Manannan mac Lir: 
Lord of Mischief and an Saoghal Eile

There is a seemingly ever increasing interest in Manannan mac Lir (pronunciation) amongst modern day heathens. A reason as to why, could be his love for interacting with humanity; it certainly makes him more accessible. It also helps that he is found everywhere in the insular Celtic world. Sometimes we see his name as Mannanan and in Welsh tradition he is called Manawyddan (pronunciation), and is the son of Llyr (pronunciation). He's the god of the sea and of an Saoghal Eile (the other world). He is a keeper of youth, a magician and a trickster.

Manannan is the son of the ancient sea god, Lir, of whom very little is actually known. He is, unless it is another Lir, mentioned in the very famous Irish legend The Fate of the Children of Lir, one of the three tragedies of Ireland. Aside from Lir, very little is clear about Manannan's family. According to Irish sources, specifically Tßin Bˇ C˙alnge (the Cattle-raid of Cooley), his wife is the beautiful lady, Fand. Manannan had a daughter, whose name was Niamh (pronunciation) of the Golden Hair. It is also probable that another daughter was Cliodna (pronunciation), but sources treat this differently. Either way, she is a young woman from Manannan's lands, whose surname is of the Fair Hair. Mongan is a late addition to the mac Lir family tree. He was an Irish chieftain, an actual historical personage, who was born at the end of the 6th century. According to legend, his mother's husband, who was at war with Scotland, came home with a victory, because of a deal made with Manannan (in some legends with Mongan's mother, in others her husband) to let Manannan have a child by her. This child, Mongan, was supposedly taken to the otherworld when he was very young, to be raised there by Manannan. In the Welsh tradition Manannan, there Manawyddan, appears in several of the branches of the Mabinongion, where he marries the goddess Rhiannon (pronunciation) -the widow of Pwyll, the ruler of the Otherworld, Annwn. Despite not being the biological father of that many, Manannan has according to tradition taken it upon himself to raise a number of foster children: Lugh of the great hand, the children of Deirdre and Olwen the druid, father of AinÚ the fairy queen of Munster, for example. In this sense, one might be able to look upon him as a father figure of sorts. As such a father figure, Manannan is a very protective and perhaps a bit jealous and controlling patriarch. A most obvious example of this is when Ciabhan (pronunciation) of the Curling Hair came to the lands of Manannan mac Lir, and fell in love with Cliodna. The two lovebirds took off for Ireland, but once there, Manannan sent out a magical wave to bring Cliodna back home to his land, leaving her forever miserable and longing for her beloved Ciabhan. 

We have declared that Manannan is a patriarch of sorts and much like the patriarchs of other mythological cycles there is an air of omnipotence surrounding him. The levels of this omnipotence are many and need to be discussed in steps, but we shall begin with the creator aspect of Manannan. In her Gods and Fighting Men Lady Augusta Gregory tells us how he is supposed to have come to Ireland with the Tuatha de Danann, made them places to live, and then have retreated back to his Otherworldly abode. Similarly there is a story of Manannan's three cows. These three cows, one red; one black and one white, came up from the sea and walked up onto land and where they walked they created the first road of Ireland. When they had walked about a mile, each went their separate way, making roads to walk for the people of Ireland. The pig's island, Muc-inis, was created in a similar manner. A pig was destroying Ireland, so Manannan sent his hounds on it. All his beautiful hounds drowned or were maimed in chasing the pig from the land, but they did it, and it settled on an island, later suitably named. Thus, many physical places owe their existence to mac Lir.

