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The Quest for Elen
By Caroline Wise
Elen (painting Judith Page)
The nature spirit 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.
Green Lady (painting Judith Page)
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 track ways, 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 the Middle East and we can follow her across Scandinavia, Russia, Mongolia and Siberia, India and beyond.
Venus (painting Judith Page)
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.
There is a strange mythological knot which seems to tie the Christian Saint Helena, the Empress, with the person of Elen in Welsh Myth, and various other Elen and Helen figures from legend. These Helens and Elen’s have become confused and entwined. In this article I want to untangle this knot and look at what I believe is the animating spirit behind their various manifestations.
When I set out on my 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.
'The Dream of Mascen Wledig'
‘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 off, 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 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. But Lady Sovereignty, just like the goddess Diana of classical myth in her Grove at Nemi, has to be won!
Diana (detail from Three Goddesses by Judith Page))
The man who is to be King, who must mediate and radiate the kundalini energies of fertility throughout the land, must be strong and true. Mascen has won the Queen, who represents the goddess of the land, by staying true to his dream woman and endeavoring to undertake his arduous journey at her command. To order the Emperor of Rome to do your bidding shows here the power that Elen holds. Sovereignty is bestowed on this king by the gift of the goddess, Elen.
This dream of Mascen contains several interesting motifs. One of these is a description of 'shamanic flight'. We are all familiar with tales of shamans 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 recognizable to the shaman in his out of body flight, with some placed artificially and specifically to be seen as signposts beneath him. In 1961, a remarkable English man called Tony Wedd produced a pamphlet called Sky Ways and Landmarks. Wedd proposes that certain alignments in England had been marked in antiquity with stones, flash ponds and tree-topped mounds, in a path that would make sense if viewed from above. His interpretation of this phenomenon was very much of the time they were written, but his intuition and observations - that what we called 'Leys' were possibly to be observed from above, seems relevant here.
Mascen's dream also bought to mind the phenomena of what archaeologists were calling 'terrain oblivious lines' - ancient tracks that would often go straight across difficult landscapes, and across 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 of the ‘dream path’ lead to Elen. I felt she was reeling us in.
The Reindeer Goddess
My friend, the mystical artist Chesca Potter and I visualized Elen as ‘The Green Lady’, an archetypal nature deity we felt was much lacking in the world, a counterpart to The Green Man, the foliate head found in old churches whose image has been revised and reborn as a spirit of nature in the modern pagan movement. We saw Elen as similar to Isis and Venus in their nature goddess forms. Isis caused the Nile to flood and the desert to become green and fertile; Venus was once a goddess of gardens. To me she was the activator and mediator of the energies of the earth.
Green Man (painting Judith Page)
Doe a Deer, a Female Deer…
One old antiquarian writer identified the figure 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 branches 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.
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'. I found that Elain was Welsh for 'Fawn', and that Jelen was Czech for deer, and the Bulgarian word for deer was Elen. However, female deer didn't have antlers!
In 1990, by quite a magical synchronicity, I realized 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. 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. 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. The seasonal migratory tracks of the herds, in their wolf-avoiding journeys to mate, give birth, and die, were indeed ‘terrain oblivious’, and included crossing rivers. And their routes would be marked on the ground, for the human hunters. And they would remain the same from the earliest times. Mascen had been hunting in the forests when he was led to Elen. The motifs were falling into place.
Deer and Sovereignty
Moving forward in time, to the medieval period, there were taboos and harsh punishments put in place for stealing Deer. Like swans, they belonged to the sovereign. Deer hunting was a royal prerogative. The shadowy figure of Robin Hood, champion of the poor, lived as an outlaw outside of society, and its rules. He exists in the liminal space on the boundaries of society. His domain is the forest. He appears on the highway to rob form the oppressor, fleetingly appearing and disappearing like a fawn along the secret forest tracks. He poaches the king's deer, and in a way this proves himself worthy of taking a 'queen' – a local nobleman’s daughter. Robin and Maid Marion have their own court, - a 'secret sovereignty' in the greenwood, and a continuation of the old ways after the hated Norman invasion perhaps. Robin led us to what may be a folk memory of the reindeer spirit in England the 1980s I attended the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This annual event is held in September, but was originally held at the time of the winter solstice. The team of 12 dancers includes a figure representing Maid Marion (danced by a man), Robin Hood with his bow and arrow, a hobbyhorse and a fool, as well as their musicians. It is said to commemorate the granting of hunting rights in the area to the common people, hence Robin the Poacher and his lover Maid Marion are the hunters, not the poachers.
