Today’s post introduces a new series I’m calling Better Know a Celt. I consider myself a Druid and am heavily working with two Irish deities at the moment, but my knowledge of Celtic mythology in general is sorely lacking. So, I’ve decided to take a closer look at my divine partners and their families with the goal of familiarizing myself with a beautiful and complex set of mythologies. The first post of this series spotlights the Irish god Manannán mac Lir, son of the sea god Lir, ruler of oceans and storms, teller of dreams, psychopomp, foster father, and all around good guy.
Though Brighid has been my primary (and only) deity for several months, Manannán was actually the first Celtic deity to express interest in me. I’ve always been fascinated by Celtic aesthetics, but a lack of knowledge about Celtic mythologies and cultures kept me from having the tools needed to connect with any of the gods. When I first felt Manannán during my freshman year of college, none of the other Tuatha Dé Danann had caught my attention; He literally came out of the blue, in a very roundabout fashion. I was looking forward to taking a family vacation to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, an amusement park themed after various countries of Europe. In the Ireland section, there’s a performance area known as the Abbey Stone Theater with gorgeous designs on the walls of crumbling monastery bricks looking out over misty moors. I was walking across the green thinking about the interior of this theater and what it would be like to revisit Ireland an be in one of those spaces for real. Then, I felt a presence – not overwhelming, not dramatic, but very noticeable for someone like me who rarely has a blip on her spiritual radar – like the sun peeked through the clouds and was warming my face for a few seconds. Very nostalgic, very old, and very unexpected.
I did a bit of research on Manannán after that, but the only gods I were working with at the time were the Theoi (Athena, Dionysus, and Pan, to be exact) and because I didn’t know what to do with a Celtic deity, I shelved my experiences away. When I decided to give Druidry a go the next year (and as I’ve incorporated it into my life since), I reacquainted myself Manannán. The ADF Core Order of Ritual calls for the inclusion of a Gatekeeper, a deity who helps open and direct a rite’s flow of energy between worlds. Usually this deity is a psychopomp (a god responsible for guiding souls after death), and in Irish rites this job often falls to Manannán. Since ADF Druidry heavily emphasizes building relationships with the forces and beings we work with, I’ve started picking apart His lore and getting to know Him a little better.
The “mac Lir” part of Manannán’s name indicates that he is the son of Lir, a sea god whom Manannán appears to have replaced in the lore. Both Fand (“Pearl of Beauty” or “Fairy Quen”) and Áine are named by different sources as His wife (though some name Áine as His daughter, along with Niamh and Clíodhna). Manannán is known for being a foster father as well, having taken in and raised Lugh and Deirdre‘s family. Sometimes Mongán mac Fiachnai is counted among His biological children, and sometimes as a foster son.
I see Manannán very much as a (foster) father figure over His other guises – trickster, psychopomp, lover – other devotees have sussed out. For a long while and for a lot of reasons, I was very uncomfortable with the idea of my gods taking on parental roles with me. Siblings, mentors, guides, and friends were what I wanted in divine partners, but having left a very negative relationship with God the Father and having a rocky relationship with my biological mother deterred me from wanting any more parents than the ones I already had. However, though Manannán hasn’t stepped forward and claimed me as His child (foster or otherwise), I find myself making an exception for Him, the same way I sometimes think of Brighid as a mother. (Maybe I just needed to meet the right divine parents. :))
Besides Ireland, Manannán also has a presence in Wales and the Isle of Man. His Welsh cognate-cousin is Manawydan fab Llŷr, brother to Bran and Branwen and wife to Rhiannon. I haven’t worked with either Manannán nor Manawydan enough to know if I see them as the same fellow or closely related cousins; however, I do plan on making a post on Manawydan eventually and exploring more Welsh mythology. In Manx mythic history, Manannán was the founder/father of the Isle of Man and Midsummer is (or was – I’m not sure if this practice continues today) the time for the Manx people to “pay rent” by offering reeds, grasses, and flowers.
Manannán’s role as Gatekeeper and psychopomp comes from his guarding the way to the Blessed Isles which hold the portals to the Otherworld. Though Celtic mythology is rich with instances of humans accidentally crossing between this world and the Otherworld, generally speaking the only surefire way of getting there is by dying and being guided to the Blessed Isles by Manannán. He also rules over Mag Mell, a peaceful realm of the dead similar to the Greek Elysium or the Norse Valhalla. If you need to physically or spiritually slip between the realms, or if you’re in the middle of any major transitions in your life, Manannán knows a thing or two about guiding folks to where they need to be.
Every deity is associated with a variety of symbols, objects, and animals, and Manannán is no different. His main symbol is the triskelion, which remains on the Manx flag to this day. In the narrative Serglige Con Culainn (translated as “The Sickbed/Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn”), Manannán uses His enchanted cloak to cause His wife Fand and the hero Cuchulainn to forget about their unfortunate and brief affair. He also possesses a cauldron of regeneration and a magical boar which, like Sæhrímnir of Norse mythology, is slaughtered for divine feasts and brought back to life the next day. King Cormac mac Airt is associated both with Manannán’s boar and a golden goblet which broke in the presence of three lies and was mended in the presence of three truths.
Like Poseidon, Manannán is a sea god linked with horses. His steed Enbarr (“Splendid Mane”) can gallop across water’s surface and protects all she carried from death or injury. Manannán’s foster son Lugh often rode Enbarr and I believe one of His daughters “borrowed” His horse to visit an English lover (though I can’t for the life of me find the myth!). In addition to horses, He is also linked with water birds and possesses a bag made from crane skin which holds, among other things, clothes, weapons, and an entire house. (It’s bigger on the inside.) Finally, in yet another King Cormac myth, Manannán is associated with the wisdom and skills gained from salmon.
For Further Reading:
- The Temple of Manannan
- The Fate of the Children of Lir by Lady Gregory; Manannán is only mentioned once, but it does teach more about his father and siblings.
- The Sickbed of Cuchulainn, translated by A. H. Leahy.
- Call to Manannan by Kami Landy
- These posts on the Cauldron
- ADF’s Order of the Crane