This creator aspect is not to say that Manannan's main place of residence was in our world. In fact it would appear he is all but a part of our world. In Irish myth he is the ruler of many places in an Saoghal Eile. Most renowned is probably his role as the master of TÝr na mBean; the land of women, the land beneath the wave; Týr fo Thonn, Týr Tairnigir; the land of promise, and the isle of apples Emhain Ablach. In these lands he most definitely is a patriarch and the undisputed master. Also in Welsh myth he is associated with an Saoghal Eile, although then in a less direct manner. There, he marries the widow of the former lord of the underworld. The connection we can draw the most quickly is perhaps a link between Manannan and death, in particularly as it is said that the soul passes through Týr fo Thonn, the land beneath the wave, on its way to the land of the dead, thus a link to ancestral spirits. An Saoghal Eile also means plenty of magic, of course, and that is something Manannan has aplenty, but we will consider this more in a minute.

This strong tie to the otherworld doesn't mean, however, that he in any way favours an Saoghal Eile for our world. He is in fact very fond of our world, and likes to now and then play an active part in it. Most of all he appears to like humanity and it is constantly the center of his many jokes and games. While performing these tricks, he tends to come dressed in rags or in other way disguised, and with magic and trickery make the lives of humans miserable for some time. He always makes things right, however, to some extent. Whomever he has killed, he always restores with the help of the herbs he carries with him. Hold on to your cattle, though, because he will not return it. Some tricks, he likes to repeat. One of these is taking the shape of a heron and paying nightly visits to young ladies.Manannan's horse

The magic of Manannan doesn't end there, though. Most famous is his magic crane bag, now passed on to the Fianna. It was made from the skin of Aoife when she was transformed into a crane. This bag contains a great number of treasures which can only be see during high tide: the shirt, knife and house of Manannan; the smith's hook and belt of Goibniu the smith of the Tuatha de Dannan; the shears of the king of Scotland; the helmet of the king of Lochlann; a belt of fish-skin and the bones of the pig of Asal. Manannan also has owned two magical spears, yellow shaft and red javelin, and three great swords, the retaliator; great fury and little fury. Along with these weapons, he also owned a piece of armor: a magic breastplate. The means by which Manannan would move between the worlds, despite mists and water, is also a subject of magic. For this purpose he has a magical chariot that rides on the waves, known as the ocean sweeper. This chariot is sometimes said to be drawn by Splendid Mane, the golden horse of Manannan. The Ocean Sweeper is white, which often is the colour of animals leading someone into the otherworld, and he was married to Rhiannon, who is not only personified by birds -but a white mare. It's an animal often associated with fertility, but also found in European iron age graves, which could strengthen their role as magical animals, carrying people to the otherworld, like Splendid Manes and other magical water horses of the Insular Celtic world, such as the Each-Uisge, the Aughisky or the Cabyll-Ushtey. An interesting fact may be then that  the white crested waves of the sea are poetically called the horses of Manannan. Otherwise Manannan isn't particularly associated with horses, but rather with swine, which he owns two of. The special facility of these swine was that they can be slaughtered and eaten, but still be alive the following day. They are ritually killed for the Feast of Age, a festival amongst the gods held annually in the lands of Manannan, which has been suggested  to be the reason of their eternal youth.  

Manannan mac Lir is to say the least a very multifaceted deity. Concretely, on one hand, he is the master of the sea and all that comes with it, therein also the magical an Seoghal Eile. He is an organised creator, or perhaps more correctly, an organiser of creation, in our world. He is a father-figure and a patron as much as he is a joker. In that gist of his appearance of a joker he is a lord of temporary chaos in the mildest temper, whereas he as a father figure stands for rigid rules and consistency, but with the vilest temper. Manannan is everything, and everything is Manannan. One could say that he fits the all-father image of other contemporary mythologies, with his fatherhood; his creation; his magic and his wisdom, but that would be over-looking his role as the dark fool, the jester. Manannan mac Lir is like no other.


The Earth Goddess: Celtic and Pagan Legacy of the Landscape, Cheryl Stratton; 1997
Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory; 1904
Celtic Myths and Legends, Charles Squire
Druids, Gods & Heroes from Celtic Mythology, Anne Ross; 1986
Myths and Legends of the Celts, T.W. Rolleston