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.
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.