Thursday, 18 December 2008

Part 3: A Grail Quest

Originally pagan - holy wells and springs abound in Britain and Ireland, and they too may have had a solar connection, as with the element of water generally. A word for the sun in Old Irish is ‘suil’, yet this is also the word for an eye 52 .The word ‘suil’ is cognate with Saule, the well-documented sun goddess of Latvia and the Baltic; there seems to be a Proto IE (PIE) root here, *s-w-l, meaning the ‘sun’ or ‘to shine’53. This is also presumably the inspiration for Helen’s torch / sun association in Greece 54, and I am suspicious that the male Helios is the later form of an earlier female sun deity, a suspicion which seems to accord with Michael Witzel’s analysis of Helios’ name’s etymology 55. Dwelling on the ancient image of an under-the-world sun, and adding to this its ­imagined eye-like nature, source of water, a connection between holy wells and solar waters becomes realisable. At the megalithic complex of Avebury in Wiltshire, the largest artificial earth, monumental mound, in Europe has the name of Silbury Hill, sited on a flood plain beside the Kennet River and one of its major sources, the Swallowhead Springs. I read in both Silbury and Swallowhead the pre- or PIE *s-w-l, because the goddess name Sulis is documented at the relatively nearby Romano-British Bath spring site, which certainly pre-dates Roman influence 56. Consequently, I believe that Silbury Hill, originally of dazzling white chalk, was a gigantic offering to the female sun-as-eye, designed to be seen in its eye-like circular symmetry from above, not primarily by the Neolithic people who constructed it, but by the sun goddess, as a divine reflection of herself from the earth. And I believe that the Swallowhead Springs are equally the springs of Sulis, the spring head of sacred solar waters which flood at times, to surround the Silbury sun-eye, with that most sacred and vital element of water. The deer is also present at Avebury, in the form of thousands of antler picks used for excavating the massive 30ft / 9 metre chalk ditch around the henge, but then carefully deposited on the floor of the circular trench afterwards; in effect, forming a possibly intentional, gigantic white berm and hoop of antlers around the circular monument, another solar metaphor; while at Silbury, a quantity of antlers were carefully deposited near the top of the monument; and a tine was placed before one of the sepulchral compartments within West Kennet Long Barrow ~ with its tomb-womb, death and rebirth resonance ~ before the monument was finally sealed, some 5,000 years ago.

At Roman Bath, no trace of an antlered goddess survives, which is hardly surprising, given the potentially massively subversive effect that the depiction of an antlered and powerful sun goddess would have on the belief in masculine Sol, Roman state god of the sun. Instead what is shown is a monstrous moustachioed male sun-head disc, glowering down on all who approached Sulis’ thermal spring [Aquae Sulis], although the heavily sculpted eyes still mesmerise with their intensity, and the originally watery attribute of the native Sulis is hinted at by the serpentine forms around it, which alternate with sun rays, giving the modern ‘Gorgon’ reading of the piece.

Continuing the sun and water association, in Neolithic Ireland, perhaps a midwinter sun goddess may have been welcomed into Newgrange, where her winter sun rays struck stone bowls filled with sacred goddess water from the Boyne [i.e., Boande], no doubt sending mesmerising, dazzling reflections into the interior of the monument; the central water-filled bowl perhaps fulfilling a similar symbolic function to a mirror. There are numerous examples of folk belief concerning the rising sun reflected in wells and vessels of water 57. It is also no great surprise to read that “pieces of deers’ or stags’ or elks’ horns” were found inside the cave-like passageway monument of Newgrange, when it was explored in 1699 58. The motif of the sun within a cave is found throughout Eurasia. Michael Witzel has shown that cultural movement and communication across “the Eurasian steppe belt that stretched from Hungary and Rumania all the way to eastern Manturia”59 may be responsible for the consistent motifs of solar belief, here surveyed; the sun is invariably female in these myths, and they often concern its disappearance and restoration from cavernous interiors: the myths of the sun goddess Amaterasu, from Japan, and the dawn goddess Ushas from India, released from the Vala cave, are examples. 60

