Goddess, Saint and Ancestor - Elen of the Hosts

Blackbird Hollins 2006
First published in White Dragon

Elen Luyddog - Elen of the Hosts - is a well known figure in Brythonic myth, familiar to anyone who has read the Mabinogion collection, where she appears in the tale Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig , becoming wife to the Emperor of Rome. But that is by no means the whole story. Almost every 'Celtic' kingdom of Britain can trace its royal house back to Elen and Macsen and Elen herself appears to have been influential in the early Christian church. Whether or not Elen was real is impossible to prove. She exists in the no mans land between myth and history. It is obvious that the royal pedigrees are flawed; trying to organise names and dates into reasonable time frames quickly becomes a frustrating and impossible exercise. There is also a great deal of confusion between people of the same or similar name. Medieval commentators became confused, perhaps wilfully so, between Elen Luyddog and St Helen, mother of Constantine. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, I will generally be assuming that Elen Luyddog was a historical person. Whether or not she was - or is - a goddess, is another matter, something that will be explored throughout this piece.

Let us first look at our main source for the story of Elen and Macsen, 'Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig'. In this tale, Magnus Maximus - Macsen Wledig - is Emperor of Rome. He falls asleep while hunting and dreams a journey that takes him over mountains and across rivers to a splendid hall. Inside the hall, two auburn headed youths play at gwyddbwyll , while an old man sits upon a throne, carving golden gaming pieces. Before him sits a beautiful maiden, with whom Macsen falls instantly in love. Upon waking, Macsen vows that he will find this maiden, a long search which ends at the castle of Aber Seint . The maiden is named Elen, the old man her father Eudaf, son of Caradawg. The auburn headed youths are Elen's brothers Cynan and Gadeon. Macsen and Elen fall in love and sleep together that night.

We are told that, for her maiden fee, Elen requests for her father the Island of Britain and its three adjacent islands, and that she then builds the strongholds of Caernarfon, Caer Llion and Caer Fyrddin. We hear of how Macsen travels back to Rome to quell a usurper, and of how the battle for Rome is won with the help of Elen's brothers and the hosts of Britain. This episode is also mentioned in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein , in which this host is the first of the "Three Levies that departed from this Island, and not one of them came back."

Then we get a piece of information that has led Elen Luyddog to receive another nickname: 'Elen of the Ways':

"Thereafter Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made. And for that reason they are called the Roads of Elen of the Hosts, because she was sprung from the Island of Britain, and the men of the Island of Britain would not have made those great hostings for any save her."

Now, just prior to this statement, we have been given some dubious information regarding the origin of place names: we have been told that Caer Fyrddin was named for the great number of men that built it. This is a misunderstanding by the Medieval storyteller who has assumed that Myrddin comes from myrdd - myriad. Actually, it is more likely to be a rendering of its old name 'Maridunum' . Later in the tale we have Llydaw - Brittany - explained as Lled taw, half silent, and have been spun a yarn about the men who remained in Brittany cutting out the tongues of their women lest their language become corrupted.

This kind of misunderstanding is very common in British mythology; the true origins of place names were forgotten and fanciful etymologies were devised to explain them. We needn't look far for other instances; there are plenty within Y Mabinogion. For example, in the tale Branwen fab Llyr, Talebolion is explained as the place where Matholwch received an abundant gift of horses from Bran. The storyteller has devised tal ebolion - payment of colts - whereas the name probably meant something like 'end of the ridges' .

However, when given the information about Elen creating her network of roads, many have taken it at face value, despite the abundance of bogus toponomy evidenced throughout the tales. Indeed, the Sarn (H)Elen do exist across Wales, being a network of Roman roads. But while we may accept their building by Elen as a mythic truth, their attribution to her is another misunderstanding. 'Elen' is likely to derive from the Welsh word Elin, elbow. These Roman roads are unusual in that they are not straight, hence the likely epithet. Another explanation is that the name is simply a corruption of Y Lleng, The Legion .

