The ‘Otherworld’ Father, Manannan.

Manannan was the personification of the sovereignty of the Otherworld in literature and folklore of the Gaelic peoples. Like his counterpart, he too had epithets and identities which sometimes make it difficult to identify him in corrupted or obfuscated mythologies.

The otherworld was a realm made of what the ancient Greeks defined as ‘spirit’ or ‘aither’/’ether’ – an extended form of the loftiest of the four mundane elements, Fire, manifesting as light, of which there were two forms: lumen (ordinary light) and lux (spiritual light) being their Latin names. This was believed to cleave to the form of any of the ‘manifest’ elements (water, earth, air and fire) – perhaps making it the mysterious spiritual ‘skeleton’ or framework of the universe, corresponding to a universal divine soul. Such an idea pervades the philosophies and mythologies of the ancient world, and can be examined in works such as Plato’s ‘Dialogue of Timaeus’.

In the Christianisation of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man during the early middle ages, as a lord of the ethereal world, Manannan would not have posed much of a problem of interpolation into the new order. The god of the far-off Israelites was an easy substitution: After all, didn’t the redeeming sun (son) return from the East? Didn’t christianity also offer eternal life? …

Where he occurs as a character in medieval Irish literature, Manannan is not infrequently given an oriental provenance – be it in the Asia Minor province of Armenia (which seemed to the scribes and bards to bear his name, as well as an important early Christian provenance) or even – like the Dionysus of Nonnus – in India where he was said to have aquired a magically fertile and abundant cow. At the conclusion of the tale Serglige Con Culainn (‘Sickbed of Cuchullain’) he arrives from the east to redeem the cast members (including his wife Fand) of their indiscretions, passing out drinks of forgetfulness and shaking his cloak between the unfaithful parties in order that all might be reconciled. A very idealised model of Christian charity and forgiveness, the importance of which would not have been lost on the tale’s audience…

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