The effect of reflecting the sun from a mirror-like body of water into an interior setting would be to fill it with glittering light, which is exactly the type of effect that might be expected to be encountered, within a mythical sun palace. And this is just what we find in Elen’s fortress at Segontium, a “fine hall: its roof seemed all of gold … its doors all of gold. There were golden couches 61 …”, golden gaming pieces on silver boards, and occupants wearing golden jewellery and “red gold” embellishments; and the Celtic deer-women who personify sovereignty, ultimately all share a fabulous sunny aura of gold and fire: Elen, “a girl in a chair of red gold, and looking at the sun at its brightest would be no harder than looking at her beauty”62. Light can be depicted as a brightness, sometimes red or orange, frequently yellow or white, and there are consistent references to the colour white, hue of light, in Arthurian and related literature – a colour usually associated there with deer or courtly ladies, for example: Blancheflor (white flower), Helain the White (Vulgate Cycle), Elaine the White, mother of Launcelot; Elaine the White, or the Fair, enamoured of Lancelot; a white stag appears in the Arthurian ‘Gereint, Son of Erbin’ as well as Chretien’s ‘Eric and Enid’; a white antlered hind features in the Lais of Marie de France, a story with Arthurian parallels; and the fact that the text draws our attention to the fact that this female deer wears male “antlers of a stag on its head”63 is not without its symbolism.

Paganism in Ireland held its ground much longer than in England, Scotland and Wales, and one of the Arthurian myths which exemplifies the deer-sun-sovereignty motif is the 15th century ‘Visit of the Grey Ham’64, giving a remarkably terrific rendition of an Arthurian female, with perhaps more in common with the ancient Cailleach than with the courtly ladies more usually associated with the Knights of the Round Table. Suffice to say, the hunt of a shining deer reveals a glowingly golden maiden who ultimately weds King Arthur, revealing her ritual function as sovereignty. The name Grey Ham derives from her dual deer-woman nature, giving her supposedly tufts of grey fur on the backs of her legs; her actual name of Ailleann, is cognate with that of Ellen 65. It is suspected that pagan source-material re-entered Wales from Ireland and helped to form the mythic background from which both the Mabinogion and the Arthurian ‘Matter of Britain’ evolved. 66

Archaeology has provided material evidence for sun cults in Iron Age Celtic and Roman Britain, and continental Europe. Numerous ‘sun wheels’ have been recovered from ancient sites, notably springs, lakes, rivers and wells 67 – establishing the sun-water correspondence in the Celtic mind. A perhaps forerunner of the Grail, Ceridwen’s Cauldron, was kept ever broiling beneath the prodigious Llyn Bala by a well-fed fire, at the bottom of this vast lake. I wonder if the inspiration for this correspondence was partly water’s ability to reflect, giving an optical illusion of the two disparate elements – fire and water – as one? Archaeology has also provided evidence for the identification of Iron Age female deities with the sun, in the form of clay 'Venus figurines' decorated with sun wheels, concentric circles and other celestial symbols.

Sun goddess continuity - from the Neolithic to the Iron Age - is suggested in the form of the Bronze Age ritual sun disc, worn by the Egtved girl in Denmark, testifying to this apparently consistent tradition of female solar veneration 68. Is it also conceivable that the reindeer antler-carrying Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers have preserved a remote memory of a solar reindeer cult, which may have existed in Britain, some time between the ending of the last Ice Age and almost into the dawning of the modern era? In the Uralic mythology of the Saami people, reindeer were considered, to a great extent, to be animals of the sun, the sun goddess Biejvve, a deity also associated with white animals and the image of the eye, in northern Scandinavia. 69

Mythological goddesses of radiant light are a global phenomenon; they do not belong to any one, single system of belief. The glory of the “shining”, goddess-like ‘Shekhina’ 70 is integral to the ‘Tree of Life’ from the arboreal-structured Kabala of Judaic mysticism; whilst perhaps the mythical archetype from pre-diaspora Africa, the Karraru Australian Aboriginal sun goddess, 71 from one of the oldest religions on earth, may take us back to the very cradle of the human race? In medieval Europe, Roger Loomis has identified the Arthurian Elaine with the Grail-Bearing Maiden, 72 and I consider that in the name of Elaine we have a pre-Christian incarnation of the sun goddess, uplifting the golden solar vessel, which is itself a metaphor for the nurturing, beneficent sun.

Thus, the search for the holy grail is the hunt for the miraculous solar therioform – the quest for the glowing sun goddess, in her anthropomorphic shape as sovereignty; without whom no ruler could rule or land be ruled over. As sovereign goddess, it is appropriate that Elen is a deity of the ways, in that she could be seen to be constantly present, in all places, and at all times – far and near along the roads, paths, tracks and watercourses which criss-cross her demesne. However, until we can recognise Elen for what she symbolises, the light implicit in her name may remain hidden from us, like an elusive dryad, or vision of the sun maiden, in her megalithic mound, cave or otherworldly castle, awaiting her Macsen?


