Elen of the Ways - Part Two

By Caroline Wise

In Part One I mentioned how my Quest for Elen began in 1983, and how difficult it was in those pre-Google, pre-Amazon and Pre-ABEBooks days to have quick access to information. Most of what I was able to piece together came from following my intuition. The mark points for me along Elen's ways were dreams and synchronicities.

Please note that in part one and two I have condensed a whole manuscript down to 6000 words.

Elen of the Leys

In the periodical Pendragon, (mentioned above) the editor notes that "St Helen, whether Elen or Helena, could be said to be the patron Saint of Ley-hunters."

It occurred to me that Elen might have been sleeping in my subconscious for some years, the Pendragon article in 1983 awakening her. In my bookcase was a copy of Paul Screeton's 1974 book Quicksilver Heritage - The Mystic Leys: Their Legacy of Ancient Wisdom. It was the only work I could find, other than that of Harold Bayley, which mentioned Elen in the guise of guardian of the old tracks.

Leys were 'discovered' and named by the brewer, antiquarian and photographer Alfred Watkins in the 1920s. His 'flood of ancestral memory' - he saw the prehistoric sites laid out in straight lines across the country - led him to believe that he was seeing the traces of Neolithic trading routes. He formed The Straight Track Club, members of which would go out and about in the country searching for alignments and visiting ancient sites. The Ley phenomena reached a wider audience in 1969 with the publication of The View Over Atlantis by John Michell. This highly original work caught the spirit of the age perfectly, and became the foundation stone for the Earth Mysteries movement. It fanned a renaissance of interest in folklore, sacred geometry, ancient sites and their relationship to the landscape, and to a broader cosmology.

In Quicksilver Heritage, Paul Screeton, then editor of The Ley Hunter, lists holy wells as ley markers, saying, "Many wells are dedicated to St Helen, a confusion with Elen, the Celtic Goddess of roads and armies." He also says "Elen, reputedly the daughter of King Cole, is Albion's equivalent of Thoth, Hermes and Mercury. She, according to the Mabinogion, built a system of roads from one castle to another throughout the Isle of Britain. This suggests the construction of track ways following the placing of stones, mounds, 'one tree hills' etc. to mark leys. Elen, or the Christianised St Helen, has given rise to such names on leys as Heel, Heol, and Ellie stones, Elen's roads and Elen's Causeway."

So here we have the matron saint of Ley-hunters. Elen's connections with the old track ways, combined with my linking her with reindeer, via Chesca Potter's vision of an antlered goddess, led me the idea that her earliest tracks were those of the migratory paths of the Reindeer. Intimate knowledge of these paths was essential for the survival of those who depended on them, both before and after domestication of the herds - and these tracks could be found over a vast area of the globe. Interestingly, the Irish Gaelic word describing the paths where deer were driven is Eileurig.

As mentioned earlier, Elen led me suspect the 'Leys' also functioned as shamanic flight-paths, travelled with the aid of the Fly Agaric (amanita muscaria), obtained in a non-toxic form via the urine of the reindeer. But she was leading me now in another direction, this time to the Holy Land, yet across somewhat familiar territory.

The Green and Living Cross

"It is not a theory, but an observation built up that Scotch firs are almost certain signs of either of the line of an ancient track, or more particularly its sighting points.' Alfred Watkins, Early British Track Ways, 1922

The legends of the Christian saints often conceal an older identity, a pre-Christian god, goddess, or spirit of place. The Christian St Helena's cloak envelopes the figure of Elen. Myth and history meet in St Helena, wife of the Emperor Constantias Chlorus, and Mother of Constantine the Great. As we have seen earlier, in her legends, she is Elen, the daughter of King Cole (or Coel), a tribal chief of Colchester. Like her counterpart Elen of Carnavon, (who also has a son named Constantine), on the other side of the country, this Elen is also the daughter of a king, brought up to be a queen in Britain and an empress of Rome.

In Helena's legend, she sets off on a quest to the Holy Land to search for Christian relics at Calvary. This is at the request of her son, Constantine, whose famous conversion is inspired by seeing a cross in the sky.

