As you know, I didn’t write a myth last week. It was that sort of a week. The sort where you work, oh, fifteen days in a row, mostly longer than eight hours in a given day, and feel the burn of exhaustion. But it seems people liked the retelling of the Viscountess, which is always nice to hear.
Still, that’s a question we’re missing in the lexicon, so it makes some sense that this week we would in fact answer two questions. And as it turns out, there are three — count them three — questions that directly correlate to one another.
The first of these questions comes from Filipe Cadete, who asks us:
Pigeons. How come those flying disease vectors and overall polluters are fed by thousands of people all over the world?
The answer, of course, is “ninjas.”
But that leads us to a question by long time reader, friend, and Superguy-gadabout-town LurkerWithout, who asks us:
Ninjas. Why the hell them and not one of the other pseudo-religious/mystic cults of killers?
And the answer to that is, as you can imagine, is “Manannán mac Lir,” sea god and psychopomp of Manx mythology.
Oh, this surprises you?
Well, we’ll elaborate on all of this soon enough. Because we still have a third question that was asked, in direct response to LurkerWithout, this time by Joel Wilcox:
In addition to Lurker’s comment: Why pirates vs. ninjas?
See, now we’re getting into details and that means that really, we should just be starting the myth already and not being all stressed out about the whys and wherefores. And that brings us, inexorably, to:
Manannán mac Lir and the Isle of Ninjas.
For those of you who follow these myths, you know we don’t often talk about the myths of old. Well, that’s not true. We talk a lot about nymphs and nereids and eudaemons and kakodaemons and the like. But we don’t talk much at all about Zeus or Thor or Thoth.
There are many reasons for this. Licensing, for example. And questions of libel. One wouldn’t want to write a myth comparing Freya to Ishtar to Aphrodite, for example, because there’s a very real chance you’ll offend one, two or all three of them, and if you can think of something more frightening than offending one to three goddesses, then thank you for reading my blog, Stephen King.
But more pressing a reason is… well, these are the myths of old we’re discussing, and the series is called the mythology of the modern world. It’s not that these Gods don’t all still exist. For the most part they do. But that doesn’t mean they’re still doing the full divine thing. Oh, they still interact with humans. They still give revelations and nudge events for those who know how to ask properly. But they don’t smash continents with their wrath or make grand gestures any more. That sort of thing they license out to television and the movies.
(If you’re wondering why Hera let Hercules: the Legendary Journeys portray her so unflatteringly? The answer involves a lot of zeroes and significant real estate holdings. If you’re going to live forever? Live well. But I digress.)
One god who remains an exception to this rule is the aforementioned Manannán mac Lir. In antiquity, he was known as a sea god, a god of mystery, a psychopomp who directed the dead to their destination… and as the first ruler and continuing presence upon the Isle of Man. Which is itself an interesting place, as it is at the absolute center of the British Isles, with almost the same distance between it and Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. This is mac Lir’s domain and ancestral home, and to this day the Manx people still pay mac Lir a ritual rent each year, and the Triskelion — referring to the mac Lir’s defense of his lands by becoming a huge three legged wheel of destruction — remains one of the core symbols of the island.
However, the ‘Isle’ of Man is in fact more than one island, with the Calf of Man, Fort Island, Kitterland, Chicken’s Rock, St. Patrick’s Isle, Conister Rock (the legendary Tower of Refuge) and others known. So too was it known that mac Lir himself held sway over more islands than just the Isle of Man. As psychopomp, mac Lir would ferry his charges to the Isle of the Dead, where he continues to have property, as an example. The Isle of Storms was his, as was the Isle of the Mists. And mac Lir is the Lord of the Isle of the Mists Between The Worlds, which is not to be confused with the Isle of Mists itself. Which means that as one passes between the realms, the outer world, the ‘real’ world, and the backstage areas and back routes of the world we like so much, one is passing through Manannán mac Lir’s territory.