52. p.238, ‘eye’, T D Bhaldraithe, ‘English-Irish Dictionary’, 1987.
54. cf. n53. The IE root *swel- provides the basis for Selene (s+elene), but see for an alternative conclusion.
55. p.45, Michael Witzel, ‘Myth of the Hidden Sun’,
56. p.56, Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1967), 1992.
57. p.98, n15, Janet McCrickard, ‘Eclipse of the Sun’, 1990; citing Danaher, 1972.
58. p.24, Michael J O’Kelly, ‘Newgrange’, (1982), 2004.
59. see p.60, Witzel, ibid.
60. p.2, Witzel, ibid.
61. p.120, Jeffrey Gantz (transl), ‘The Mabinogion’, 1976.
62. p.121, ibid.
63. p. 44, Glyn S. Burgess, ‘The Lais of Marie de France’, 1999
64. pp. 337-80, C P Hartnett, Irish Arthurian Literature, ‘The Visit of Gray-Ham’, 1973.
66. p.25, Roger Loomis, ‘Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance’, (1926), 1993.
67. p.144ff, Miranda Green, ‘The Wheel as Cult-Symbol in the Romano-Celtic World’, 1984.
68. see Anni Broegger’s, ‘Egtvedpigens Dans’, Forlaget Mammut Press, 2003.
69. pp.7, 12, Bergman et al (and Lundmark in) ‘Sami Use of Scots Pine’, Arctic Anthropology,
vol.41, No1, 2004.
70. pp. 105, 115-116, Raphael Patai, ‘The Hebrew Goddess’, (1967), 1990.
71. p.23ff, W Ramsay Smith, ‘Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines’, (1932), 2003.
72. p.157, Roger Loomis, ‘The Grail’, (1963), 1992.

*asterisk denotes hypothetical reconstruction.

Some related reading, where not indicated in the notes to text:

Terence Meaden, ‘Secrets of the Avebury Stones’, 1999.
Jamie Hall, ‘Half Human, Half Animal’, 2003.


1. 'Samhain', West Kennet Long Barrow from 'The Avebury Paintings'. Oil on canvas, Ric Kemp, 2008.

2. Iron Age 'Venus figurine'. Charcoal. After Blanchet, 'Étude sur les figurines en terre cuite', 1890.

3. The Grail Maiden, after Arthur Rackham in [Malory's] 'Romance of King Arthur', 1917.

© Ric Kemp, 2007-8

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Part 2: The Sun Goddess of Water

In 1932, J G McKay published a collection of Scots folklore highlighting the close connection between the mythic ‘Cailleach’ and the Highland deer, which she is reputed to have herded and milked. The Cailleach is a complex, terrific figure from Celtic myth and folklore, and in this particular instance she seems to have fulfilled the role of Mistress of the Animals. Donald Mackenzie also noted the Cailleach’s deer affinities, adding that she additionally favoured the welfare of other animals, including goats and cattle 18, as well as her links with another mythic female, the glaistig – half woman, half goat 19 .

This is significant because, although the person of an other-worldly ‘deer herder’ is absent from Wales, the glaistig is certainly present, as in the story of the 'Goat of Cadwaller', who shifts her shape into “a beautiful young woman”20. On the theme of female shape-shifting 21, MacCana has stressed the Cailleach’s “intimate connection with the land” and its sovereignty; indeed, she personifies and guards the land, and is associated in Ireland with the god Lugh, a “model of kingship”22. Because, in pagan Ireland, sovereignty also appeared in the form of a female deer or fawn; as James MacKillop relates: Lugiad, the son of Daire, once caught a golden fawn, then immediately encountered a fearful sorceress, who insisted that he spend the night with her. On the morrow, the ogre had transformed into “the beautiful maiden Sovereignty herself”23.

Deer shape-shifting is an aspect of both Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology, another example being the fawn or doe Sadb, a deer-woman whom the Irish hero Fionn mates with, resulting in the birth of their legendary son Oisin or ‘little deer’. Importantly, the deer-woman in Ireland was often a personification of the spirit of place, without which no king could rule. It seems curious, therefore, that the motif is absent in Wales? A closer look at the name Elen, and how it has been perhaps incorporated into later culture, might shed some light on the issue. Both the Celtic and Slavic languages belong to the same linguistic family, Indo-European, which means they ultimately stem from one and the same source language, perhaps spoken somewhere in the broad region of the Crimean Black Sea, approximately 10,000 years ago? 24. As we have already seen, ‘elen’ in Slavic Bulgarian means ‘deer’.* In Russia, a girl’s name meaning Helen is Jelena 25; in Poland, the word for a deer is jelen 26 and a noun meaning a young deer or fawn in Greek is ‘ellos’27, and we may note the Slavic deer-saint’s name Elias 28, in this context?

