There are many legendary tales from Ireland’s mythical past but one of the oddest and in some would say most powerful figures of these tales is found in the stories of Manannán Mac Lir.
Son of the Sea
Manannán bears the surname ‘Mac Lir’ which translates as ‘son of the sea’ and he definitely lives up to his name in this capacity. In many of the stories, he is seen walking, running, driving his chariot, or riding his horse across the ocean’s waves as if they were the rolling hills of land.
In one of our oldest recorded tales believed to have come from the 8th century called Echtra Bran, or the Voyage of Bran, an Irish hero rallies his men to row out into the Irish otherworld in pursuit of a woman of the sidhe he had encountered. As they row against the ways they see a chariot coming towards them. Manannán talks to Bran and explains that where they see the ocean and its waves, he sees rolling fields with flowers all about.
It is believed to be Manannán’s horse, Aonbharr, who carries the fenian hero Oisin to Tir na n’Og, or the land of eternal youth, in that other famous legend.
No Fool for a Death
In many different tales across Irish myth we come across a trickster who by use of Otherworldly abilities either overcomes or aids the story’s protagonists. Though there are different names given in different versions, many of these names or abilities tie back to Manannán.
In one tale he comes against Fionn and his Fianna in a somewhat monstrous form. This ‘Gilla Decair’ sets his horse loose among the Fianna’s mounts where it slaughters them. Eventually the Gilla Decair flees the Fianna and his horse rushes after him carrying away upon its back fifteen members of the Fianna. When the horse rushes out and races across the sea as if it were land we see the first inkling that this might be more than just a regular sidhe mount. The pursuit continues across the waves into strange lands and eventually the Gilla Decair is slain after Fionn uses his magical knowledge to learn its vulnerability.
Another tale of Manannán and the Fianna has him appear as ‘bodach an chóta lachtna’ or ‘churl in a drab coat’. In this guise Manannán aids the Fianna by competing in a foot race against Cael an Iarainn, a prince from Thessaly. This warrior and racer was defeating champions all across Europe then demanding tribute be sent to his father. Not only did Manannán defeat Cael with ease, but at each stage of the race he added insult upon injury by racing off ahead then waiting for the champion to catch up only to taunt him then race off again. At the end of the race the prince of Thessaly is so incensed that he attacks Fianna. At this the bodach strikes out at him directly, completely overpowering him to the point of near death. The bodach spares his life on the promise that Thassaly would send yearly tribute to Ireland, then placing him upon his ship the bodach shoves the boat sending it seven leagues out of Ireland in one movement.
In this way we see Manannán not just as a deity of the oceans and Otherworld, but also of guises and trickery.
God of Generous Gifts (or loans…)
Manannán is said to have many fascinating and wondrous items in his possession, but instead of using these items himself they are most commonly seen on loan to other deities and heroes.
In the story of the Sons of Tuireann the three brothers use a magical self propelling boat called ‘Wavesweeper’. This boat belongs to Manannn and was ostensibly on loan to Lugh from his foster father.
We also see Lugh equipped with much of Manannán war gear when it comes to his conflict against Balor during the Second battle of Moytura. Lugh wore Manannán’s helmet Cathbarr, Manannán’s lúirech or body armour and Manannán’s scabal breastplate. He was also given to wield Manannán’s sword ‘Fragarach’ “The Answerer”. Any wound from this sword proved fatal.
Yet it is not only mythical deities that receive boons from Manannán. The hero Cormac Mac Airt is given a silver branch with golden apples said to come from Manannán’s own kingdom in the Otherworld, ‘Emhain Abhlach’. He also is said to have loaned his magical Crane skin bag to Cumhall, father of Fionn, and later allows Fionn to inherit it. This wondrous item is said to always be empty when the tide is out, but if opened when the tide is in it will be full of all of the sea God’s treasures.
Guide to the Otherworld
Manannán plays many important roles across the extent of Irish myth as we have seen, but always it seems his true power is knowing the ways of both our and the Otherworld. We find him in liminal places in many tales, yet also at the crux of many stories, steering the course of the heroes, and even the Gods. We have seen some of those tales above, but its worth also recalling that it is Manannán who comes to the Tuatha Dé Danann at the end of their time in rule of Ireland. When the Sons of Mil have succeeded in their invasion and conquest, Manannán comes to the remaining Tuatha Dé and shows them the path into the ‘Sidhe’ or ‘hollow hills’ where they then become ‘Aos Sidhe’ , a people of the Otherworld.
For all that we have covered much in this summary, nothing can really compare to taking the time to personally explore the scope and depth of the Stories of Manannan Mac Lir.
Where To Now?
If you think that Pagan Gods are interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: