of the Ways - Part One
Very little is known about ancient British gods and goddesses, although one of the most important was unquestionably Elen of the Ways. For over 25 years Goddess expert Caroline Wise has been researching the origins of Elen, and she now presents the very latest views on this little known deity, who might easily have existed as long ago as Palaeolithic times.
My explorations of Elen led me to discover a figure of many facets, a figure that has evolved and transformed over the centuries, manifesting in several forms. I have attempted to peel back the layers, and look at some of her aspects.
As Lady Sovereignty, she is concerned with the balance of the energies of the land, via the ruler, facilitating the sacred marriage. We follow her back across time, to the earliest track ways, the migratory tracks of the Reindeer and Elk. You may have heard this in talks I have been giving since 1995.
Elen moves across vast tracts of time, and land, cloaked and masked appropriately for each age. Identifying some of her masks and being able to peep behind them has been an exhilarating ride.
What follows below continues on from my initial publication 'Elen of the Shimmering Ways' (Spiral Press 1986 with illustrations by Chesca Potter) and from my contribution to 'The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London' (Aquarian Press 1989).
Elen is elusive, ethereal, gossamer, yet in my research and experiences over the years, she has allowed me to follow her quicksilver thread and revealed herself in her various guises.
As the Green Lady, she peeps out between the trees in forests and woods. As a British Venus, Goddess of Gardens, she is the Flower Bride: at her Holy wells, mainly to be found in the North of the country, she is guardian of the underground streams that carry the sacred waters. These underground streams have themselves become a metaphor for the secret continuation of sacred wisdom. She is the Guardian of the ancient track ways, the Leys, the kundalini currents in nature, and as the Horned Goddess, she leads us to the first trackways, the migratory tracks of the reindeer and later, she leads us to the path of the red deer through the forests. From here she leads us to the lost Shamanism of the isles of Britain, and we can follow her across Scandinavia, Russia, Mongolia, Siberia, India and beyond.
She has pointed me to ancient London, and to the stars. She has appeared with the fairy folk and she has revealed mysteries of the abstract, magical concept which links sovereignty to the fertility of the land.
My introduction to her came in 1983. I had been working closely with Paul Devereux and the Ley Hunter Magazine, and he gave me a copy of a journal sent to them for review. It was simply titled 'Helen - Pagan or Christian'. To the contributors, Helena was synonymous with 'Elen', and the various 'Elens' 'Elaines' and Helenas who appear in mythology. They suggested that these figures have become confused and entwined, and include: Elen in the Mabinogion, Helen the Mother of Constantine, a grail barer, a bar maid, and an Essex girl who was daughter of Olde King Cole. My instincts told me that if we could unravel this confusion, instead of seeing a lot of separate characters tangled up together, we would find many faces of the same figure.
I felt a great excitement
as I started to read 'Pendragon', Just a few pages long, and with no
'hard evidence' to grasp, I knew that something that was to be of deep
significance to me was awakening, and from that moment I was set on
a quest to find out more about her. I had no real idea of the vast stretches
of time, landscape and myth that she traversed.
Elen and the King
I started my investigations with the evocative figure that appears in the Mabinogion, the medieval masterpiece of otherworldly tales based on mythical and quasi-historical characters. It is believed to be based on earlier, orally transmitted tales.
Elen' appears in the Mabinogion story 'The Dream of Mascen Wledig', whose character is based on the Roman Emperor Maximus.
Mascen is out hunting with thirty-two companions. They follow the 'River that Runs towards Rome'. Mascen gets tired in the heat of the sun at noon so a tent is prepared. Mascen sleeps and dreams a wonderful dream.
He dreams of undertaking an epic journey, where he travels across mighty rivers, mountains and valleys, all kinds of terrain, until he crosses a sea and eventually comes to a red-gold castle. In the castle he finds two auburn haired youths playing chess, and an old king whittling chess pieces.