The thing is, mac Lir has islands that don’t get a lot of press. After all, the Isle of Man is one thing, and the Isle of Storms or the Isle of the Dead is quite another… and compared to those, the Isle of Fruit Poptart Processing just seems banal. Sure, mac Lir himself enjoys the Isle of Naturally Occuring Hot Springs as much as the next person, but the Isle of Drizzle is at best an unproductive tourist spot in the Backworlds. And then, there are the Islands he commands which have to remain secret, for interests of security.
Which is where the Isle of Ninjas comes in.
I know you don’t consider Ninjas Celtic, Dr. McNinja aside. That should have been your first clue — obviously, so secretive and mystical a society wouldn’t allow its true origins to be even remotely public. At the same time, they needed to effectively root themselves in the so-called real world, which meant they needed a place to be ‘from.’ So, back in the fourteenth century, with mac Lir’s blessing, they made their way through the backways of the world and began to build a reputation in Japan. But in the process, they first were trained in many ancient arts of misdirection and assassination by the mac Lir, his wife Fand, and many other figures in myth and legend. He taught them the secrets of using the mists to conceal themselves — best known in the movies as tossing down a ‘smoke’ bomb and vanishing in its wake. He taught them the ways of misdirecting and passing through scenes without being seen. He taught one or two of them to become a three legged wheel, but that doesn’t make for good cinema.
And he taught them espionage and infiltration, which brings us back to mac Lir and the world. You see, most divinities were scaling their activities back over time. One can make references to the rise of Christianity and other such religions, or secularism and the Enlightenment, and I’m not going to debate why they did what they did. What, you think I want Apollo mad at me? Skin cancer’s no joke. But while this was going on, mac Lir was, quietly, expanding his spheres of influence. And with the rise of modern culture, of cities and steam (and what is steam if not the harnessing of the sea to do work), of urban culture and of espresso (and what is espresso if not the harnessing of steam to become awesome?), Manannán mac Lir has quietly made his operation global.
What his goals are and, indeed, what he is doing is beyond the scope of this essay. It is known he has something to do with the ferrying of the dead, though it is a mistake to think that Psychopomp station and the light rail lines belong to him. Though he does possess a fare card that seems to work on any mass transit system on Earth, and one of the fastest ways he can travel the globe is through judicious transfers. It is known that the boundaries between the real world and the backstage of the world — the back routes and byways — are somehow connected to the Isle of the Mists Between the Worlds, which means that as people duck between the two worlds, somehow there are tolls being levied by the mac Lir.
Whatever Manannán mac Lir is doing — it’s big. And the ninjas of the Isle of Ninjas are at the heart of it. Wherever humanity gathers, the ninjas are there, watching and learning and preparing to strike at their master’s command.
However, the core of Ninjitsu — the very essence of being of this ancient order — is being unnoticed and unseen. Which means actually running around all the cities of Earth in black wrap pants and hoods is actually not an effective means of concealing your activities. But once again, the public face of the ninja is a dodge. A hint, but nothing more. Because one of the darkest, most complete arts of the ninja is transformation, and that is at best hinted at in the legends.
It is, of course, a rather common element of the legends of the Celts. And indeed, the art of transformation was not originally mac Lir’s to teach. That belonged to his beautiful bride — Fand, Queen of Fairiekind, Tears of the Sea and Pearl of Beauty. Fand is well known in the myths and legends of the Celts and Irish as having the power to take on the form of sea birds in flight, and this informed her training of ma Lir’s ninjas. However, sea birds only really work as a disguise in coastal societies like the Isle of Man, Ireland or the like themselves. In order to truly disguise the invisible warriors, spies and assassins, they needed to find another form. One that would be accepted wherever man congregated. And in true form, the ninjas would hide among the peasantry, even as they did in Japan.
The most peasant of birds, known throughout every city and most towns where mankind has settled, is the pigeon. They seem to spread as quickly as civilization, and they are so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Which makes sense, really, since Manannán mac Lir can easily arrange for transportation to any new gathering place or overly large town, and the ninja is nothing if not unnoticed.