Elen is a girl’s name in Wales, and will often merely be recorded as a form of the name Helen 29. However, recourse to older Welsh words reveals that ‘elain’ was a word meaning a fawn or a doe 30. Remembering the example of Slavic Elias, it could be significant that Welsh saints Elltyd and Elian are both associated with deer?31 Is this just coincidence or has an earlier Welsh cult of the deer been incorporated into these saints’ names? In North Wales you will find Bryn Elltyd, ‘Elltyd’s Hill’, and behind this Moel-y-hydd, ‘Hill of the Stag’, both place-names are in the general locality of Sarn Helen, 3 miles / 5 km away, as it proceeds to Elen’s home in the Mabinogion, at Romano-British Segontium, (Caernarfon)32. Trekking south finds the hamlet and chapel of Llan Elltyd virtually on top of Sarn Helen, as it wends its way towards the town of Dolgellau; and continuing on to Brecon we find the female Saint Eluned celebrated at several holy well sites, close to Sarn Helen, at it proceeds to Neath and presumably Caer Leon 33. This was actually the route to Caernarfon of another mysterious ‘Elen’ – called here Ellyne 34 – who witnesses a hunted doe on Sarn Helen, in the 14th century story of Libeaus Desconus 35.

In Rivet and Smith’s ‘Place-Names of Roman Britain’ will be found the name Alauna, applied to numerous British Celtic rivers, and also persons, divinities, and a tribal name as well. In terms of our theme, I feel it is highly significant that the modern name for the river at Maryport in Cumbria - which was the location of a Roman fort called Alauna – is the river Ellen. A stone engraving of a male horned figure has been recorded at this site: was this Alauna’s consort, Alaunus – a native name for Kernunnos or parallel deity?

Alaunus is also a documented place-name. Numerous rivers preserve the Alauna/Alaunus name, including the rivers Allan Water, Aln, Alan, Nant Alyn and Alun. It should be noted that the Welsh noun ‘alan’ is a variant of ‘elain’ meaning young or female deer 36 . Yet another Elen-deer-river connection may be found in the Elan Valley place-name in Powys where the Elan River is believed to have been named after its resemblance to a bounding hind 37. A river is another route within a landscape, and might conceivably be included under Elen’s eponymous ways? The ‘sarn’ element in Sarn Helen can also be applied to stepping stones in Wales 38 whilst an extension of the Ermine Way, Roman road to York – a major town in the St Helen’s tradition, forded the river Wharfe 39 at a location called St Helen’s Ford; 200 yards away stood a Helen’s Chapel, beside Helen’s Well, once renowned for its healing spring waters. Surely, if there were ever a latter day English Sarn Helen, it would be this leg of the Ermine Street, 1.5 miles above Tadcaster? Today, both chapel and well have been sadly eclipsed by a spreading industrial estate.

The connection between Helen and the spring-fed well is interesting. In Britain, Graham Jones has found - surviving the 16th century Reformation - 43 holy wells under Helen’s name, plus another 27 wells associated with Helen churches 40. She is one of the most popular saint names associated with wells, together with saints Anne and possibly Catherine 41. In Huntingdonshire, a St Ellyn’s chapel and well are shown on a 17th century map, in a field called ‘Alykon Payne Close’, and Jones wonders if this is not a corruption of the plant name ‘Elecampayne’ [inula helenium – from helios, Greek ‘sun’], “a plant with yellow petals like the rays of the sun”42. In Wales, the white flowering herb spignel, which blooms in June and July, is known as Elen’s Spignel 43. The possible connection between Helen’s name and light or solar symbolism is not confined to Britain, as we have seen from the fire-dancing in Bulgaria, and additionally in northern Greece, at a location called, appropriately enough, St Eleni 44. It would seem that Helen in archaic Greece, in addition to being a tree goddess, was also associated with the sun. Most glosses on the etymology of Helen’s name give “torch” from the root ‘el-‘ (derived from hypothetical ‘swel-‘ or ‘wel-‘)45. The Greek words for torch and basket are formally identical 46. Cader goes on to logically identify the coiling wicker constituent as “a cognate of the English word ‘willow’ ”47, arguably bringing us back to Helen’s tree identification. Coiled baskets of willow which are homonyms for flaming torches suggest to me the fiery symbolism of the summer solstice sun-wheels from folklore, careening down hillsides on midsummer’s eve 48.

