Sarn Helen – the mysterious way through Wales

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’ beside it. But what exactly is it and how did it come to be called Sarn Helen?

Sarn Helen above the Vale of Neath (photo © Kev Griffin)

Sarn Helen describes the 160 mile (260km) long route between Carmarthen in the south of Wales, and Aberconwy in the north. Just to complicate matters, there are also other routes referred to as Sarn Helen, including a stretch from Neath into the Brecon Beacons.

The Sarn Helen routes – such as they exist today – pass 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. They also pass the sites of several Roman forts, and indeed the roads themselves are deemed to be of Roman origin. Nonetheless, it may well be that there were pre-existing trackways which were simply upgraded by the Romans.

Left: A section of Sarn Helen near Betws-y-Coed (photo © Jeremy Bolwell)
Right: Sarn Helen above the Vale of Neath (photo © Alan Richards)

As to why the Sarn Helen routes are so-named, this is a “tantalising mystery” according to one author. The first part is relatively straightforward, as the Welsh word sarn or sarnau means ‘causeway’ or ‘pavement’. The ‘Helen’ part is more elusive, and many different solutions have been suggested over the years.

Named after Helen or Elen?

The most well known explanation is that Sarn Helen was named after a female figure called Helen or Elen, or perhaps a composite of more than one such figure. 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.

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 journeyed 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 road builders in Britain, with a feast day on 22nd May.

Left: Text from the Dream of Macsen Wledig, featuring Elen Luydogg
Right: Painting of Saint Helena of Constantinople

Another contender is an earlier figure, St Helen, mother of Constantine (born c.250 to died c. 330 AD). St Helen’s son became Constantine the Great, who is said to have ordered the repair of roads in Britain. There are also traditions that St Helen was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester or elsewhere in Britain. However, most historians take the view that St Helen never set foot in Britain.

There are also mythological Helen and Elen figures to consider. 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, 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.

Elen as a goddess has some similarities with the goddess Brigit or St Bride, from pre-Christian Ireland. However, the earliest European reference to a mythological Elen may well be Nehalennia or Nouelen, a Gallo-Belgic deity represented – like Artemis – with hunting hound and basket of fruit. The author 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’.

Left: Reindeer were associated with Elen of the Ways (photo by Are G Nilsen)
Right: An alter for the deity Nehalennia, complete with hound and apples
Other theories

We may already have several Elen or Helen figures after whom Sarn Helen may have been named, but there are many other ideas as to how it originated. Some of these have solid foundations, some are more speculation…

  • Sarn Helen might be a corruption of the Welsh language. Perhaps it was derived from one of the following: Sarn-y-Lleng meaning ‘Road of the Legion’; Sarn hoelen, meaning ‘paved causeway’; or elin, meaning ‘elbow’, ‘angle’ or ‘bend’. This last one is because unlike many so-called Roman roads, Sarn Helen rarely seems to go in a straight line.
  • Could Sarn Helen be associated with a unit of measurement, the Ell? This was used in ancient times in Britain and northern Europe, and it represented the length of the forearm. Could it have been used in measuring the width of new roads?
  • Sarn Helen might be associated with light. The Greek word helene, means ‘torch’, ‘shiner’ or ‘giver of light’, the Breton word hoel means ‘sun’, and in Welsh alain is an adjective meaning ‘exceedingly fair, lovely, bright’. Greek moon goddess Selene also contains ‘elen’ within it.
  • Sarn Helen might be an energy line or fairy path. Caroline Wise refers to the “shining paths” of Elen of the Ways, whilst Elen Sentier equates them to energy lines, ley lines, song lines or dragon lines. Paul Screeton (former editor of the Ley Hunter magazine) adds the term “quicksilver lines”, which are are “under the dominion of Thoth, Hermes, Mercury, Elen and others”.
  • Sarn Helen may be associated with fairies or elves. Antiquarian writer Harold Bayley associated the word elles with elves or fairies, and an Ellyll was was a creature from the Welsh fairy world, a counterpart to the Teutonic elf.
  • Sarn Helen may also be associated with trees. Ellen was an old name for the Elder tree, which for Celts symbolised change and rebirth. In Greek elate means fir tree, and in the Mediterranean there are also traditions of ‘Helen of the Tree’.
  • Finally, could Sarn Helen have been the road to a place called Helig? ‘Tyno Helig’ (or Helig’s Hollow) was a sunken kingdom that legends place in Conwy Bay. Sarn Helen’s northern terminus is the Roman fort at Caerhun on the river Conwy, just short of Conwy Bay itself.

Based on the above list, there is clearly more to Helen or Elen (and similar words) than meets the eye!

The River Conwy at Caerhun (photo © Matthew Chadwick at geograph.org.uk)
Elen elsewhere in Britain

Returning to the subject of elbows, the Isle of Lundy off the north coast of Devon was referred to in Welsh as Ynys Elin (effectively meaning the ‘the island of the elbow, bend or right-angle’) or alternatively as Ynys Elen (‘the island of Elen’). There are also other Helen and Elen related places in south-west England, going right down to Cape Helenus, today known as Cape Cornwall.

Moving further afield, Alex Langstone refers to an ‘arc of Elen’ to describe places with Elen or Helen associations going from south-west England, up through Wales and into the north of England. There is a tantalising mention by Harold Bayley of “a maiden way and an Elen’s causeway” in Cumbria, but unfortunately he was unable to lay his hands on the source of this information.

To conclude, this article seems to have opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box full of theories as to how Sarn Helen was so-named. Perhaps it’s best to simply recall Elen of the Hosts, the patron saint of road builders, and leave things at that. Even so, whoever or whatever Sarn Helen refers to, there are clues that it may have been more ancient and widespread than the Roman roads of Wales.


For further reference

Books

Bayley, H, Archaic England – An essay in deciphering prehistory…, 1920

Colyer, R, Roads and Trackways of Wales, Moorland Publishing, 1984

Sentier, E, Shaman Pathways – Elen of the Ways, Moon Books, 2013

Westwood, J, Albion – A Guide to Legendary Britain, Paladin Grafton Books, 1985

Wise, C (ed), Finding Elen – The Quest for Elen of the Ways, Eala Press, 2015 [includes chapters by Caroline Wise herself, Andrew Collins, Alex Langstone and others]

Web-articles

Elen of the Ways – Part One – An Article by Caroline Wise

Elen: Goddess of Dynamic Energy

Elf Fire, Ellydan, and the story of Elidyr by Léithin Cluan (Naomi J.)

Helen of Troy – Heroine or Goddess? by Karen Pierce, 2000

Deity of the Week – Nehalennia

 

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