Sarn Helen – the mysterious way through Wales (part 1)

The Ordnance Survey maps of West Wales show a dashed line running from south to north, sometimes on the course of modern roads, sometimes over hills and moorland, sometimes raised on a causeway, sometimes disappearing from view. It is labelled as ‘Sarn Helen’, often with ‘ROMAN ROAD’ in bold lettering beside. But was this route, and other Welsh tracks of the same name, Roman in origin? And how did it come to be called Sarn Helen?

975864_4cf84e74Sarn Helen above the Vale of Neath (Image © Kev Griffin)

Sarn Helen describes the 160 mile (260km) long route between Carmarthen in the south of Wales, and Aberconwy in the north. It passes several Roman forts, the ancient gold mine at Dolaucothi, some important ecclesiastic places such as Strata Florida, and the supposed burial place of the sixth century poet Taliesin. There are however other routes referred to as Sarn Helen, including a stretch from Neath into the Brecon Beacons. Many commentators therefore refer to a network of ancient trackways rather than a single road.

As to why Sarn Helen is so-named, this is a “tantalising mystery” according to one author. The Sarn part is relatively straightforward, as the Welsh word sarn or sarnau means ‘causeway’ or ‘pavement’. This implies a constructed road, as opposed to a worn earthen track. The Helen part is more elusive, and many different solutions have been suggested over the years…

Welsh language corruption?

One theory for the origin of ‘Sarn Helen’ is that it is simply a corruption of the Welsh language. For example, it could be corruption of a Sarn-y-Lleng or ‘Road of the Legion’ (Lleng meaning ‘legion’ in Welsh). Other possibilities are that it derives from sarn hoelen meaning ‘paved causeway’, from the word halen (sea, salt), or from the word elin, meaning ‘elbow’, ‘angle’ or ‘bend’. This last one is because unlike many Roman roads, Sarn Helen rarely seems to go in a straight line.

sarn helenA section of Sarn Helen near Betws-y-Coed (Image © Jeremy Bolwell)

But was Sarn Helen built by the Romans? The Romans were certainly active in Wales, and the main Sarn Helen route formed the western side of a rectangle, taking in the Roman forts at Caernarfon, Chester, Wroxeter, Usk, Carleon, Brecon and Carmarthen. However, there are said to be virtually no written records to describe the actual construction of the Roman roads in Britain, and several authors have suggested that the Romans simply improved or paved the existing British trackways. What’s more, there are – in the words of one author – some “more romantic explanations” as to how the name Sarn Helen might have arisen…

Named after Helen or Elen?

The most well known explanation for Sarn Helen is that it was named after a female figure called Helen or Elen. Note: Helen is the anglicised or Christianised version of Elen, and many holy wells and springs dedicated to Elen, or Elena, were later re-dedicated to Helen. So we could be looking for a Helen or an Elen, in the realms of history, or alternatively in the realms of myth and legend.

The first contender is Elen Luyddog, or ‘Elen of the Hosts’, who was also known as Saint Elen of Caernarfon (born c. 340, died c. 388). This Elen features in a story in the Mabinogion called ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’. In the story, a Roman Emperor called Macsen was once out hunting when he lay down in the warm sun and dreamt about a beautiful maiden who lived in a castle on an island, beyond a high mountain. To cut a long story short, Macsen’s messengers eventually found this maiden on the Isle of Anglesey off the coast of Wales. She was Elen, daughter of a chieftain of Caernarfon. Macsen journeys to meet Elen, and they end up getting married. After Elen had arranged for her father to hold Britain on behalf of her new husband, the Mabinogion states…

Thereafter Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made. And for that reason they are called Roads of Elen of the Hosts, because she was sprung from the Island of Britain, and the men of the Island of Britain would not have made those great hostings for any save her.

Based on the above, Sarn Helen is commonly associated with this ‘Elen of the Hosts’, with ‘hosts’ assumed to refer to the Roman legions. The Roman emperor she married is said to have been Magnus Maximus, who briefly ruled the western empire in the late 4th century. Today this Elen is the patron of many churches in Wales, and she is also patron saint of roadbuilders in Britain, with a feast day on 22nd May.

Beginning_of_Macsen_Wledig can use w.o attributionText from the Dream of Macsen Wledig

One writer has however noted that there is an abundance of bogus placenames evident in the tales of Elen Luyddog, and suggested that medieval commentators became confused “perhaps wilfully so” between her and an earlier figure, St Helen, mother of Constantine (born c.250 to died c. 330 AD). This may be because St Helen’s son became Constantine the Great, who is said to have ordered the repair of roads in Britain. Or it could conceivably be because this Helen actually came from Britain – there are traditions that she was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester or elsewhere in Britain. There is even a theory that after Helen (allegedly) found the True Cross in the Holy Land, she paraded it around Britain, before it was deposited in Dyfed in south-west Wales. Most historians take the view that she never set foot in Britain though.

As well as the two apparently historical Elen and Helen featured above, there are mythological Helen and Elen figures to factor into the equation . In particular, there is a goddess or elemental spirit known as Elen, who is said to have ruled over the energies of nature and was revered by Celtic and Germanic tribes in northern Europe. She was envisaged as a protector of sacred paths and goddess of the sunset. Caroline Wise, editor of the book Finding Elen, refers to her as Elen of the Ways, and portrays her as an antlered goddess associated with deer, particularly the reindeer. Another author on the subject of Elen, the aptly named Elen Sentier, associates her with Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who followed the reindeer along their migration routes and based their culture and their shamanic practices around the reindeer. At one time reindeer would have lived in Britain and most of Europe (and in North America, they are the caribou).

The earliest possible European reference to a mythological Elen said to be ‘Nehalennia’ or ‘Nouelen’, a Gallo-Belgic deity represented, like Artemis, with hunting hound and basket of fruit. However, author and researcher Andrew Collins believes this goddess went beyond Europe and may have originated in Asia. He proposes that the words Elen, Elena and Ilona all derive from the proto-Ural-Altaic roots él and éle (life) and ana (mother) to give ‘Mother of Life’.

NehalenniaAn alter for Nehalennia (complete with apples and dog)

Finally, a brief mention to the Helens of classical mythology, the best known of which is the ancient Greek goddess Helen of Troy. This Helen is not normally associated with the British Isles, although the Greek meaning of the word Helen may be of some relevance to the meaning and origins of ‘Sarn Helen’…

This article continues in Part 2

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