The Ocean and the Tear

Many Christian Churches celebrate Midsummer, as the feast of John the Baptist, blazing eyed prophet of the Jordan River, who prepared the way for a great soul to enter the world.

But before there was John the Baptist, the Manx knew this to be the holy day of Mannanán mac Lir, son of the Great Ocean of Time and Space, honored by the people of Ireland and the Isle of Man. He was the great magician who crafted the great mounds beneath which the Daoine Sidhe, the Ancient Shining Ones, the Faerie people sleep, and he will be the one to open the gates for their return. Through the ages, he brought vision, wisdom, and counsel to great poets and sacred kings.

To the Manx, he was the island’s first king, and to this day people go to the island’s highest hill to “pay the rent” for living on the land by leaving offerings of wildflowers and rushes.

This would be a good time to warn you that the words that follow are not entirely canonically correct. But neither is canon correct in these times. These are visions and kennings gleaned walking aat the edge of a mountain lake in a world turned upside down.

Mannanán is a paradox – a god of misty waters who is honored on the brightest day of the year, a wild god whose rage is the storm who Is also the source of the most sublime music of enchantment, a sea god who cannot see water as we do, but instead sees the ocean as a field of wildflower. He is a protector of the innocent and a consoler of the grieving who also has a laugh that echoes off the mountains and water and fills the sky and the lustiness of the wild white horses that are the crashing waves of the cold North Atlantic.

He married Fand ni Aed Abra whose name means the tear who is the daughter of the fire of the eye. The tear of her being became a pearl through which the light of her father’s flame was refracted into beauty. A shapeshifter, she melted again and took on the form of a woman and, together with her twin sister, Liban, brought earthly pleasures into this world – when she felt forsaken by her husband too long away and shaken by the storms his pain and his wild moods brought when he was home from war. She came back to him, but what became of them in the time after remains unknown . . . though I will offer what my own heart believes is true in a little bit.

I find her among the wild Irises that grow among the Alders at the water’s edge. The Iris’s iridescent beauty rises from the muck, just as the pearl arises from a grain of sand embedded in the body of an Oyster. In older understandings of medicine, Iris was said to purify the blood from the taint of old illness. Today we would say that it is an herb that aids the liver in detoxifying the metabolic wastes that build up in the blood in cases of chronic infection.

Hers is áilleacht, the beauty that flows down from her womb to replenish the Otherworld well from which flow the five rivers of the senses. It replenishes the primal source of the watery aspect of the heart, that aspect which receives and perceives the world and other hearts in it which the Chinese call the Heart Yin.

Just a bit further into the marshy muck grows Calamus, with its green rush-like leaves and its bright yellow flower and a spicy root that clears the waters of the heart when they are overwhelmed with sensation and emotion by lighting the bright fire of expression, the Heart Yang.

Though a god of wild waters, Mannanán has a fiery nature in many ways, and perhaps because of the thundering sounds of the storm and the gentle music of wind and water that arise when he moves in this world, his magic is magic of vision, truth, and the word. When he is nourished by beauty and love, he sings. When his heart is wounded his anguish a tide none can withstand.

He bears a silver branch bedecked with golden apples from the Otherworld. Who holds the branch can see the world as he does, the world refracted through the teardrop of Fand’s beauty. The great ancient Irish king, Cormac mac Art (Cormac Son of the Bear,) heard heavenly music when Mannanán shook the branch. When Cormac himself saw it he beheld the Otherworld Well wherein the Salmon of Wisdom dwells.

He bears a sword called the Answerer that he holds against the throat of one from whom he would compel the truth.

He carries also a chalice that shatters in the presence of lies and comes back together when truth is spoken.

As I write these words, I feel as though I am trying to conjure the Silver Branch in my hand so I might sing the truths that can piece that cup back together in a world shattered by confusions and distortions – my own world and the Earth and the Great World of which both are part. I am praying that cup will then fill with water from the Otherworld Well that we might drink deeply and remember who we are, something forgotten since Mannanán taught the Daoine Sidhe to weave the spell that would hide them from our eyes when they walked in this world.