Starting her archaeological expedition in 326 AD, Essex girl Elen, now Empress Helena, discovers, beneath a Temple of Venus, the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb where Christ, in legend, has risen. She also finds the cross of the crucifixion. This is said to be a green, living tree, and it proves itself as the true cross by bringing a dying woman back to life. Helena's further discoveries include the bones of the Magi, the Zoroastrian astrologer-priests who are the Three Wise Men of biblical myth. The idea of the cross as a green living tree almost certainly echoes earlier, pre-Christian cults. The motif of a man hanging from a tree to gain wisdom can be found in the legend of Orpheus, and the image of the tree of life is universal. From a shamanic perspective, the tree is a symbol of the world tree, a cosmic pillar linking us to the 'underworld' and altered states of consciousness where knowledge is gained. In The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London, I mention the cult of Helen Dendritis, Helen of the Trees. This was not a mystery cult, being more for the uninitiated, the common people, who would hang dolls, representing Helen, on trees. Said to remember Helen of Troy fleeing there, only subsequently to be hanged in the same place, there are echoes here of Elen the Green Lady of nature.

Elen of Colchester is remembered on the Colchester Borough arms, which show an equal armed wooden cross, sprouting leaves, and bearing the three crowns of the Magi. Intriguingly, there is a "Shelia-na-gig figure (a carved figure female figure exposing her genitals) with the inscription 'Elui'. This came form Saint Mary's church, Easthrope and adds an interesting coincidence to the Elen quest.

So, the Empress becomes a saint, and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site of the Venus temple in 333 AD. The round church, in what is now the Old City of Jerusalem, is said to enclose the cave tomb of the resurrection. Helena becomes an ambassador for Christianity, and whole forests are felled to supply the market in relics of the True Cross. (There is one in Holy Cross church, Isle of Wight, an island that has connections with both our Welsh and East Anglian Elens.) The Trip to Jerusalem, the pilgrimage to these sites in the holy land that Christians are encouraged to make, becomes popular soon after these discoveries.

The sacking of the church by the Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr led to the first crusade, launched to recover this sacred site for Christendom. Due to the number of pilgrims flocking to the holy land, the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitalers are formed. There mission is to protect pilgrims on the arduous journey, the former doing more archaeology of their own than protecting pilgrims. The round churches of the Knights Templar were based on the rotunda of the church of the Holy sepulchre. (I'll discuss the significance of these orders to Elen later.)

But how does Elen in the guise of St Helena, Empress of Rome, the maton saint of leys and patron saint of archaeology, connect to the shamanism to which she led me earlier? Well, in leading us to the True Cross, Elen leads once more to amanita muscaria…

Tears of Helen

"The fungi are all derived from the gum that exudes from trees" Pliny

In 1970, I was deeply shocked when my father told me that the Christian story was just a myth, that Jesus had never really existed. He told me that it was all based on older Middle Eastern myths and ancient fertility cults. I admit the shock only lasted about ten minutes, and it was mostly because my father was a scholar of church music. He told me about a book he had, which I did read it soon after, and it was way over my head. The book, however, was hugely discredited at the time. It is now recognised that the criticism was biased, unfair and uninformed, and its ideas are enjoying a renaissance as more is learned about the part played by plants and mycology in shamanistic spirituality and practice. The book is The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro.

I returned to this book nearly twenty years later, when Elen led me to Fly Agaric and shamanic flight. Allegro, with a first-class degree in Semetic studies, carried out further research at Oxford on dialects of biblical Hebrew. He was one of the two British representatives to work on the deciphering of The Dead Sea
Scrolls. His research led to him seeing the NewTestament in a radically new light. To put it simply, this scholarly and elegantly argued book proposes that the amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric, the sacred mushroom, lies behind the Christian myths. The true cross is a phallic symbol of the ecstatic, fertility and resurrection based pre-Christian spiritual practice. Elen was leading again to the red and white toadstool of shamanic flight as a sacrament for communion with the gods and ancestors. Allegro briefly mentions the religious use of amanita muscaria in Siberia, but his attention is focused on the plant/medical knowledge from ancient Sumer.

I mentioned earlier how the Fly Agaric is found mainly at the base of the silver birch and pine trees. It can be found beneath conifers, mostly evergreens, such as cedar, and the spruce and firs used for Christmas trees. I had felt that the Reindeer Shaman spirituality was holistic within its environment, a complete cosmology including the people, the herds, the landscape, the stars, and the other dimensions accessed through the amanita. Therefore the trees that the mushrooms grew around were an important part of the whole.