The Mabinogion collection is drawn from Medieval writings, although it is accepted that most of the tales - excluding the obvious later romances - were probably transmitted orally for centuries previous to their writing down. Nevertheless, by the twelfth century, Britain had been Christian for a long while and it is clear that some characters have been diminished; while once they were gods or otherworldly heroes, they appear in the tales as ordinary humans . Some believe that Elen is such a diminished goddess, and the tale does give us a few snippets which support the 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 magnificence, which could indicate an otherworldly appearance. And then this business with the roads, which has led many modern pagans to proclaim her as a goddess of roads, ley lines, shamanic journeying 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.

It is tempting to follow those that proclaim her to be a goddess presiding over "dream pathways" and the "Guardian of all who journey" However, other evidence points us in exactly the opposite direction, stating that Elen Luyddog was an early ambassador for the Christian church. She herself was made a saint, as was one of her sons, several of whom were also prominent Christians of the time.

Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig seems to be quite a late tale, probably twelfth century , though it is seemingly based around events in the fourth. Information from other sources enable us to flesh out the lives of Elen and Macsen with historical detail, some of which tallies with the mythology and some of which contradicts it.

In the mythology, Macsen is already Emperor of Rome before meeting Elen. The historical sources differ here. In summary , it seems that Macsen had married Elen before gaining high military status within the Roman army in Britain (he could not have sired all his children in his short reign as Emperor of the West). In 383 C.E. he made a bid for power, taking a war host into Gaul and eventually slaying the Emperor Gratian. Macsen met his death at Aquileia in 388 C.E. and his son Victor died in battle during the same year.

Gildas and Nennius both speak of Macsen, neither of them in complementary tones. They view him as a tyrant and usurper, a man who slew the rightful Emperor. Here is Gildas, writing in the sixth century:

"…Maximus, with a great number of followers, and the ensigns of royalty, which he bore without decency and without lawful right, but in a tyrannical manner, and amid the disturbances of the seditious soldiery. He…extended one of his wings to Spain, the other to Italy, fixed the seat of his unholy government at Treves, and so furiously pushed his rebellion against his lawful emperors that he drove one of them out of Rome, and caused the others to terminate his holy life…he not long after lost his accursed head before the walls of Aquileia"

Nennius is saying pretty much the same, and probably used Gildas as a source. However, he also includes the information, given in Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig, that the settlement of Brittany came about after Macsen's battle in Rome:

"He withdrew from Britain with all his military force, slew Gratian, the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, children and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts… These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day."
"Whilst Gratian exercised supreme dominion over the world, Maximus, in a sedition of the soldiers, was saluted emperor in Britain, and soon after crossed the sea to Gaul…Gratian was defeated…Maximus afterwards associated his son Victor in the government… After a considerable space of time, Maximus was divested of royal power by the consuls Valentinianus and Theodosius, and sentenced to be beheaded at the third mile-stone from Aquileia; in the same year also his son Victor was killed in Gaul by Arbogastes"

Other sources mention Elen's devotion to the Christian church, particularly Severus, who recorded the life of St Martin of Tours. He says that she was a "devout hostess" during the stay of St Martin at the imperial palace of Trier. She appears to have waited diligently upon him, even serving his meals to him. As with many influential figures in the early Christian church, Elen was made a saint, St Helen of Caernarfon. Many churches throughout Wales bear her name. There are places named Llanelen in Monmouth and the Gower, and there is a Capel Elen on Anglesey.

The lives of Elen and Macsen seem clear thus far. However, in Medieval writings there is a great deal of confusion, some of it seeming deliberate, between Elen Luyddog and Helen, mother of Constantine, to whom I will refer as St. Helen. This confusion may have partly been caused by the rarity of the name. The Harleian ms. 3859 genealogies only contain two instances; Elen Luyddog, given as "Helen Luitdauc", the other a woman living in the 900's. Given this scarcity, it is plausible that some commentators assumed Elen Luyddog and St Helen to be one and the same. An easy mistake, given that they lived in a similar time period, were both canonised, both appear to have had sons named Constantine and could both lay claim to the title 'Empress'.

However, the two women were not quite contemporaries. We know that Macsen invaded Gaul in 383 C.E.; Constantine the Great was fighting the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E. So at least two generations separates the families, indeed, one British tradition gives Macsen Wledig as Constantine's grandson. While that is likely to be a fabrication of the Medieval genealogists, it does express the generation gap between Macsen's wife Elen and Constantine's mother, St Helen. We also have a firm date for St Helen, given that her coinage ceased to be produced after 329 C.E., strongly suggesting that date marks her death.

