Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Tale of Elen of the Ways

                                                 St Helen of Caenarfon

The Roman road, Sarn Elen is named after Saint Elen ( angliscised to Helen)  whose feast day is celebrated today which connects her to Spring. Saint Elen  was a late  4th century founder of churches here in Wales. Her influence on  present day Wales still evident  by the existing roads  that bear her name,  ancient Roman roads throughout the British Isles – that we can all still walk along. Roman roads in Britain are often called Sarn Elen, but it is possible that the original Elen’s causeways belong to a much earlier period. Evidence of earlier paving is found under some of the roads, but the straightness of the Roman roads must sure have impressed the locals. The Celts associated straight paths with magic and the Otherworld, the paths that fairies took from one mound to another, the straight path of a magical spell, and the spirit flight of the shaman. It is significant that Elen is first beheld in a dream, then goes on to build a network of magical roads across Britain. Some associate these with ley lines, the ancient trackways that are said to join together ancient sites, such as tumuli, burial mounds, hillforts, stone circles and so on. It is possible that Elen is the guardian of these, or perhaps she is the guardian of the paths of dreams and visions.
She was the patron Saint of travel long before St. Christopher. On present day survey maps Sarn Elen is clearly posted. it is said that Elen is responsible for the building of  these roads which in an ancient Britain connected strongholds. Some of these roads are associated with ley (energy) lines.The Welsh revered Elen as Elen of the Roads who at Beltane (1st May) opened the season of travel.She is certainly a pre-Roman goddess, and possibly much older than the Celts. The first trackways across Britain are said to have been reindeer tracks; Elain is Welsh for deer, and it is possible that Elen is one of the horned goddesses portrayed in Celtic art, such as the two figures found at Lackford and Icklighmam.
Elen's story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, one of the tales associated with the Mabinogion.Welsh mythology remembers her as the daughter of a chieftain of north Wales named Eudaf or Eudwy, who probably lived somewhere near the Roman base of Segontium now Caernarfon  in North Wales. and as the the wife of Macsen Wledig ( Magnus Maximus), the 4th-century  emperor  in Britain, Gaul and Spain who was killed in battle in 388 AD. 
She is remembered for having Macsen build roads across her country so that the soldiers could more easily defend it from attackers, thus earning her the name Elen Luyddog (Elen of the Hosts).
The Mabinogion  collection is drawn from Medeival  writings, although it is accepted that  most  of the tales were probably transmitted orally for centuries previous to their writing down. Nevertheless by the  twelfth century, Britain had been Christian for a long time while it is clear that while some characters have been diminished, while once they were gods or otherworldly heroes, they appear in the tales as ordinary humans. Some believe that Saint Elen or Helen is such a diminished goddess, and her tale does give us a few snippets which tend to support this idea. There is her mysterious appearance  in Macsen's dream , and the curious, almost ritualistic  surroundings in which she first appears. She sits upon a magical seat that grows bigger when Macsen joins Elen upon it. There is the emphasis  on her beauty and magnificance, which could indicate an otherworldly appearance. 
And then there is this business with the roads, which has led many modern pagans to proclaim her as goddess of roads, ley lines, shamanic journeying, a guardian of all who journey etc. In addition some modern pagan writers, in a bid to increase  the amount of information  we have on Elen, are assuming that she is identical with other goddesses such as Brighid or that she is the forerunner of such goddesses.
Through the ages Elen and Helen's  lives have been combined. In myth and legend Elen is representative of the land of Britain itself, Elen of the Ways istherefore  a rich combination  of legend, myth, history and imagination..

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