The apparent closeness of Greek words for sun, torch/spiral wicker basket and common noun Helen – and deer – by association, and despite separate linguistic roots – suggests the figure of a sun goddess, and this is borne out by an examination of Helen’s mythology. Helen’s brothers, the Dioskouroi – divine twins - can be seen as counterparts to the Asvins who recover the sun-princess in Vedic mythology, Surya. Divine Twins associated with the sun “have their roots in common Indo-European mythology” 49. Their function is to retrieve the sun, also recalling Hungarian and especially Altaic mythology - the Siberian hunters, retrieving the sun from the antlers of the cosmic cow elk. From this pattern can be discerned the peregrinations of Homer’s Helen, as she disappears from Greece to Anatolia, and is restored by her husband Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon – paralleling a theoretical rescue by her absent brothers. We not only lose the sun at its setting, but in a sense throughout the winter months in the northern hemisphere, culminating in the Winter Solstice.

Helen’s disappearance to Phrygian Troy is also noteworthy, in that Anatolia, modern Turkey – one of St Helena’s locations - maintained a long and ancient tradition of the sun goddess, under various appellations, such as Arinitti, Hebat and Indo European Wuru’semu, at the city of Arinna. Wurusemu is monumentally shown at Hattusa (Anatolia) standing upon a lion or tiger, and a connection with the iconographies of Durga from India, and Sekhmet from North Africa, suggests itself.

Anatolia has a relatively hot and dry climate. For this reason, the fresh water springs, which are a feature of Anatolian geology, are called to mind when considering one of Wurusemu’s Hittite titles, “the Sun-goddess of water”50. Lakonian Helen was also associated with springs 51. In fact, the symbol used for the sun goddess of Arinna’s city was itself the symbol of a spring 52 .Together with the Anatolian preoccupation with underground water sources, H J Deighton tells us that the mother of the sun goddess Hebat “was Allatum, the Hurrian underworld goddess”53, and that the sun was thought to be travelling under the earth, during the hours of night. So the appearance of sun goddesses or their attributes in a nocturnal or chthonic context is not as illogical as it first might appear.


18. p.152, Donald MacKenzie, Scottish Folklore, 1935.
19. p.176, MacKenzie.
20. p.151, Parry Jones, Welsh Legends, 1992.
21. p.94-5, Proinsias MacCana, Celtic Mythology, 1970.
22. ibid.
23. p.307, James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 1998.
24. p.174, Colin Renfrew, Archaeology and Language, 1989.
25.; jelena, also the word for a doe, in Croatian.
26., slavic1 and 3.
27. p.216, ‘ellos’, Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott, 1891, 1998.
28. p.192, Frank A Kmietowicz, Slavic Mythical Beliefs, 1982.
29. eg. ‘form of Helen’ p.37, H Gruffudd, Welsh Names, 1980, 2003.
30. p.1204, R.J. Thomas, ‘elain’, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, Welsh Dictionary [GPC], 1965.
31. eg. E R Henken, Traditions of Welsh Saints, (1987), under Illtud [var. Elltyd].
32. p.123, note 4, Jeffrey Gantz, The Mabinogion, 1976.
33. M Marples, map 1, A Roman Road in Wales, 1939.
35. ibid.
36. p.74, GPC.
38. eg. Sarn Meyllteyrn, ‘monarch’s stepping stones’(?), Pen Llyn, [pers. communication].
39. river sacred to Romano-British goddess Verbeia, MacKillop, p.425.
40. p.60, Graham Jones, ‘Holy Wells and the Cult of St Helen’, Landscape History, vol 8, 1986.
41. p.71, James Rattue, The Living Stream, 1995.
42. p.19 (7), Graham Jones, Aspects of Helen,
43. ibid.
44. p.26, ibid.
45. p.63, Linda Lee Clader, Helen: Evolution from Divine to Heroic, 1976.
46. p.66-67, ibid.
47. p.80, ibid.
48. see Paul Nash’s painting, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945: [British Council].
49. p.49, Clader.
50. p.62, H J Deighton, The Weather God in Hittite Anatolia, 1982.
51. p.49, Cader.
52. p.63, Deighton.
53. p.62, ibid.

* Re: "~'elen' in Slavic Bulgarian means 'deer'. " Compare the name Elen in this context to Heglen, (and many variants) the name of the cosmic sun elk from Evenki (Siberian) mythology. Reference:


Cadwaller’s Goat, [pen and ink wash; after Ivor Owen, in ‘Welsh Legends’ by D Parry-Jones, 1992 (1953)] ;

Alaunus (Maryport), [charcoal and chalk; after a photograph in Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross, 1992] ;

Wurusemu, [Arinna], Anatolian sun goddess, [linocut; after photograph in ‘Hattusha’ by Peter Neve, 1993].