St. Helen was the wife of Constantius Chlorus; their only son, Constantine the Great, was born in 274 C.E. Both Constantine and his father were significant in British events. Constantius fought campaigns in Britain and Constantine joined him in fighting against the Pictish tribes. Upon Constantius' death at Eboracum (York) in 306 C.E., the army immediately proclaimed Constantine as Augustus - however, it was a long time before Constantine became the sole ruler of the West. Nevertheless, Britain did not forget him and the family was obviously seen as important in Britain for long afterwards, if only judging by the large numbers of churches dedicated to St Helen, and by the tradition that claims she was British by birth.

This tradition made St Helen the daughter of Coel Godhebog , the eponymous ruler of Colchester. However, this is unlikely to be true. The majority of sources tell us that St Helen was of low birth and it is likely that she was native to Drepanum in Bithynia. Other histories state that Constantine renamed Drepanum 'Helenopolis' in honour of his mother's birth there.

Whether or not she was native to Britain, St Helen was certainly influential there, having a great many churches named after her. These are spread throughout England, but cluster mostly in the North. There are also many wells that bear her name, and she was often called upon to find lost cattle . This is intriguing information, given that many water goddesses are associated with cattle and the tendency of the early Christian church to claim local gods and heroes as saints. It raises a slight possibility - though one without any other evidence - that St Helen supplanted an earlier goddess in the north of England.

However, like Elen Luyddog, the historical St Helen was firmly based within the Christian faith. In fact, St Helen was about as Christian as it is possible to be. Legend tells us that she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, during which time she discovered the 'True Cross' - the cross upon which Jesus was crucified - and founded the churches of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. While the journey to Palestine and the founding of the churches appears to be factual, the legend concerning the True Cross appears only in later commentaries, probably invented to magnify both her status and that of her son.

Constantine the Great is St Helen's claim to fame and her exploits were magnified in order to reflect more glory upon his lineage. Likewise, Elen Luyddog is claimed as the ancestrix of almost all of the royal houses of Britain, due to a long string of offspring and some inventive genealogists. Evidence for the actual existence of these children is sketchy, and they are still the subject of much confusion among the Medieval genealogists who were so desperate to claim descent from the power of Rome in Britain that they played havoc with dates, names and lineage. Looking too closely at the old pedigrees is something of a mistake, unless you enjoy tearing your hair out. Dates of birth and generation gaps do not add up and it is obvious that they have been subject to much fraud and wishful thinking over the ages.

We have already encountered one son, Victor. Macsen was killed in 383 C.E. and Nennius tells us: "in the same year also his son Victor was killed in Gaul by Arbogastes." So much for Victor. Anwn Dynod appears to have been the oldest son, and thus the one from whom most of the Welsh royal houses claimed descent. According to the old Welsh pedigrees, he was a king of South West Wales. A daughter, Gratianna, was said to have married Tutwal ap Gwrfawr of the royal house of Dumnonia (Cornwall). Another son became St Peblic, Duke of Cornwall. It is from Peblic that the later kings of Cornwall claimed descent. It is said that he founded the church of Llanbeblig in Caernarfon, living out his later years in religious seclusion. He is supposed to have received his training at Ninian's monastery in Whithorn. However, excavations show no building there prior to the fifth century, and I suspect the tale is another attempt to add status to the Elen/Macsen lineage within the early Christian church.

A fourth son is more interesting - Owen Finddu . He appears in tales which seem fantastic, alongside seemingly straight historical accounts. These latter give him high military status - in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, he is one of the 'Three Chief Officers of the Island of Britain," and it could be that this refers to a command in the late Roman army. The other popular story concerning him is that he killed a giant, Eurnach Gawr, near to Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd, and then died of his wounds.