In Southern Europe and the near east, the amanita grows around the base of pine trees. The trees and the mushroom have a symbiotic relationship, both feeding each other nutrients. The properties of the amanita are affected by the chemical make-up of the host. It is my belief, based on some observation, that the type of tree affects the type of shamanic experience.

Allegro looks at the relationship of the pine to the amanita. Elate is the Greek work for pine,and its resin, the tears of Helen.
He mentions the Greek Goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, who holds a pine torch: Helene is a Greek word for torch and this is the "source and meaning of the name for the Greek heroine and Goddess, Helen." In Greek myth, Helen is the daughter of Nemesis (or Leda), who is impregnated by Zeus who has taken the form of a Swan. She, like her siblings Castor and Pollux, is born from a swan's egg. To Allegro, "Nemesis, whose name has come down to us as the personification of divine retribution, is identical in meaning with the Sumerian original of Nectar, the fate-decider…" In one of her legends, Helen spikes the drink with a 'feel-good' drug, and Allegro sees that "a further link between Helen and Nectar appears in the drink Nectarion, wine spiced with a wonderful drug called Helenion, named after good queen Helen." He goes on to say of the pine, "besides giving the fire of the processional torch (Greek Helene) and the intoxicant and beautifier Helenion…this resin was thought to be the source of the sacred mushroon." (The mushroom springing up where the drops of resin, the tears of Helen, fall.)


"It is the gum of the pine tree that the Arcadian incantation is directed: O Kukru, Kukru, Kukru…."

Allegro says that the name by which the pine resin is addressed, Kukru, is a link to the swan motif of Helen's birth, as both names go back to the Sumerian word 'pod', (pine-pod) the swan, because like other fertility birds, its name was connected with 'womb-pod'. He is looking here at the fertility aspects of Helen, but her swan associations go far beyond this.

The constellation of Cygnus is so named because the stars are seen as depicting a celestial swan. In his book The Cygnus Mystery, Andrew Collins has shown us that these stars were almost universally recognised and revered in shamanic peoples going back to the Palaeolithic era.

With the coming of Christianity, the Cygnus constellation is known as the Northern Cross, as it is seen to resemble the cross at Calvary, and is even called 'Crux cum St Helena', with Elen/St Helene actually depicted in art as the constellation, holding her cross, which is studded with the main stars of Cygnus.

There are some other cygnus clues here. In Irish Gaelic, 'Ela' means swan, and in Cornish it is Elaio.

In medieval German legend it is Elsa, whose brother is a swan, who marries the Swan Knight , a knight of the Grail. The Swan and the deer are the main beasts that humans shape-shift into in myth and legend.

Elen of the ways, in true shamanic style, is a walker between the worlds - above, in astral flight, and into inner space via her plants and fungi. On the ground, we have her deer tracks and Leys, and above the path of the milky way traversed by Helena's constellation of the Swan. Whatever direction we follow her, she leads us to shamanic mysteries.


Elen and Oxleas - how we first heard of The Reindeer People.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s my friends and I were were involved in the (successful) campaign to save Oxleas wood, the last remaining part of the South London forest that had established itself at the end of the ice-age. These woods were close to our home, and were about to be demolished for the East London River Crossing. I even commissioned a picture of Elen, antlered, with a dress of leaves, standing in frontt of the woods as a magical talisman to stop the bulldozers.

Copyright Caroline Wise 2007

One of our group was happy to imbibe the carefully prepared Fly Agaric. In 1990, they went of to Oxleas with someone who knew the woods intimately, and who would sit with them during their 'trip.' Pine resin collected from the local trees was used as incense, so that the occasion was given a sacred setting. On return, they reported an experience of 'The Reindeer People', and their relationship to the deer. They bought back a lot of information that later checked out - and they also said they'd been told that Elen meant 'star-path'. It seemed natural to link her to Cygnus due to her swan and cross associations, and the recent discoveries about Cygnus from Andrew Collins now give a new dimension to Elen's shamanic credentials.


Caroline Wise is appearing at this year's Questing Conference (QuestCon07),
talking about the mysteries of the goddess Brigid
and her winter form the Cailleach. For more information click here.