Elen of the Ways – revisited

Back in April 2013, I wrote a Grove blog about Elen of the Ways. https://corieltauvigrove.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/elen-of-the-ways/

Since then, I’d been asked to speak more about my path working with Elen at our recent April 2015 Grove meeting. My talk expanded on the introduction I gave in my previous blog. Since my 2013 blog, there have been two books published about Elen of The Ways (links in blog comments) for those who may wish to explore Elen’s trackways further.

For me though, Elen is not found in the pages of a book, but is encountered as a Deer sometimes antlered goddess archetype of the land, as guardian of the trackways and dreamways. So illustrated with some items from my Elen altar, to show how I bring my work with Elen in to my spiritual practice, I shared some background about Elen and how I work with her.

DSC00265   DSC08063

Some of my Elen altar items                  Reindeer and red deer drums and malas

My talk led to an interesting debate about how animals who make themselves known to us in childhood may become our later lifelong animal guides and how these may link to respective deities. Although I was speaking specifically about Elen, a female antlered goddess/archetype, I’m drawn to all Deer and work also with Cernunnos and this led to a wider debate on the many links and overlap between antlered and horned deities in general; how deer of either sex may be figuratively depicted with antlers as a clear identifying deer characteristic; through aspects of shamanic shape shifting, to discussing aspects of the Dao. All told a typically wide ranging, esoteric Grove discussion.

Walking my path with Elen

I’ve been aware of a connection to Deer since childhood and more deeply since my teens when I became aware of Hind walking with me. I often sensed a deeper connection with Deer and sometimes a presence with them, a woman of the forest with deep red hair, clothed in leaves and the matter of the forest. Occasionally this lady had antlers sprouting from her head. Her name was never given to me. But then in the early 90s I found a postcard of an antlered goddess in Avebury Henge shop, shown in photo above. The card said her name was ‘Elen’. I also bought a card of a lady with a stag entitled ‘Encounter at Wistman’s Wood’. Both of these images spoke to me of the lady who appeared in my meditations or out on the land with Deer in nature. And now I had a name – Elen. I framed these cards and they’ve been on my wall now for over 20 years, in what is now my ever expanding Elen altar. In those days though, it was very difficult to find out more about Elen, but I knew then that I wasn’t the only one who saw this, sometimes antlered, Lady – guardian of Deer.

Years later via the internet, I found links to articles by Caroline Wise who’d been researching Elen of the Ways for many years and pictures by Chesca Potter who also envisioned Elen as an antlered goddess. Since then there has been a growing interest and connection with Elen of the Ways, with many now finding themselves called by Elen. As I said in my previous blog, my personal feeling is that the resurgence in perception of Elen as a deer/reindeer goddess is probably tapping in to a more ancient memory in the landscape and trackways of Britain that Elen evokes and guards, mirrored by the growing wild Deer population in Britain. I’m very fortunate to have gained some very ‘deer’ (sic) friends following Elen’s trackways with whom I spend time on the land, in meditation and on retreat.

Both Deer and Elen herself have guided me on paths and trackways. In meditations these tracks often appear as silvery threads and I may be led by Elen, my Hind and/or other deer through forests, moorlands, mountains, river valleys and out in to arctic lands where the deer are reindeer. I may be taken up high, as if viewing the earth from the top of a high mountain or even higher, with vistas as far as the horizon, with silvery threads radiating out across the landscape from various points. Following the ancient herd migratory tracks, to the power of the heart-hoof-drum-beat.

I’m drawn by the tracks of deer and reindeer, particularly to the arctic, west of Scotland etc landscapes where the energy of Elen and her herds of deer – reindeer recent and past, still call so strongly. I’ve been blessed to spend some time with the reindeer and Sámi reindeer herders on several visits to Sweden and Finland over the years and feel very lucky to be visiting the Cairngorms and Inchnadamph bone caves soon following the tracks of deer/reindeer past and present with some of our lovely Elen clan.

Elen may appear differently to each of us, but for me she’s strongly associated with liminal times, dreamtime, dusk, dawn. And different aspects of Elen resonate at different times of day and in and between seasons as maiden, mother and crone. I encounter Elen most strongly in the forest, in mountain and moorland landscapes and in her crone aspect in winter ice and snow in the arctic taiga and tundra. I find her particularly amongst the trees, especially oak, birch and pine. Her strongest link is to Deer/Reindeer, but along with some others in the Elen clan, I also find Elen strongly associated with Wolf, the Deer/Reindeer’s ancient predator. This predator-prey relationship is an ancient, primal dynamic and working with these different aspects can be transformational. Certainly walking Elen’s trackways has led me to a more shamanic spiritual practice, working closely with my Deer/reindeer and Wolf guides.

So who is Elen?

This is a summary of what I expanded on in my talk. If you don’t know about Elen, you might want to read my 2013 blog first.

In the Mabinogion in the Tale of Macsen Wledig (Elen of the Hosts (Elen Luyddog) is depicted as a Goddess of Sovereignty and solar deity. She appears to Macsen Wledig as a visionary dream and he follows his dream from Rome to Wales to find and marry her and in so doing marries the land. Elen is said to have inspired the building of the ancient roads and trackways across Britain, Sarn Elen in Wales being one of the most famous reputedly named after her.

“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 the 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 these great hostings for any save her.”