On a red-gold throne sits a woman. She is the most beautiful woman Mascen has ever seen. She is Elen. Mascen awakes, and pines for the woman of his dream. He sends men out on a quest to find her, which they do, in Wales, the land of red gold. They tell her that the Emperor wants her, and Elen says that if the Emperor wants her that badly, he can come and get her himself.
On hearing this, he sets of, and after many adventures, Elen becomes his Bride. She becomes the Empress Helen, has roads built (magically) for the armies of Britain, and for the protection of Britain, (Elen Lwydogg -Elen of the Hosts). The roads are said to link castles across the land. As a Leyhunter this appealed to me - were these more than Roman roads, echoes of ancient pathways, Elen's roads, memories of the Old straight tracks?
You can walk along her roads still. Sarn Elen, a network, which goes form Caernarfon, probably the site of Elen's castle, into South Wales. It is known to be earlier than the Roman period, and walking along her highway can be a magical experience, as you enter a realm where magic, myth, and history meet.
Mascen's Dream is an Aisling, a visionary dream or experience where a figure representing Sovereignty appears, usually the form of a woman. (Lady Sovereignty). Elen plays that role here, as a daughter of a King. She is sitting on a golden throne. Her brothers are playing chess (Mascen 'takes the Queen') and the Old King is making chess pieces (indicating that the royal succession is in his hands?). The Chessboard represents the land of Britain. In chess, the king is vulnerable, and the Queen powerful. Elen, enthroned as Lady Sovereignty, has the power and authority to summon the king to her. But we are looking at more here than a tale of dynastic marriage between Britain and Rome, or the continuity of a royal line, or even a carefully crafted story for later rulers to claim ancestry from an emperor of Rome. An aisling of my own showed me me it concerned the awakening of the land, establishing a balance of the earth- energies through the meridians of the land, keeping the Wasteland at bay.
Elen is Mascen's shakti,
an eastern term for a divine woman who arouses the kundalini in a magical
way. In her western form, she is the Grail bearer, holding within her
the sacred cup from which the royal line continues, along with the secret,
sexual magic that activates the energies of the land, bringing fertility
and plenty. .
The dream of Masked, however, contains several interesting motifs. It also contains a description of 'shamanic flight'. We are all familiar with tales of shaman's and witches flying through the air in a trance state. Researchers of South American shamanism have made familiar the idea that certain landmarks on the ground are recognisable to the shaman in his out of body flight, and that some placed there specifically to be seen as signposts beneath him. But I recalled a booklet by a remarkable man called Tony Wedd, called Sky Ways and Landmarks, (1961). Wedd proposes that certain alignments in England, marked with stones, flash ponds and tree-topped mounds, were to be seen form above. His interpretation of this phenomenon was very much of the time they were written, but his intuition and observations - that what we now called 'Leys' were possibly to be observed from above, seemed relevant here.
Mascen's dream also reminded me of what archaeologists were calling 'terrain oblivious lines' - ancient tracks would often go straight across difficult landscapes and cross rivers, rather than taking a more convenient, route. They make sense if they are to be seen from above. In Mascen's story, the alignments lead to Elen. I felt she was reeling us in.
The Reindeer Goddess
the 1980s, before google and ABE Books, every piece of information on the Elen quest had to be slowly mined. It took years to piece things together, an irony as a lot of the information that is easily available now about Elen comes form my connections. But I was helped along the way with the Quester's angel, synchronicity.
Chesca Potter, our colleague John Merron and myself visualised her as the Green Lady, a British representative of Green Isis and of Venus. We saw her as female equivalent of the Green Man, the foliate face found in old churches, who was resurrected in the 20th century as a symbol of the spirit of, nature and the fecundity of the land. We saw her as a consort to the equally elusive Herne the Hunter, although as a Goddess who could also stand alone, and as mentioned above, as an activator and mediator of Kundalini energies of the earth.