Robin the Poacher and his lover Maid Marion
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 local Church of Saint Nicholas.
Horns and Dancers, Church of Saint Nicholas
With a nice touch of geomantic magic, these reindeer antlers 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 time when access to the herds had to be strictly controlled for survival. The antlers date to an 11thcentury, after the Norman Conquest, but reindeer were extinct in England by that time. 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.
There is a theory 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. The shaman lets the substance pass through the reindeer, neutralizing the toxins, and then drinks its urine. The active ingredients are unaffected, and the shaman enters his trance and begins his flight.
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. Many scholars dispute this story, but it has a persistent resonance.
Shaman with reindeer (rock art)
Through various vision quests and dreams, and indeed with astral flight itself, I was shown that the migratory paths of the reindeer were the first track-ways, walked for millennia by the beasts and followed by their hunters, both human and wolf. I was shown that in Paleolithic 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. These places would be identified with a sign of the deer, as a carving of the deer itself, or a 'cup and ring' type motif, or markings showing stylized hooves. Remains of such markers exist still, in place names and extant mark stones - such as the High Road of the Deer, in Wales, and The Deer Stones in Mongolia.
The Samis and 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 a time of 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 with the Reindeer peoples; their female reindeer spirit appears as Beivve, daughter of the Sun Goddess, to whom a white female reindeer is sacrificed at the winter solstice. But Elen was leading me further along the tracks.
The Bone and Antlered Track
Bone & Antler Track
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 visualized myself walking through snow, in a bleak landscape. Soon I was 'astral travelling' above the land and completely in the moment and no longer needing to consciously invoke the images. What happened next was startling. I was looking down on a track of bones and antlers lying on the snow. It had the appearance of a simple rail track, and it represented the migratory route of the deer, marked on the land by the shedding of antlers and the bones of the dead as they followed their seasonal routes. I was following this track that had been walked by millions of reindeer 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. It was biding me to follow. 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 giant Elk intrigued me, adding another piece of the Elen jigsaw with this experience and my discovery that the word Elk is ‘Elan’ in French. Until I saw one of these giant elk skeletons and antler rack in Ireland, I had no idea these huge creatures had been real in those pre-Google days. They existed in British Isles and Europe and stood up to 12' at the shoulder. Their 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 revealed the ancient tracks of the extinct giant Elk.
I concluded that Elen is a spirit of nature and the land, whose beasts include all the deer, and the reindeer, 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, 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. As Lady Sovereignty, she is concerned with the balance of the energies of the land, via the ruler, facilitating the sacred marriage of the King and Empress. She is concerned with the balance of the deer and reindeer population, essential for the symbiotic relationship with the herders and the hunters, who used the deer and reindeer for so much of their food, clothing, homes and tools.
We can follow Elen back across time, to the earliest track ways, the migratory tracks of the Reindeer and Elk
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.
Elen of the Ways - by Caroline Wise
For over 30 years Goddess expert Caroline Wise has been investigating the origins of a little known mythical figure, Elen, both with research and with psychic exploration. She traces this little known deity, or nature spirit, who she named Elen of the Ways, through various guises and concludes that she might easily have manifested as long ago as Paleolithic times.
This has led her to discover a figure of many facets, a figure that has evolved and transformed over the centuries, manifesting in several forms. She has attempted to peel back the layers, and look at some of her aspects.
The Article above discusses some of her ideas about Elen, which continue from her initial publication 'Elen of the Ways' (Spiral Press 1986 with illustrations by Chesca Potter) and from my contribution to 'The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London' (Aquarian Press 1989).
© Caroline Wise 1989 – 2013
Illustrations courtesy of Judith Page
Background by Alain Leroy