Sarn Helen – the mysterious way through Wales (part 2)

This article continues from Part 1 and explores some other Helen and Elen associations that could help to shed light on the meaning and origins of the ancient trackways known as ‘Sarn Helen’ – that is, if they don’t confuse matters even further!

5276514_df100e2dSarn Helen above the Vale of Neath (Image © Alan Richards)

The road of light?

Continuing with the Greek theme introduced at the end of Part 1…  the Greek word Helene actually means ‘torch’, ‘shiner’ or ‘giver of light’. At one time Helene described a single occurrence of St Elmo’s Fire, typically a ball of plasma seen on the masts of ships when there was a strong electric field in the atmosphere, such as during a thunderstorm. A double occurrence of this phenomena was referred to as ‘Castor and Pollux’, who happen to be the twin brothers of Helen of Troy. Furthermore leaving the Greek world and moving into northern Europe  the Breton word hoel means ‘sun’, as does houl in Cornish. In Welsh, the word alain is an adjective meaning ‘exceedingly fair, lovely, bright’.

Therefore, it appears that Helen and similar words have associations with light, although it is less clear as to how this might relate to Sarn Helen. Perhaps it was a route used by torch-lit processions. Perhaps it was a route associated with a bright celestial object such as the Sun, or even the Moon (the Greek goddess ‘Selene’, which contains the word Elen, is a moon goddess). Or perhaps it was related to the stars in the sky (Andrew Collins links the primordial deer mother, Elen, to the Milky Way).

An energy line or fairy path?

Or, could earth energies be involved with Sarn Helen? Several authors offer glimpses that this may be the case. Caroline Wise refers to the “shining paths” of Elen of the Ways. Elen Sentier describes the “numinous threads that form and hold the body of the Earth”, otherwise known as energy lines, ley lines, song lines or dragon lines. She says that many people see them as silvery in colour, and that they underlie footpaths, roads and tracks, and follow rivers and streams. Paul Screeton, a former editor of the Ley Hunter magazine, adds the term “quicksilver lines”, and suggests that they are “under the dominion of Thoth, Hermes, Mercury, Elen and others”.

Or, maybe fairies or elves are involved? Antiquarian writer Harold Bayley associates the word elles with elves or fairies. Indeed, an Ellyll was was a creature from the Welsh fairy world, a counterpart to the Teutonic elf. An Ellylldan apparently refers to a species of elf corresponding to the English Will-o’-wisp (dan means means ‘fire’ and also a ‘lure’, and combined they suggest a luring elf-fire). The Will-o’-wisp was said to have been a blue light – perhaps similar to the St Elmo’s Fire mentioned earlier – that appeared in marshland, and there are stories of people being led there by fairies and becoming lost. Could Sarn Helen have therefore been some kind of fairy path in the world of Welsh folklore?

Will-o-wispAn artist’s rendering of a Will-o’-wisp over water

Helen and trees

Putting aside energy, lights and fairies for the moment, Helen and Elen can also be associated with trees – and in more ways than one. Helen of Troy is said to have had some parallels with Ariadne, as like her she was ‘hung from a tree’ (either literally or in effigy); she was known in Rhodes as Helen Dendrites, ‘Helen of the Tree’. Furthermore, Ellen was an old name for the Elder tree, which for Celts symbolised change and rebirth, and was associated with the cauldron. In the Greek world elate means fir tree, and one example is the European silver fir, which is said to have been the species first used as a Christmas tree. There are also other, more psychedelic, associations with trees…

There is an indication from Pliny the Younger that elate is associated with the production of ointments. The drops of resin that fall from pine trees were actually referred to as the “tears of Helen”. Where these tears fell, the Fly Agaric mushroom grew. These mushrooms are poisonous, yet the northern European shamans are said to have waited for the reindeer to eat the mushrooms, and then they drank the reindeer’s urine. They would enter altered states of consciousness without suffering from the mushroom’s poison. However, although reindeers and reindeer tribes may have traversed Wales in ancient times, associations with Helen and Elen seem to have been much more widespread in the ancient world, and not just in relation to the usual suspects of churches, holy wells and springs…

Elbows, and Elen outside of Wales

As mentioned in Part 1, there is a theory that Elen derives from the Welsh word Elin, meaning elbow, bend or right-angle. The word elbow represents the joining of the words ell (arm) and bow (bend). The ell was actually an old unit of measurement, both in Britain and elsewhere. The Viking ell was 18 inches long and represented the length of the forearm, and it is recorded as being used in Iceland up until the thirteenth century. Perhaps it could also have been used as a standard measure of the widths of roads??

Staying on the subject of elbows, the Isle of Lundy off the north coast of Devon was referred to in Welsh as either Ynys Elin (effectively meaning the ‘the island of the elbow, bend or right-angle’) or Ynys Elen (‘the island of Elen’). There are other Helen and Elen related places in south-west England. These include Helland on the banks of the River Camel (Helen and Elen are very much linked to the inland waterways of Britain) and the ruined chapel of St Helen’s at Helenium or Cape Helenus (today known as Cape Cornwall). Even so, these connections are not confined to the south-west. Alex Langstone actually refers to an ‘arc of Elen’ going from south-west England, up through Wales along the Sarn Helen, and into the north of England.

618455_f7616976The setting sun from the Isle of Lundy (Image © David Medcalf)

There’s not space to explore northern Helen and Elen associations in any detail, but perhaps it is useful to mention Harold Bayley’s intriguing reference to “a maiden way and an Elen’s causeway”. Bayley said this was located in the neighbourhood of the rivers Ken[t] and Lune in Cumbria, but he was unable to lay his hands on the source of this information. Nevertheless, there is the ‘Maiden Way’ running for 20 miles down from Hadrian’s Wall to Kirby Thore, and in 2016 it was discovered that this route extended down to Tebay (on the River Lune). Although the route is considered to be a Roman road, perhaps it could have earlier origins, just as Sarn Helen may well have.


To conclude this two-part article, the ancient Welsh roads known as Sarn Helen are likely to pre-date the person with whom they are most associated, Elen Luyddog (Elen of the Hosts), and whilst the Romans appear to have improved or paved them, there would have been ancient trackways used by indigenous peoples long before the Roman occupation. The explanation for ‘Helen’ may lie with the ancient goddess known as Elen of the Ways, or one of her other guises. She was said to have been the goddess of roads and travellers, and of the sunset in the west, and the longest surviving Sarn Helen route is in the west of Wales, so perhaps it should be viewed in that light (of the setting sun). Unless of course you believe in fairies…?

This article was written by Mark @ ASLAN Hub / The article should not to be copied, republished or extensively quoted without permission / For article bibliography see here

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