Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further. She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute. Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.
The Dream of Macsen Wledig
Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?
Who was Elen?
Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.
She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.
There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.
From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matche exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed the demand and quickly made the journey to meet her, conquered the islands and asked her personally for her hand in marriage. With him fulfilling her demand she agreed and married him.
After her marriage, Elen was entitled to ask for a wedding gift from her husband, and the gifts she asks for and received again indicate how powerful she was. She requested that Britain and its two islands be ruled by her father on behalf of her. This, in a magnificent twist, gave sovereignty to her father and returned it to the Britons. She also requested three castles be built in strategic places around the realm to protect it from invaders. These were built at Arfon (now Caernarfon), Caer Llion (now Caerleon) and Caer Fyrddin (now Carmarthen). Then she asked that these strongholds be linked together by roads so that the army could quickly deploy around the kingdom. This was also given and the men of Britain built the roads for Elen and these became known as the Roads of Elen. Famously, it is said that the men of Briton would have built these roads for none other than Elen. One route known as Sarn Elen still exists and is still in use in parts today though it may actually pre-date the Dream of Macsen Wledig as Elen, herself may.
Macsen stays in Caernarfon with her instead of taking her back to Rome. He even has Roman soil brought over to Caernarfon to make him feel at home and stays for seven years. Back in Rome his presence has been missed and his position has been usurped. A new emperor arises who sends a message to him warning him not to return. Macsen musters his forces and returns taking Elen with him and besieges Rome but cannot break through the walls. The late arrival of a small British force led by Cynan and Aedon, Elen’s brothers, brings him hope of victory. Indeed it is the army of the Britons that storms the Roman walls giving Macsen the victory and restores sovereignty to him returning him to power as the emperor of Rome.
There are many arguments about the purpose of the dream, and what follows is a modern idea of how many people view the dream and Elen. It must be said there are many other views which also have merit as well. Many people today see the dream that Macsen experienced as more than an ordinary dream. The lucidity of the dream makes it more of an out of body experience or form of astral projection rather than an ordinary dream. In Celtic and Irish tradition this kind of experience is known as an aisling, which is a kind of dream that supplies a strong spiritual message to the dreamer. The purpose of the dream experienced by Macsen appears to have been to draw him from Rome to Elen in Britain.
Elen in the Modern World
Today, many people see Elen as being ultimately derived from a goddess of sovereignty and give her divine attributes. Sometimes she is depicted as an antlered goddess and some scholars believe she can be traced across Europe. Caroline Wise, the author of Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways, has been researching Elen for over 25 years and has developed some fascinating ideas concerning her. She sees Elen as an ancient divinity that has many faces and has evolved and transformed with the times. As Elen of the Ways, she is the protector of roads, paths and the energies that flow through the land, including underground and over ground waterways and ley lines. She also had the migration routes that animals used in her care and is associated with deer, particularly reindeer which died out in Britain about 8,300 years ago, which gives an idea of her possible history. Wise also believes she can trace Elen back in some form to the lost shamanism and religious practices of Britain and beyond to Scandinavia, Russia, Mongolia, Siberia, India and perhaps even further a field.
Goddess of Sovereignty of the Land
Many myths and legends are centred on the land and its fertility and wellbeing. These ideas go back to the earliest of epochs and supply us with a connection through time to when we roamed a wild, unspoilt, land that gave us life and sustained us. We were not below it, or above, it but part of it and it was part of us. Many people today feel that the connection has been severed, forgotten or lost and yearn to reconnect. Maybe some people see Elen has a means to re-establish that connection.
There is also an idea that as a goddess of sovereignty, Elen bestowed the sovereignty of the land on to the king. The land was seen as female, and it was the king who brought fertility and renewal to the land. It could not be done by a female. These were two distinct but symbiotic roles, which were believed to ensure the fertility of the land, and therefore the wellbeing of human society and all plant and animal life. The king had to give, and the land had to receive, to maintain fertility and renewal. This did not mean a queen could not rule. Elen ruled and there have been many great queens who ruled effectively, sometimes successfully leading their people in war as Elen did. Nevertheless, sooner, or later, a king had to be found to ensure the fertility and renewal of the land.
Aspects of Sovereignty
Sovereignty has more than one aspect. The leaders in human society such as monarchs, presidents and prime ministers are political sovereigns. They embody sovereignty and may have obtained it by inheriting it or by having it bestowed on them by the people in an election, or given it somehow, or by usurping it in some way. However it was obtained, these sovereigns are personifications of a greater concept which lives on after they die.