Sunday, 20 April 2008

notes: sovereignty (1)

Illustrations (author)

Elen’ bronze, British Museum, [watercolour].
Artemis, after image from Louvre, Paris.
Solar deer, after illustration in Domotor, Tekla. 1982.


Chesca Potter, Mysterious Kings Cross, 1988; also in The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London, 1990, with Caroline Wise, John Matthews, et al.

Friday, 18 April 2008

The Theme of Ritual Sovereignty (1)

Here continues more discursive research, which raises many more questions for the author than it attempts to find answers for. Some time ago I began collecting ideas and impressions towards making a short, experimental film based on the semi-mythological person of Elen Luyddog or ‘Helen of the Ways’ of Wales. The author and artist Chesca Potter had consistently described Elen as a deer-antlered figure, so I needed to explore her findings. Subsequently, I discovered the tiny, late Iron Age bronze figurine of an antlered goddess in the British Museum, which Chesca had associated with her deer-Elen thesis. Unfortunately, the bronze has no find provenance but seems to be entirely Celtic in inspiration, because there are no Roman goddesses displaying antlers1. And here the trail seemed to go cold? How can Elen from Wales connect with an obscure antlered goddess, in a glass museum case, in the centre of London?

Elen Luyddog appears in the collection of medieval stories from Wales called the Mabinogion [Y Mabinogi], based on much earlier and pagan material. In ‘The Dream of Macsen’ from the Mabinogion, the emperor of Rome travels to Wales to marry a princess he has seen in a dream, Elen Luyddog, and then settles down to rule. Eventually, his wife Elen sets about building roads connecting all the fortifications in Macsen’s realm, the better to defend the island; hence a reading for her name as ‘Elen of the Ways’, also suggested in Wales by the place-name ‘Sarn Helen’ or Elen’s causeway. There are several possible sources for the mythical-historic person of Elen (earlier form of Helen). The princess from Macsen’s vision is Elen Ferch Udaf, daughter of Hen Udaf, himself the son of one Caradawc, son of the Welsh god Bran the Blessed: in this context, Elen is thus already the product of a semi or wholly divine lineage.

Secondly, we have the Romans in Britain adding to the story. Constantinus, the father of Constantine the Great - the first Christian Roman emperor - married one Helena, a native of either Britain, southern Europe or Anatolia, depending on which tradition is consulted. Accordingly, there are several Anglo-British traditions concerning the mother of Constantine the Great - Helena or Saint Helen’s native British location: one at Roman Colchester, where she appears as the daughter of ‘Old King Cole’ [Hen Coel], and one at Roman York, which is where her husband died and where her son was first proclaimed Caesar.

Thirdly, there is Helen of Troy, the story of whom was conceivably in British circulation, in the form of Latin translations of Dares the Phrygian's ‘History of the Fall of Troy’, from the 12th century CE on; however, considering Hellenic Helen’s literary 6-7th century BCE debut, stories about her might conceivably have been entering Celtic Britain at a far earlier date, given Francis Pryor’s recent and important discovery of Mediterranean trading ceramics on the South West coast of Britain, dating from c.60 BCE. 2

Concerning the Greek legend of Helen, Rachel Bromwich has commented on recurring references to a ‘Helen Bannog’ in early Welsh literature. The reference to Helen as ‘bannog’, could mean ‘high’ as in exalted, or equally ‘antlered’. One of the references in Welsh goes further to describe “a mark between her two eyebrows”3, which has been interpreted as a ‘love spot’, and to which I shall return. Were the apparent association with the name Helen and ‘antlers’ an isolated incidence, it could remain as a curious footnote and be left at that. However, there is a body of work identifying Greek Helen as originally being a tree goddess - Helen Dendritis - and trees are sometimes associated with antlers in mythology. Moreover, the Greek goddess Nemesis was at one stage closely associated with Helen 4, and there is a documented description from Pausanius, of a statue of Nemesis, with “crown on her head [showing] figures … and deer” 5. The modern source quoting Pausanius, also comments – it will be seen significantly, I feel - on Nemesis’ “affinity with animals and connection with Artemis”6, a goddess frequently depicted and associated with deer.

