IN my paper "On the Armorial Bearings of the Isle of Mann, their Origin, History and Meaning," I maintained that "there is not the slightest trace of the three-legs symbol having been employed in connection with the Isle of Mann until after the cession of the island to Alexander III. of Scotland, in 1266. The only arms or emblem known to have been used before that time was the ship in full sail, the sign of the Norwegian kings; but ever since that period, down to our own day, the three legs running in a circle has been the heraldic emblem of the island. It was borrowed by the Scottish King from the Sicilians, of whose island it has been the distinguishing badge for two thousand years, having been originally a religious emblem of the most sacred characrter, derived from and always associated with the worship of the Sun."
But a friend has drawn my attention to a statement in Elton's " Origins of English History," p. 292, which points to a local origin. Here is the passage:"Lir was another ocean-god who was worshipped both in Ireland and Britain." "The group of the children of Lir included several other divinities who came to be regarded as characrters of romance." ·' The most important characrter of the group is the famous 'Manannan Mac Lir.' In him we see personified the splendour and swiftness of the Sun; the god rushes over the waves like a 'wheel of fire,' and his three-legged shape recalls the three giant strides of Vishnu. He was the patron of traffic and merchandise, and, according to 'Cormac's Glossary' he himself was an old and celebrated trader of the Isle of Mann, who could predicrt the changes of the weather and tell the signs of the sky."
Of course, if the statement printed in italics can be established from documents more ancient than the 13th century, then it would tend to invalidate the conclusion at which I arrived, and to favour the idea that, after all, the famous arms of the Island, the three-legs of Mann, are of a purely local origin, the embodiment of an ancient Celtic legend. What then, are the authorities, on which Mr. Elton relies ? Those cited at the end of the paragraph are:" Joyce, Old Celtic Romances, 38; O'Curry, Manners of the Anc-Irish, ii. 301; Guest's Mabinogion, 411." But these on examination, are found to contain nothing confirmatory of the paragraph in question, though they record various wild legends about this Celtic hero. Only one authority quoted by Mr. Elton now remains, Cormac's Glossary, and I quote the paragraph in full, from the translation of O'Donovan and Stokes, with the notes of the two editors :*
"Manannan Mac Lir, a celebrated merchant who was in the Isle of Mann. He was the best pilot that was in the west of Europe. He used to know by studying the heavens the period which would be the fine weather and the bad weather, and when each of these two times would change. Inde Scoti et Brittones eum deum vocaverunt marls, et inde filium maris esse dixerunt, i.e., Mac Lir, Son of sea.' Et de nomine Manannan the Isle of Mann dictus est.
NOTEHe was son of Allot, one of the Tuatha De Danann chieftains. He was otherwise called Orbsen, whence Loch Orbsen, now Lough Corrib. He is still vividly remembered in the mountainous district of Derry and Donegal and is said to have an enchanted castle in Lough Foyle According to the traditions in the Isle of Mann, and the eastern counties of Leinster, this first man of Mann rolled on three-legs like a wheel through the mist, and hence the threelegged figure on the Manx half-penny, and the motto 'quocunque jeceris stabit'O'D(onovan). I know nothing of this tradition, but if it be authentic, we may possibly trace a connection between this three-legged Manannan Mac Lir, (the Welsh Manawydan. ah Lyr), the TARNOS TREGARANUS of the Notre Dame inscription, and the Vedic Vishnu, with three strides, i.e., the rising, the culmination, and the setting of the sun. See Siegfried. Beitr-zur-vergl, spr. I., 473.Ed." (Whitley Stokes).
So, after all, we have come to the end of Mr. Elton's " authorities," without finding one particle of ancient evidence for the statement he has put forth. There is not a trace of it in Cormac's Glossary,t and it appears first in Dr. O'Donovan's note, who refers to the current fairy tales of the peasantry in the Isle of Mann as his sole authority. Fortunately, O'Donovan supplies also the clue to the way in which the tale arose. There was the three-legged figure on the Manx half-penny, naturally exciting the wonder and curiosity of the islanders as to how it originated. Myths and fairy tales are often only unscientific attempts to explain facts and phenomena. The child, the peasant, feels the need for an explanation which shall satisfy his mind, and bring the matter within the range of the knowable and the understood. It is also a law of the existence of myths that preexistent stories cluster round new names and occurrences. So in this instance. As they gathered around the fireside in the long winter nights, and recited old stories or invented new ones, Manannan Mac Lyr still occupied the highest place in fairy-land. He was the Manx wizard, magician, sea-god; who had given his name to the island that he had saved from invasion by surrounding it with a mist. So they added to the many wonders told of him, that " this first man of Mann rolled on three-legs, like a wheel through the mist, and hence the three-legged figure on the Manx half-penny ! " This enables us to approximately fix the date, for the first Manx penny and half-penny were coined in 1709, by the Earls of Derby, bearing on one side the Derby badge, and on the other the three-legs running in a circle, with motto " quomodo geceris stabit." The last Manx coinage was the Victoria of 1839. The tale cannot, therefore, be older than the year 1709, probably it is much more modern. Stokes, it will be observed, takes care to add:" I know nothing of this tradition," but as he was then residing in India, he ventured a vague comparison with the three strides of Vishnu. Rather should he have instanced Agni, the Indian fire-god, who is always represented with two faces, three-legs, and seven arms. These are not, however, examples of rotation within a circle, and have but little analogy with the Manx arms, the origin and meaning of which will be found fully traced in my essay. Indeed, the certainty that not a trace of the primitive "triskele" is to be found on the Island, though in use by its Norwegian conquerors for centuries, and that the earliest form found is the latest and most artistic, as first seen on Greek coins, is of itself strong proof of its having been imported.
* Sanas Chormaic. Cormac's
Glossary,(Irish-English),translated and edited by John O'Donovan,
revised and edited by Whitley Stokes, 4to. Calcutta, for the Irish
Archaeological Society, 1868.
+ Attributed to the 10th century, although the only copies known bear date 1734, 1797 and 1805.