Monday, October 03, 2011


Associated with: Irish and Welsh mythology
Also known as: Ler, Llyr
Earliest recorded mention: c. 900
Major texts: Sanas Cormaic, Leannaí Lir, the Welsh Triads

Apologies for the two-week hiatus. It's hard to blog from the road, as I don't have access to my bookshelves, but I've also been more than usually distracted by family and work demands. New month, new goals, new discipline: among other things, I'm going to try to do my own work first.

Ler (the correct nominative form of the name) is the ancient Irish god of the sea, which feels appropriate, as yesterday was my dad's 70th birthday — a birthday his children could not celebrate with him, because he's on a Navy supply ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. In the modern way, we all left him messages on Facebook. I hadn't even mailed him a gift because I thought he'd be home this week, and I feel bad about that. So sorry, Dad, and happy birthday.

The better-known Irish god of the sea is Manann√°n mac Lir, Ler's son ("mac Lir" meaning "son of the sea"). Scholars speculate that Ler was an older god whose worship was superceded by his son's. Both are associated with the underworld as well as with the sea, and why not? It seems natural to see the sea as a gateway to that other world, or maybe that's just my own heritage.

We remember Ler now mainly because of the legend of the Children of Lir, which I first read as a child of 7 or 8, in a collection of fairy tales I wish I'd hung onto. Ler and his beloved wife Aoibh had four children, a daughter and three sons. But Aoibh died, and Ler married her sister, Aoife, to comfort himself and give his children a new mother. Aoife was jealous of the children, and tried to have them killed. Instead of being killed, the children were turned into swans. In the version of the story I remember, the curse would last until a bell rang to call them back to their home — but when the bell rang, almost 1,000 years had passed, and all the people and things they loved had gone. The children of Lir became human again, only to die and be reunited happily with their parents in heaven.

This story made a huge impact on me when I was 7 or 8, and even now I can't say exactly why. Ler's hardly in the story at all; the story's about the children. It wasn't his fault that the children turned into swans. The swans lived hundreds of years in exile, waiting to be called home, only to find that home had vanished when the call finally came. When I was 7 or 8, this was the saddest story I had ever read. Almost 40 years later, I think it still is.


Zach said...

Immortality - the ultimate "be careful what you wish for."

AnswerGirl said...

Yes -- in fact, as I remember the story, the children had the option to remain swans and stay alive, or go back to being human and die. They chose to die, and be reunited with the people they loved.