The connection with deer, trees and Helen in Southern Europe does not end with the tree goddess of archaic Greece, however. In today’s northern Greece and especially Bulgaria you will come across the pairing of Saints Helena and Constantine 7. In Bulgaria, the two have a fire-dancing day, held regionally between May 21st and June 3rd, whilst Helena’s companion, St Constantine, is associated on his feast day, with the legend of a deer voluntarily offering itself for sacrifice to him 8, as is also case with several other Slavic male saints, notably one Saint Iliya, also called Saint Elias. Perhaps significantly, a saintly Slavic stag is described 9 as having “golden horns, and the sun on its forehead”, recalling Helen or Elen’s high or antlered aspect with the ‘love’ or significant mark between her eyebrows, in the Welsh Triads? The female Greek personal name ‘Elena’ is recorded as meaning “bright one, related to the light of the sun”, in Nicoloff’s book ‘Bulgarian Folklore’ of 1975 10. The Bulgarian word for deer is itself ‘elen’ 11. Indeed Elen’s name seems to resonate in those of saints Elias and Iliya, associated with deer, sometimes the doe, and I have also encountered this saintly reflection in Brythonic Elen’s native Wales.

St Helena’s primary attribute in Greece and Bulgaria, as it is in Britain, is her supposed discovery of the ‘True Cross’ in Jerusalem, (c325-6 CE) – that symbolic tree cipher – the cruciform: almost certainly, I feel, recalling Helen as archaic tree goddess? The hagiographic association of tree, crucifix and antlers is not restricted to Helena/Constantine – the celebrated 15th century painting by Pisanello of St Eustace’s vision of the hunted stag, with the Cross between its antlers, equally comes to mind. Accordingly, could there be some mythological pattern at work here: deer, tree, antler; fire? The goddess Artemis was earlier mentioned in connection with archaic Helen – Artemis the Huntress, today associated with Roman Diana and the moon. But were things always thus? A celebrated incident concerning Artemis’s mythos is the Hunt of the Cerynean Hind, a golden antlered female deer under Artemis’s personal protection: female antlers, and not of silver, but of gold, surely a curious metal for a deer associated with a lunar deity? This would appear to be a mystery, but it needn’t be, with a wider survey of the evidence at hand, a pattern begins to emerge?

Orientating north, we encounter more deer mythology, and wedded with fire, but the fire we gaze upon this time is ultimately the brilliance of the sun. The vanished Scythians worshipped a pre-eminent sun goddess – Tabitta - possibly imaged as the flame-antlered deer or stag, associated with Scythian art. In Hungarian mythology, two brother-hunters pursue a doe, who “offers herself” – like the stag of St Constantine, but here as an indicator of the way the hunters must follow, as they pursue her to the destined place where their descendants will subsequently live 12. In a variant of this story, the sons of Nimrod pursue a miraculous white stag, seen with the “sun shining through its majestic antlers, almost as if it were supporting the sun” 13. It will be noted the change from doe to stag in the Hungarian origin myth; as we travel further northwards – and, I believe antecedent in time - the image of the female cervid predominates. The nomadic Siberian Evenki believe in Kheglen, the female elk goddess, who resides at the base of the Evenki tree of life, and is also identified with the Big Dipper / Ursa Major constellation; the apparent revolutions of which, describe - they believe - the narrative of a gigantic elk hunt in the night sky, where the elk mother is killed but reappears on subsequent evenings with her calf, Ursa Minor. The original significance of the myth was that Kheglen impaled the sun upon her antlers, then vanished into the forest taiga, bringing darkness upon the world. For this reason, the cosmic antlered elk was hunted and killed to restore light to the world 14 – surely also a Winter Solstice myth and analogy?

The author Esther Jacobson has commented on the Kheglen myth that the figure of an antlered female cervid might be linked with that of the reindeer, the only female cervid to carry antlers. Ake Hultkrantz 15 has recorded both lord and lady of the reindeer amongst the beliefs of the Scandinavian Kola Saamis. During the last Ice Age, two thirds of Britain would have been under ice, with reindeer freely passing between Europe and Britain which formed a single semi-tundra land mass at this time. Material proof for the existence of reindeer in Britain comes from Scotland where a quantity of reindeer bones and antlers have been recovered from the Inchnadamph Bone Caves in the Scottish Highlands 16, dated between 47-8,000 years ago, so British reindeer would have been a reality during the British hunter-gatherer era, including the lifetime of celebrated 'Cheddar Man', who died 9,000 years ago in Somerset. Reindeer may have survived in Scotland up until the 13th century CE 17.


