Essays - Elen of the Ways  -  Lady of the Ancient Trackways
by Caroline Wise
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 the 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, scared geometry, ancient sites and their
relationship to the landscape, and to a broader cosmology.   

Elen, 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 from 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 lone 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 being fleeing there only to be hanged there, 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.

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 Elen’s.) 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 Christiandom. Due to the
number of pilgrims flocking to the holy land, the Knights Templars and the
Knights Hospitalers are formed, 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 which she led
me to earlier? Well, in leading us to the True Cross, Elen leads once more to
amanita muscaria…

Tears of Helen

“The fungi are all derived form 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 New Testament in   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 the how 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 in 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 that the type of tree gives
affects the type of shamanic experience.

Allegro looks at the relationship of the pine to the amanita, Elate, 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 he 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’, and Allegro sees
“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 mushroom.” (The mushroom springing up
where the drops of resin, the tears of Helen, fall.)

Copyright Caroline Wise 2006


                                                                                        Priestess of Elen
I have been researching Elen for  nearly 30 years, and gave her the title Elen
of the Ways and Elen of the Trackways.
My book, which was delayed for eighteen months by my mother’s death, will be
out shortly.