Of course, ninjas have pride. And notice ill treatment or violence. And also, fair or not, reward those who act with kindness and respect towards them. And while mankind may not have consciously realized that the pigeons that seem to plague public spaces are actually deadly ninjas, but they did notice the occasional flurry of mysterious assassinations, arsons, and clever humiliations of public figures. In the early days of urban life, it was thought this was just how things went in cities, and indeed this was used as a primary argument for a return to a simpler, more agrarian lifestyle. It was a refrain that William Wordsworth often returned to time and again in his poetry, remarking upon the beauty of nature and its unsullied innocence, while within the squalor of the cities one might find themselves slain by a clever blowdart fired, perhaps, from a marsh reed or had one’s throat cut by some curved blade which, when the constables investigate later, appears to be some kind of sickle or farming implement.
It is worth noting these passages were generally edited out of the Lyrical Ballads.
However, some of the elders of some of the villages just on the cusp of cityhood had learned — as elders often do — that the best way to appease such matters would be to befriend and be kind to the pigeons which collect in the city parks and squares, and after some time it became a regular habit. Soon, ‘pigeon fanciers’ were raising the actual birds and training them, and being kind to and feeding the wild pigeons — which is to say the ninjas — they would find in the parks.
Today, the process is more or less unconscious — the better cared for the pigeon population, the quieter the streets and the fewer sword and tiger-claw based injuries reported in the emergency rooms. Completely without realizing it, these good souls help to protect their homes and communities from the cold breath of the hidden assassin and clever spy.
At the same time, it’s clear to all involved just how pervasive Manannán mac Lir’s modern influence is. There are pigeons wherever one goes, on every continent and in every town. At one whispered word from the Lord of the Sea and the Guardian of the Blessed Isles, thousands — tens of thousands of dark clad warriors would rise up from their feathery disguises, ready to strike fear and death where they silently step. As it stands, all the governments of mankind could be eliminated in one fell swoop — a true night of the long knives, where ninjas outnumbered politicians and policemen alike by a frightening multiple, plunging humanity into a new dark age.
Which may be why pirates as a whole do not like ninjas. It is known that no less august a pirate lord (or privateer, as the histories call him) as Sir Francis Drake, when sailing his mighty Golden Hind across the Atlantic, did make landfall upon an uncharted misty isle where he found himself contending with dark clad warriors with an almost legendary cleverness. And it is well known that after that voyage, Drake never spoke a serious word where a pigeon could be seen, There is also some thought that as Pirate strongholds in the Spanish Main grew to cities and ports, the sea birds seemed to grow thick and pigeons appeared as if sprouting from the ground. And more than one pirate was particularly fond of squab, which couldn’t have helped matters.
Of course, modern pirates are more known for their place in boardrooms and law offices than on the Spanish main. But the captains of industry are civic leaders, which means that the ninjas are watching them all the closer… and no pirate likes having his secrets compromised.
As for the mac Lir and his beautiful wife, Fand… their ultimate goals remain shrouded in mystery. They are old gods, having predated the Tuatha Dé Danann they are most familiar with, and their power is potentially terrible.
But it is a power they have not chosen to exercise. Indeed, mac Lir is as much trickster as psychopomp, and it is known he travels the rails and the seas to this day. He and Fand were last credibly known to reside in Seattle in the early nineties. mac Lir is thought to have made the goatee popular, and there are reports that they were in a number of bands and for a while Fand was working as a studio musician — generally on the Bass though she apparently is a fine hand at the electric mandolin. And of course, the mists are thick around Seattle, and sea birds and pigeons alike dart along the streets, and the mass transit system is particularly effective and the morning commutes actually take place on ferries over the sea, here and there.
Still, that was well over a decade ago, so it’s entirely possible they have moved on, and so of course shall we. But in the meantime, when you pass a pigeon in the street, think about tossing them a crumb or two, or a bit of popcorn if you have it. And if your friend makes jokes about rats with wings, try not to agree with him, at least where the pigeon can hear. Certainly, it’s possible it’s just a bird… but all too many amateur comedians have felt the hair on the back of their necks stand on end in the dead of night, knowing with a strange certainty that they are being watched… only to whirl and see nothing beyond their window, and hear a cooing sound in the distance, and get the strange feeling that now ‘they’ know where they live, and that perhaps their affairs should be put in order soon.