2. Pryor, Francis. ‘Britain AD’, pp 56-59, 2004
3. Bromwich, Rachel. ‘The Welsh Triads’, p343, 1961
4. Cader, Linda. ‘Helen: Evolution from Divine to Heroic’, p73, 1976
5. Hornblower, ‘Oxford Classical Dictionary’, p 1034, 1999.
6. ibid
7. Georgieva, Ivanichka. ‘Bulgarian Mythology’, p23, 1985
8. ibid, p39
9. Kmietowicz, Frank A. ‘Slavic Mythical Beliefs’, p192, 1982.
10. Nicoloff, Assen. ‘Bulgarian Folklore’, p125, 1975.
11. Georgieva, supra, p38
12. Roheim, Géza. ‘Hungarian and Vogul Mythology’, p11, 1954.
13. Seredy, Kate. ‘The White Stag’, p 13, 1982.
14. Jacobson, Esther. ‘Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia’, p194-5, 1993, (Studies in history of religions, v.55)
15. Hultkrantz, Åke. ‘Saami pre-Christian Religion’, p24, 1985.
17. Mackenzie, Donald Alexander, ‘Scottish Folk-lore and Folk Life’, p205, 1935.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Elen's Ford

The late Russian linguist Vladislav Illich-Svitych wrote:

“Language is a ford through the river of time …”

Equally true of world mythology, I feel, and so this disquisition into ancient deities and historically remote systems of belief, must ever remain something of a work-in-progress, in a shifting, evolving, four dimensional context. This stated, I hope you will bear with me, as I strike out into the contested and imperfectly recalled world of the past.

There is a ford crossing a stream in North Wales called Rhyd yr Helen, 'Elen's Ford', following an ancient track called Sarn Elen, or Elen's Way. This track was certainly used by the Romans, during their occupation of Wales, but it may be much older, since in certain stretches it forms a 'ridge way', such as the same-named, elevated trail, followed by prehistoric farmers local to the megalithic Avebury region. It is Elen's (or Helen's) name which initiated this retrospective glance into the silvery mists of time, and led on to an altered prospect of the past.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


the bulk of the blog is already in digital file format, and formed the material for a series of talks i gave to the Pagan Federation, beginning about 3-4 years ago, at Croydon in South London, and later in Central London.

the material also places Neolithic Avebury stone circle (North Wiltshire) within a sacred context which is still culturally extant. It was Terry Meaden who first suggested a parallel between the form of Avebury and the "link between the circle and the yoni" in Hindu thought, realised as the 'Shivalinga' devotional sculpture; the moreso, when considering Avebury's Obelisk-centred South Inner Circle arrangement; i subsequently contributed to this realisation by introducing the reality of covert Kaula Temples from mostly Southern India, into the equation: 10th century, open-air temples - basically stone circles, in many instances - devoted to esoteric goddess worship; I also believe that these forms - the Shivalinga, the Kaula Circle and Avebury, all represent the sacred marriage or 'hieros gamos'; that is, the male and female principles in Nature conjoined.

however, the research grows steadily in all directions, like concentric ripples radiating outwards, over the surface of a pool, and the basic, revised material, in blog format, should be underway shortly.

what i like about the blog system is that it is almost built to be revised and edited, and that is just what will happen, so please don't expect a static text set in stone: much as i might prefer this, it is currently impossible, with ongoing supporting notes and references, and by the nature of the enquiry itself, which i can only describe as 'revelationary'.

Reference: Terence Meaden, 'The Secrets of the Avebury Stones', p28, 1999

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Intellectual Property

this blog is the intellectual property (IP) of Ric Kemp. IP refers to all original content, not clearly marked otherwise - for example, by quotation marks. the author may revise or edit the content, according to the requirements of the project, which is ongoing and protean. no part of this blog may be copied, duplicated or replicated - by any means - without prior permission from the author. thank you. RK

Friday, 29 February 2008


this journey into the unknown would not have been quite so possible without the help of Gemma, who has been invaluable in tracking down references and bibliographies, and so forth, along the often uneven way: to Gemma my sincere thanks

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate ... "

T S Eliot, 1888-1965

Little Gidding

the title of this blog is from T S Eliot's 'Little Gidding' poem - from his 'Four Quartets'. i chose it because in seeking to 'go back in time', as it were, and looking for the roots of religion, i feel as if i should come to an unremembered place - portal, hearth, altar - where i have been before, but many thousands of years ago? i fear Mr Eliot's Little Gidding may have been a site of permafrost at this time, or swathed beneath the white out of the last great Ice Age? but nevertheless, the poem appeals and the title accords ...