Earth Mysteries writer John Michell directed us to the work of the antiquarian writer Harold Bayley, whose inspired yet frustratingly unreferenced books spoke of Elen. Bayley spoke of Elen guardian spirit or lost goddess of London, claiming that London was named for her. He also speaks of Elen as an ancient British Deity associated with those beasts of the huntress-Goddess, the greyhound and the deer. I'd had a dream in which Elen appeared as a shy female dappled fallow deer. I caught a glimpse of this deer through the trees, as a shaft of sunlight filtered through the trees and spotlighted her. And then she was gone. I felt she was teasing me, saying 'catch me' and wanting me to follow, but I knew her traces would be faint.
My friend Chesca, however, kept seeing impressions of Elen as an antlered woman, a vision that would not go away. As a brilliant visionary artist she was able to capture this persistent image. I had no doubt this vision would 'check out'. A friend directed us to a small antlered female figurine in the British Museum, and I found that Elain was Welsh for 'Fawn', and that Jelen was Czech for deer, but the vision was of Elen as female antlered figure, and female deer didn't have antlers.
In 1990, by quite a magical synchronicity, I realised why my friend was seeing a female deer with antlers. The only kind of female deer to have antlers are Reindeer. As I learnt this, things started to tumble into place in my mind at great speed. I could now fix Mascen's dream of Elen more firmly as 'Shamanic' flight, and with the Reindeer as the key, Elen of the Leys led to Shamans further afield. And a colleague form Bulgaria told us shortly after this, that Elen was Bulgarian for Reindeer (I can find no proof of this!). But it seemed significant that not only does the female reindeer have antlers, but she is stronger than the male and does not shed her antlers in winter. It is an older female reindeer that leads the herds.
There were taboos
with harsh punishments for stealing Deer. Like swans, they belonged
to the sovereign. Deer hunting was a royal prerogative.
The Dance starts at 8am, when the horns and dancers are blessed by the vicar, and lasts all day, with the dancers carrying six sets of antlers - three black and three red. With its weaving step it is haunting, atavistic, and engaging, and quite an endurance test, given the length of the dance and the heavy weight of the antlers. Mounted on wooden deer heads, they can weigh up to 25lbs. These antlers, kept in the Church of Saint Nicholas. (More on St Nicholas later.)
With a nice touch of geomantic magic, they must never cross the parish boundary. When the dancers are invited elsewhere, a set of Red Deer antlers is taken. The dance may be to celebrate the granting of hunting rights, but it has the resonance of a more ancient resonance of a time when access to the herds had to be strictly controlled for survival. The antlers date to a suspiciously accurate 1065! They are believed to have been imported form Scandinavia to replace an older native set, reindeer having long ago moved north. There were Reindeer migratory routes all across England, and marked by many stones and places names. At Abbots Bromley, I feel, we can just touch the ghost of their passage.
The research of various Earth Mysteries explorers over the years shows that leys had several functions and interpretations, all of them probably valid. But it was the idea of Leys as shamanic flight paths that was relevant to Elen in her guises of both Empress and the Reindeer-woman.
I had heard the legend that the Father Christmas story is based on the shamans of the Sámi people. These people (and other reindeer societies) had a symbiotic relationship with the Reindeer. They would follow the herds along their migratory tracks. Their food, clothes, homes, tools, even needles and thread came form the reindeer.
It is now well known
that the Father Christmas story is based on the older, non-Christian
Shamans of Lapland. The story goes that to aid their shamanic flights
and trance, the shamans needed the properties of the Fly agaric mushroom.
This is of course, the fabulous red and white toadstool of fairy stories,
the one our mothers warned us never to eat. Taking the mushroom can
be risky, or at least unpleasant, because of toxins it contains. The
Shamans noted that the reindeer ate the mushrooms, which grew around
the silver birch trees, and suffered no ill effects.
Above the snow he can see the herds, see the predators, and gains helpful knowledge for the tribe. He gains wisdom of the plants and healing, as the fly agaric opens the gateways for him to be able to commune with the spirits of the land, the beasts, and the ancestors. He carries back the gifts of healing, and also news of the herds.