Dinas Emrys figures in the story of another of Elen and Macsen's line, that of their daughter Severa . She is said to have been the first wife of Vortigern, the infamous overlord who first invited the Saxon tribes into Britain with such dire consequences. The Eliseg Pillar (or Pillar of Elise) is the only source for the story of this marriage, and indeed, for the existence of Severa at all. It reads, in part:

"Britu, moreover, (was) the son of Guorthi(girn), whom Germanus blessed and whom Severa bore to him, the daughter of Maximus the king, who slew the king of the Romans"

The pillar itself is problematic. According to the (now illegible) inscription, it was erected by Cyngen, the last native king of Powys, in honour of his great grandfather, Eliseg. However, while Cyngen is said to have died in 854, the style of the pillar is more in keeping with the eleventh century, and it is possible that the entire monument is an attempt by the royal house of Powys to fabricate a more illustrious lineage for themselves.

In Elen and Macsen's final son, we start to become seriously tangled again. This son was called Constantine, and you can imagine the confusion that has resulted. While there are doubts over the historicity of all these people, Constantine is more dubious than the rest. It could be that his existence is only owed to the confusion between Elen and St Helen. Although this Constantine was known as Custennin Fawr - Constantine the Great - he did not leave his stamp on the pedigrees. He is said to have been a king of Gwynedd, with his seat at Caernarfon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth claims him as Arthur's grandfather.

If any word could define Elen Luyddog, it would be ancestrix. Her importance lies in the children she bore, whether she and they were real or only mythical is almost unimportant - she and Macsen were significant enough that almost every royal house in Britain wrote pedigrees tracing their lines back to their union. However, for those that claimed this lineage, it was Macsen's status they wanted to buy into. This fact has passed many people by. It is assumed that Elen is the important figure; she is 'Celtic', and she built all those roads, therefore she must have been an important goddess.

Our romanticism regarding all things 'Celtic' has led us to gloss over the Romans in Britain; we imagine that they arrived, killed all the Druids, built some roads and villas and then withdrew, and good riddance, leaving Britain to become 'Celtic' again in the short space before the Saxons turned up. But even a brief look at the primary sources tells us this wasn't so. For a start, most of the Roman army was made up of local auxiliaries. The 'Romans' didn't go anywhere - they were already home. Britons were generally keen to preserve the administrative and military structures that Rome had put in place, though after the collapse of power, these became increasingly hard to maintain. It is also forgotten by many modern pagans that the Britons were mostly Christian by this point. Rome was the ultimate seat of government and kingship, and also the centre of religious, Christian power. This was the last true flowering of the old British culture before the pagan Germanic tribes began pushing it into the margins. Little wonder that this period was seen as a golden age by the Medieval genealogists of Wales and Cornwall, little wonder that they sought to connect themselves with one of the greatest Romano-British military commanders, the man who marched the armies of Britain to glory - Magnus Maximus.

That is not to belittle Elen Luyddog. She was obviously a powerful woman in her own right, and with her came the power of the old British kingdoms. Some modern pagans see Elen Luyddog as a 'goddess of sovereignty', and while I think that is pushing the point, I do see her as having had political, if not divine power, by which Macsen Wledig strengthened his military influence and gained claim to rule several of the royal houses of Britain.

Despite the fact that Elen had never been considered to be a goddess before the late 20th century, and despite the fact that the evidence for her divinity trickles away like water when you examine it closely, it remains true that Someone out there, and possibly more than one Someone, is answering to the name 'Elen'. This may be the ancestral spirit of Elen Luyddog, or it may be something else altogether. After all, who can guess at the true names of the gods? It is not unlikely that a goddess, perhaps because she likes the offerings being given, or because she is a powerful being in that particular locality, chooses to answer when a name is called.

As a polytheist, I often ask the question: 'When is a god not a god?' The boundary between gods, land spirits, ancestral spirits, Little Folk and other entities can be blurred. Now, while Elen Luyddog may not have been a goddess worshipped by the Pre-Christian Britons, I have no problem believing that she could be a powerful ancestral being that has become attached to the roads that she has been associated with for at least eight hundred years, or that another entity interested in these roads has begun answering to the name of Elen.

In researching this article, I have spoken to many people across Britain regarding their experiences with Elen . These fall into two distinct personalities. The first is the person you would expect to meet if calling upon Elen Luyddog. A beautiful, well dressed woman of the fourth century, though often with dark rather than fair hair.

