 1985), p. 73 online.
  12. ^ Koch, John T. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2006. p.959
  13. ^ a b c Boyhood of Lugh: Manx Fairy Tales, Peel, L. Morrison, 1929
  14. ^ Skene, William F. "Chapter VI. Manau Gododin and the Picts" in The Four Ancient Books of Wales


Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Busse, Peter E., and John T. Koch (2006). "Manannán mac Lir". In John T. Koch. Celtic Culture. A Historical Encyclopedia. 5 volumes. Santa Barbara, Denver and Oxford: ABC Clio. pp. 1244–5.