For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I have decided to discuss the Celtic Goddess Elen of the Ways. There is some belief that Elen could have been a real-life woman who married the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus, who is also known in Welsh legend as Macsen Wledig. There is a tale in The Mabinogion entitled “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” which tells the tale of the Emperor having a very powerful dream of meeting a woman, who we later realize is Elen, and falling in love with her. When he does not meet her in waking life, he begins to waste away from longing for her. It takes a great deal of effort and time, but he does eventually find and marry her. In real history, it is known that Magnus Maximus came to Britain and married a woman named either Elen or Helen (depending on the source) who would later go on to be known as Elen of the Hosts, Elen of the Ways, and Elen of the Roads. The reason for her title being of the Ways or of the Roads is that she was said to have helped construct several roads in Britain which lead to safer travels.
Now, this is one of those cases of a Goddess who may have also been a real person. We see this with other Celtic Goddesses, as there does tend to be an air of being lost to the sands of time with the nature of Celtic deities, as the sources that are written were either written by outside people (like the Romans) or by Christian clerics in the medieval period. That is where we get The Mabinogion and why each figure is portrayed as just a Faery woman or Faery man, leaving only traces of their original divinity. Other examples of Goddesses who are also said to have been real people include Maeve and Macha. We see a link to Sovereignty with all three of these figures, Elen, Maeve, and Macha. The marriage of a Sovereignty Goddess to a King (or Emperor) cements the right to rule. I have discussed this many times, as Celtic myth and Faerylore in general have a large number of Faery Goddesses who are linked directly with Sovereignty in one way or another. The case of a Goddess who is a real-life figure can be linked to the concept of the Sovereignty Goddess being an incarnation of the land itself. The marriage to a King is the marriage of the land, and therefore the right to rule the land, which will go through cycles as the mortal Kings die and a new one must be chosen. Sovereignty Goddesses are therefore often married many times to continue to grant the right to rule to new generations!
Although the real woman who is known as Elen of the Ways lived in the fourth century and was married to a Roman Emperor, who came to Britain to wed her, as a Goddess some scholars have linked her possible origins back to the Paleolithic period. As a Goddess, she is associated with roadways and travel, deer especially the reindeer (which have not been naturally seen in Britain for over 8000 years, showing her older origins), and as I have already mentioned with Sovereignty. The popular image of Elen of the Ways (or Elen of the Hosts) is that of a woman with long wild hair and antlers atop her head leading the way in the dark. This image reminds me of Hekate a bit, but in the case of Elen, we also get the feeling of an Earth Mother and Celtic Wildwoman figure instead of being the Greek Goddess of Witches. I just had to acknowledge that similar feeling in leading the way in the dark, however, both are individual Goddesses from distinct cultures whose mythic stories do not overlap in their plots.
At the end of the day, Elen of the Ways is a misty Goddess that appears to us with a lot of unknown facets. She is a Goddess whose name may often be heard if one is interested in Celtic lore, but she has many questions unanswered. She is certainly an intriguing figure to look into for those who are intrigued by the mystery that we may discover in delving deeper into her myths and legends! I hope you have enjoyed this brief discussion of this enigmatic Goddess. Did you know anything about Elen before today? Do you desire to learn more? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a painting of Elen. I found the image on https://www.redbubble.com/i/art-board-print/Elen-of-the-Ways-by-Sharynturner/25889626.TR477.
- The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
- The Llewellyn Tarot Companion by Anna-Marie Ferguson
- The Celtic Goddess Oracle by Gillian Kemp