Regarding the second personality, things take an unexpected turn. For the modern pagan goddess Elen is often visualised or encountered as an antlered woman, often wearing deer hides or possessing fur herself. This image is as far from a cultured Romano-British Empress as is possible. Now, to take a sceptical view, this may be a chicken and egg situation. It happens that the Bulgarian word for reindeer is 'elen', and I wonder if someone has put two and two together and made five. To take a generous view, there is a remote possibility that Elen was originally a reindeer goddess whose name has miraculously survived into a modern language, and that she was the original 'Elen of the Ways' who later became conflated with Elen of the Hosts. The idea of reindeer ties in nicely with the Sarn Elen; we can imagine the tracks formed by deer as they moved between grazing lands:

"…the antlered Goddess Elen, whose trackways lead us through the frozen forest of our winter dreams"

For those looking for the oldest of the old religions, Elen becomes perfect. Not only does she appear to be a goddess of sovereignty, whom Macsen Wledig weds to gain the kingship of Britain, she also becomes a goddess of ancient pathways walked by a species of deer not seen in Britain since the end of the last ice age.

This image of Elen, as far as I can gather, originates with Caroline Wise in the 1980's, though Elen also appears as a mysterious land guardian in the book 'The Green Stone, which was published early in that decade. The main evidence, aside from UPG, and the tangential etymological connection to reindeer, rests on a tentative link to Colchester. As mentioned previously, British tradition made St Helen the daughter of Coel Godhebog, the eponymous ruler of Colchester. Now, what we need to ask is why this tradition sprang up. Was it arbitrary? Or was it because there was already a tradition that placed a mythical or divine Elen in Colchester with whom St Helen became conflated? The evidence is inconclusive.

Close to Colchester were found two antlered female figurines, dating to the Iron Age, and it has been assumed by those looking for Elen-As-Reindeer-Goddess that these are depictions of that goddess. These figures are interesting, especially considering that reindeer is the only deer species in which the female carries antlers.

There are, as far as I know, only two other bits of antlered female iconography from Britain. The first is on a tile found at Richborough, showing a horned female. This same site also yielded a horned male figurine. The second is without provenance, and is a small, squatting female figure with antlers. She holds a cornucopia and patera . However, as far as I can ascertain, none of these images are particularly reindeer-like. Indeed, it would be incredible if they were. Though we have a dangerous tendency to view the past as an unchanging, 'timeless' thing, by the iron age, when these images were created, the reindeer had already been absent in Britain for around six thousand years.

I think these figures are not reindeer images, but simply a way of expressing female deer. Antlers are the defining feature of deer, and the best way to make something look deer-like is to add antlers, whether that representation be stag or doe. It is probable that these figures are representations of various deer goddesses - just not necessarily reindeer goddesses. Of course, there are many other interpretations and we could speculate about this endlessly. In such situations it is best to apply Occam's Razor - "plurality should not be posited without necessity." We cannot prove nor disprove a reindeer goddess, but the existence of one is not necessary to explain these figurines.

In conclusion, there is much here that cannot be proven - nor disproven. Such is the nature of faith and of our relationships with the gods. I have shown that the attribution of the Sarn Elen to Elen Luyddog is based upon a toponomical misunderstanding, and that far from being pagan goddesses, both she and St Helen were influential early Christians. However, both women were significant enough that the rulers of Royal houses wished to be connected with them. That these genealogies appear to have been invented only strengthens the case - to be related is an accident, to choose to be related is a deliberate political or even religious statement. In linking to these powerful women, the genealogists were also connecting the royal houses with the old power of Rome.

At present, little work appears to have been done on the antlered female figurines and their context or importance. Taking the logical view, we have nothing to connect these figures with the name of Elen. One word from a different and distant culture regarding a species long extinct on these islands is not adequate proof. Our personal gnosis may tell us differently. While Elen-As-Goddess is either a new or recently rediscovered idea, it seems that there are multiple entities answering to that name, whether or not that name originally belonged to them. I have done what I can to unpick the historical and mythical evidence in order that we might understand the nature of these entities and the context from which they originated. Yet much is incomplete and will likely remain so. In the meantime, we must await further research into the antlered figurines, or new archaeological and linguistic developments in order to improve our understanding of Elen - whichever Elen that might happen to be.


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