Rein-deer

Then there’s the aspect of Elen mythically associated with deer/reindeer and the archetype of the antlered goddess. Female reindeer (N American caribou) which once also roamed Britain and large parts of continental Europe also bear antlers and keep them for longer during the year than males, to enable them to feed beneath the winter snow and protect their calves. And it’s the migratory paths of the reindeer, leading on eventually to the native red and other deer that provide the link to Elen’s trackways. There’s on-going debate about whether Elen’s link to deer and in particular her depiction as an antlered goddess is an ancient or a relatively modern association. Although there’s no direct evidence of the historic worship of an antlered goddess specifically named Elen, there are many threads which support an ancient female deity linked to rein/deer and more specifically the link of Elen to deer.

My previous blog highlighted the etymological links of various names for Deer/Reindeer with the El prefix from the Gaelic/Celtic, Baltic, Slavic countries. The El prefix is said to derive from two roots: proto indo-European meaning red-brown as in colour of deer and links to names e.g. Elen, Elena, Ilona with an Hungaro-turkic root where El means mother of life, linking to deer as mother of life and often depicted as one of the primary forms of birth-giving goddesses, creatrix of life and protector of reindeer.

I spoke about the traditionally Shamanic/animistic cultures of the indigenous arctic people, who still live and work with reindeer, where there are numerous different traditions revering deities linked with the reindeer herds and links between the souls of reindeer and humans. Such as the Sámi Sun deity Beaivi / Beivve represented as either male or female in different aspects and Sámi tribe traditions. In the aspect as the returning sun maiden, Beaivi is typically depicted with her daughter Beaivi nieida in an enclosure (cart) of reindeer antlers /bones, bringing the sun back across the sky after winter. Beaivi is also credited with the herding and domestication of wild reindeer, with the reindeer said to have been birthed from the sun and gifted to human kind, and in some Sámi tribe legends, the Sámi people themselves are also borne from the sun, sharing the same heritage as the reindeer. The Kola Sámi termed the reindeer goddess – Lady of the reindeer, who was mistress of wild animals, whilst the Evenki tribe called the reindeer goddess Bugady – mother of the universe and the Russian goddess Rozhanitsa – mother goddess of North, was often depicted as a rein/deer.

On the Mongolian steppe and beyond there are numerous Bronze Age ‘reindeer stones’, with link to solar aspects and where the reindeer are depicted sometimes as ‘flying’ or leaping in to the sky, often with the sun – solar disc between their antlers. The mummified bodies of some Pazyryk people were also found tattooed with ‘flying’ reindeer. This imagery of flying reindeer is strong amongst the arctic people and reflects the shamanic practices of ‘spirit flight’ as or with the reindeer.

Through time, as the ice sheets retreated and climate changed, the reindeer retreated north, but some authors and folklorists propose that the memory of these ancient reindeer god/desses may have continued and evolved in to the later Deer goddesses of Europe.

Classically some link Elen to the goddesses Artemis (Greek) and Diana (Roman) who are both also closely associated with deer and are huntress protectors of their respective domains. There are numerous Scottish folklore tales of deer goddesses and/or their deer priestesses, with links to aspects of the Cailleach. The Cailleach Bhéara/Beare (Irish) is thought to have been imported in to Scotland as Cailleach Bheurr, where she is more directly attributed as a Deer goddess. And from Irish mythology, Sadbh enchanted as a white deer, who became the wife of Fionn mac Cumhaill, who protected her within his fort. However, she was tricked out and returned to deer form and forever lost to Fionn, though he later came across his son Oisin (little fawn) in the woods, who had been raised by Sadbh as a hind. Also Flidais of the Tuatha Dé Danann, goddess of animals, woodlands and fertility, was said to ride in a chariot drawn by deer and “as goddess of the domestic herds” had a magical cow of plenty.

For more information about Elen, see the links in the comments box of this blog and my previous Elen blog.

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3 Responses to Elen of the Ways – revisited

  1. briseilid says:

    For those wanting to find out more about Elen, check out the links in my previous 2013 Elen blog. https://corieltauvigrove.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/elen-of-the-ways/

    Since then, these books have also been published which reference what I spoke about.
    – Finding Elen – The Quest for Elen of The Ways – Caroline Wise
    – Shaman Pathways – Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods – Elen Sentier

    Not about Elen specifically, but for more about reindeer and reindeer tribes – factual and spiritual these previously published books are personal favourites:
    – Creation’s Heartbeat – Following the Reindeer Spirit- Linda Schierse Leonard
    – Reindeer People – (Living with animals and spirits in Siberia) Piers Vitebsky

    For more information on the ‘Reindeer stones’, this is an interesting article. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/16342/anth_arctic_anthr_deer_stones_and_shamans_46_1-2.pdf?sequence=1

  2. locksley2010 says:

    Brilliant work there Briseilid! Other parts of conversation that came to mind involve the name of the rune ‘Algiz’ or ‘Elk’ the a being substituted for e as the two were interchangeable in the Norse tongue. Also you talked about how Reindeer is the only deer that can be milked. We discussed how this is parallel with the ‘Cow of Plenty’ and that the older British and Irish myths may have possibly been trying to describe Ice age customs. Sort of. 😊

  3. briseilid says:

    Thanks Locksley 🙂 and yes indeed we did discuss Algiz and the milking of reindeer too! I edited my original draft of the blog quite extensively as it was already waaaayyyy too long (and still is tbh!), so the milking of the reindeer was one of the edits I made. And Algiz too! I had so much to say. 😉

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