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].