The departure of the Tuath Dé, the Tribe of the Gods, from the world of the living and their transformation into the Daoine Sidhe was achieved through Mannanán’s magic – magic of revelation and disappearance, magic of mists and of clear vision.

The Tuath Dé had come to Ireland early in the history of the world, sailing on ships carried through the sky by the North Wind to wage a war to free the island from the brutal rule of Balor, a wicked king who demanded human sacrifice and whose single-eyed gaze corrupted and withered all it looked upon. In many ways, we can see him as the personification and embodiment of the spirit that would become first civilization and then empire and then colonialism and then global capitalism, overrunning the world. Mannanán was already there when the Tuath Dé arrived. He was one of the older, wilder gods who became their kin and their teacher. He trained his foster son, Lugh, in the martial and magical arts – and Lugh blinded and slew Balor with a single thrust of a spear made of sunlight.

In time, though, new invaders came, Galatian Celts from Spain, and they wrested Ireland from the Tuath Dé on another first of May as the Hawthorn bloomed. Moderns scholars verify that Celtic people arrived in Ireland from Spain in the Bronze Age and that another people existed there before them. (Interestingly, long ago, when the first Oak trees were growing in Europe, Ireland and Spain were part of the same landmass and their oldest trees are genetically related.)

In that time, Mannanán had become one of the kings of the Tuath Dé, even though he had not been born among them, and he gathered his people under a mound at the mouth of the Boyne, the river that mirrors the Milky Way, and showed them another world below, the world from which all things in this world emerge, the world to which the dead return. He divided among them the Hollow Hills that were the common tombs of the Neolithic people of Ireland and showed them how to pass into the Otherworld from this world through those tombs. When they made that passage, the Tuath Dé became the Daoine Sidhe, the people of the mound.

He also taught them an incantation, Mannanán’s Cloak, that allowed them to remain shrouded from human sight when they pass into this world. But like all things of wind and water and word, the cloak conjured is a fleeting thing, and like all cloaks sometimes it slips, so the forays the Daoine Sidhe make into this world are few and far between. Fewer and further between as more and more of the world comes under the sway of forces far more baleful than Balor ever was.

Since childhood, I have felt that when the Tuath Dé left this realm, they took with them ways of knowing and being essential to the wholeness of the world.

There is a fragile peace between the worlds – which is why the wise and the reverent and the ones whose sight can sometimes penetrate the cloak pay rent to Mannanán at Midsummer.

But for more and more of us, that rent is overdue.

So the seas rise and storms batter the land.

Is Mannanán seeking his due?

Mannanán himself did not go beneath the hollow hills with his adopted tribe, he traveled instead beyond the ninth wave to the Island of Apples which exists just outside this world. He came again many times to teach humans essential wisdom, often coming disguised as a beggar or a clown. Once he came to woo Fand back from the great warrior Cuchulain.

On the Beara peninsula of County Cork, they have another name for the one who is wed to Mannanán -- the Cailleach Beara, the Winter Queen, the ones the Scotts call Bone Mother or Nicnevin. They say that she turned to stone waiting for her husband to return from over the water.

My heart tells me that she is Fand, turned bitter and hard by heartbreak.

Yet I think her heart still blazes in the teine chanáimh, the bonefires, the great blazes people across Ireland light atop the hills on St. John's Eve, Midsummer. I feel like the fires are calling him home

I have dreamed the same dream several times in the past few years -- Mannanán standing at the mouth of the Boyne, calling his people back into the world.

I always wake knowing that the entrance to the Hollow Hills lies within our hearts.

The time has come to grasp the silver branch and remember the music that allows us to open that gate and see the world refracted through the prism of the tear Fand is and the tears Fand weeps and be baptized back into the wildness of who we are.

(For more about the silver branch and the eye of Balor and the Otherworld Well, see the masterful works of John Moriarty.)

1 comment

  • I’ve been feeling the approach of the solstice and the full moon, even in this busy modern world. Your essay connected what I’m feeling back to the ancient wisdom of those who came before us and reminded me to be grateful to the earth for the life it gives me. Thank you for your words.


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