Great Gods of the Celts

Manannan mac Lir


'Manannan, Son of Lir', was an Irish sea-god (OI leir, ler, 'sea, ocean')and eponymous hero-god of the Manxmen, whose island was named after him. He also is directly related to the Welsh sea-god Manawydan fab Llyr. Like many of the primal IE ocean gods, Manannan was older than the Danann sky gods, yet was considered one of them. This suggests a primordial origin similar to the Norse's Aegir. After all, the great gods of all IE mythologies were mostly sky gods. The Greeks, who lost their sky god triumvirate, reconstructed a triad with Poseidon and Hades possibly under pre-Greek indigenous influence. However, to the Norse the ocean god Aegir was not part of the Aesir even though he had close and friendly relations with them.

Manannan rode his horse or chariot across the tops of the waves as did both Poseidon and Aegir. He also had a mantle and helmet of invisibility (or flames), and an unfailing sword. He was usually depicted with a green cloak fastened with a silver brooch, a satin shirt, a gold fillet, and golden sandals. In Celtic fashion he was also a shape-changer.

His abode was, like Aegir's, vaguely defined. He was said to live in a sea palace like his Greek and Norse equivalents. Yet according to some accounts there seems also to have been his mythical island called Tir Tairnigiri Ďland of promiseí. This was apparently one of the Blessed Isles of the Otherworld where he was said to rule Mag Mell ('Field of Joy'). However, the Isle of Manx was also his, called by the Irish Mana and the Welsh Manaw. The Roman name for the Isle of Anglesy, which they called Mona, was probably a confused idienitification with Manx, which they called Monapia. In any case this parallels Aegir's possession of the Isle of Hlesey in Scandinavia.

Manannan was a major character in Irish myth. The Celts seem to have not feared him in the way the Norse feared Aegir and the Greeks feared Poseidon. Like his counterparts, Manannan could whip up the ocean's waters or make them calm, although he was not as closely identified with wrecking ships and drowning sailors. The Manxmen celebrated their eponymous god at festivals. He was also seen as a god who could bring fertility and prosperity. This function is expressed most vividly during the journey of Bran to Tir inna mban, the otherworldly 'land of women'. Driving his chariot across the waves, he left in his wake a field of flowers. The white caps of the waves became flowering shrubs and the seaweed turned to fruit trees. He was also accompanied by salmon that appeared as calves and lambs.

As with other ocean gods, Manannan was associated with the IE 'cauldron of regeneration'. This notion was mostly closely found in his tale with Cormac mac Airt. 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'). Having had his wife and children abducted, Cormac followed the disguised Manannan back to what equated to his paradisal palace at Mag Mell. By the end of the story Cormac had not only retrieved his family but was the owner of a bough with three apples and a golden cup (a precursor to the Holy Grail). Both symbolized and had the powers of healing and regeneration.

He and his wife Fand fostered several characters, including the great god Lugh. In one tale Fand (pearl of beauty) was loved by the mortal hero Cuchulainn after she quarreled with Manannan and he left her. Finally, however, Cuchulainn's wife Emer found him and took him home. Cuchulainn's pining for the love of Fand was finally broken by Manannan, who cast a spell that caused the mortal hero to forget his beloved goddess (compare with the Norse's Sigurd and Brunhild).

Elsewhere in Irish myth he banished his son Gaiarís lover Becuma from Tir Tairnigiri to the human world, where she caused infertility and misery. Manannan also had a mortal son named Mongan who was born out of wedlock (to an Ulster queen) and reared by a wizard (compare with Arthur). Mongan, who in Irish legend is identified as a reincarnation of Finn mac Cumhail (and hence also of Lugh, the foster son of Manannan), became a king and hero of Ulster, inheriting his fatherís shape-changing powers.

In Wales he was known as Manawyddan or Morgan Mywnoaur, where he owned a marvelous chariot similar to Manannanís amphibious vehicle. His other accoutrements were a sword, cauldron, suit of clothes, hounds, a drinking horn, whetstone, destiny stone, knife, harp, bottle and platter -- all with magical powers. He was also called Barinthus.