When finishing his trance session, the shaman would enter the yurt through the smoke hole, and slide down the central silver birch pole with his bag of healing plants and his paraphernalia - Father Christmas coming down the chimney.
The shaman's colours are red and white, like the Fly agaric and Father Christmas's costume as he rides through the sky in his sleigh drawn by reindeer. Through various vision quests, I was shown that the migratory paths of the reindeer were the first track ways, walked for millennia by the beasts alone, and then followed by humans. I saw how, in the Palaeolithic times, before domestic herding, the shaman's knowledge would show where the deer could be ambushed and corralled, often at the places where they forded the river. I believe that some of the places are still extant today, in places names and mark stones, which would be identified with a sign of the deer. such as a carving of the deer itself, or a 'cup and ring' type motif. Remains of such markers exist still, in place names and extant stones - such as The |High Road of the Deer, in Wales, and The Deer Stones in Mongolia.
I mention the Samis as Elen led me to The Reindeer Tracks, and the Reindeer people. They have been on their lands in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia since prehistory, living symbiotically with the Reindeer. Their persecution of their culture, language, animist spirituality and their shamans by the church was shockingly cruel as Christian persecution always is, the more so as the racial and cultural persecution went on until the 1970s, with repercussions still being felt to this day. For the reindeer people in Russia and Mongolia, there came the persecution and cultural destruction from Communism, threatened further, after a few years in the light, by the coming of the capitalists looking for oil and other resources. This tragedy can be read about elsewhere.
I found no Goddess called Elen; their female reindeer spirit appears as the daughter of the Sun Goddess, to whom a white female reindeer is sacrificed at the winter solstice. But Elen was leading me further on.
Thinking of Mascen's dream journey, and my idea that this may connect to shamanic flight, I decided to try an experiment. Not having fly agaric to hand, I induced a method of astral projection and invoked Elen. I visualised myself walking through snow, in a bleak landscape. Soon I was 'astral travelling' now above the land and completely in the moment and no longer needing to consciously invoke the images. Looking down I saw a pathway littered with bones and antler. It had the appearance of a simple rail track, laid out on the snow, and I realised that this represented the migratory route of the deer. I was following this track that had seen millions of beasts over millennia. I knew it went back aeons, before the Ice age, a memory that was in our genes and in the land itself. The bones and antlers represented the ancestors of the beasts who still, where they could, walked these paths today. I was 'told' that these were the 'oldest pathways in the world'. I felt a huge rush of energy, and the path suddenly rose up, looped out and back on itself, and the bones and antlers formed into a skeleton of a giant elk, rearing up in front of me. It twisted around and started to move forward. This was so dramatic that I snapped back form my astral journey, much to my frustration - if I had stayed with it, I am sure it would led me to discover more. I have never been able retrace that track!
The Elk (Elan) intrigued me, adding another piece of the Elen jigsaw. These creatures, as large as the one in my vision, existed in Britain and Ireland and stood up to 12' at the shoulder and the huge heavy antlers can span 10'. They roamed the land from at least 400000 years ago, up to the end of the Ice Age. Whole skeletons have been found, in Ireland, Isle of Man and Scotland. Elen, who had appeared to me first as a fallow deer in the wood, then showed me the reindeer paths, had now revealed the ancient tracks of the extinct giant Elk.
I concluded that she is a Goddess whose beasts include all the deer, and who guards and guides along their track ways, and that from these early track ways she becomes the goddess of the leys, concerned with the rulership of the land, the measurement and mapping of the land and geomancy. She is, via the beasts and the old pathways, concerned with the balance of the energies of the land, with the fertility and cycles of nature.
To read part two of Caroline Wise's article on Elen of the Ways - Britain forgotten goddess, which links to the constellation of Cygnus. Click here to read
The illustration 'The Ancestor' copyright Chesca Potter. It is form the Greenwood Tarot, a stunning Tarot deck based on the wheel of the year.
Wise is appearing at this year's Questing Conference (QuestCon07),