As a goddess of sovereignty, Elen is seen as the guardian of not only the country or land, but also its inhabitants, including the people. She is their spirit. As such, she maintains the wellbeing, best interests and continuance of these. The sovereign king, who is there to serve her, the land and the inhabitants, and as important as that is, as an individual he is he expendable and can be replaced.
There is also the concept of personal sovereignty such as that sought by Albina and her Sisters who, in myth, were the first humans to set foot on the island and named it Albion. It was later named by Brutus of Troy as Britain. They sought mastery over their own lives and bodies. For them, it was about being true to their self, their own feelings and emotions, and making the world in their image rather than have a patriarchal system impose itself on them. Although the Roman and British societies of the time were overtly patriarchal, was there a hidden female power at work that simply overrode such notions of male dominance as and when the need arose?
In many cultures, the earth is seen as female and thought of as giving birth to life hence the name Mother Earth, or Earth Mother. Not only does it give birth to life, it nourishes and provides for the needs of its progeny. To achieve this, it needs male energy and the king provides that energy. In this way, the wellbeing of the king is often connected to the wellbeing of his people and his land. When he becomes old and weak or becomes ill, he is replaced by someone strong and virile to ensure the cycle of fertility and renewal continue. A hint of this appears when Macsen falls ill yearning for Elen after experiencing the dream. His counsellors warn him of the discontent among his own people and he asks why they are turning against him. He is told it is because he is not looking after their needs or solving their problems, and that he is too ill to function and should be replaced.
With their sovereign sick, the people of Rome began to turn against him. Later, after his marriage to Elen, he was replaced after failing to return home after seven years. Back in Rome, the land and its people needed their sovereign strong, virile and with them. He was not there so they replaced him.
Elen may not have been the Earth Mother but an aspect of the Earth Mother that fulfilled a certain role in her service. One of these roles, along with those already mentioned, may have been to ensure the renewal and fertility of the land by providing a king.
We discover that Eudav, although a king is not the King of Britain, but of a lesser – though still important – kingdom situated in what is now modern Wales. Despite being old, he is described as being rugged and powerful, has two sons and is busy carving chess pieces while his sons play the game. Is it he who is pulling the strings bringing the Emperor of Rome to Britain?
The first thing Macsen does on arrival is defeat Beli, the ruler of Britain, vanquishing an enemy and removing an obstacle for Eudav. In a magnificent twist, Eudav is made the ruler of Britain, as requested by Elen for part of her wedding present from her new husband. So Eudav gains the sovereignty of Britain through the marriage of his daughter, and although he is described as old, he is also powerful and has two sons to continue his line. Nevertheless it was through Elen that he was given sovereignty of all of Britain.
Eudav gained a considerable amount, but was there more to it than personal power and prestige? Certainty, it would create a powerful political or dynastic union between Rome and Britain. It would also create a royal line of succession that could possibly be used to claim descent and status from a Roman emperor for future generations of British rulers seeking to legitimise their own rule.
Useful though these things may become in the future, there is an idea held by many people that the energies of the land were out of balance or waning. Although still physically powerful, Eudav is old and his sons are nearby playing chess, a game of strategy. The arrival of Macsen, and his marriage to Elen, rebalanced these energies, ensuring the cycle of fertility and renewal continued. When Macsen’s energy and power began to wane, the Goddess of Sovereignty would need a new husband. This is not sexual promiscuity, it is simply what is needed to ensure fertility and renewal of the land. Looked at in these terms, sovereignty is not just about being monarch or head of a nation or state, it is also about serving the spirit of the land and its inhabitants and maintaining fertility and the process of renewal. It may also be that unless that process of procreation was continued the Goddess of Sovereignty may in turn fade and die leaving Mother Earth without her servant.
Connecting to the Land
Today, many people think of Elen as a goddess of sovereignty who ensures the continuance and wellbeing of the land and the ways that pass above, across and below. Through her they find a connection to the land and the Earth Mother. There are times, even today, when action is needed to replace the old with the new and to maintain the fertility and renewal of the land. Sometimes that action may appear harsh, cruel or difficult to understand and at such times, as humans, we have to trust in the divinity of our hearts.
To read all the articles in this series, visit the British Legends Series page or select from the list below:
- British Legends: The Founding of Britain: Brutus of Troy and the Prophecy of Diana
- British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig
- British Legends: Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion
- British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena: The Rule of Vortigern
- British Legends: The Origin of Albion and the Bloodlust of Albina and Her Sisters
- British Legends: The Lust of Uther Pendragon, Merlin’s Prophecy and the Making of a King
- British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons