Thoughts on Elen

One of my favourite tales is Rosemary Sutcliff‘s Frontier Wolf, which I first read in primary school! It tells the story of Alexios Flavius Aquila, a young Roman officer, who is disgraced but ultimately regains his honour.

The story hinges around two parallel crises. In each case, Alexios is in command of a small unit of soldiers, besieged in a small fort by an overwhelming number of barbarians.

In the first case, he decides to abandon the fort with his remaining troops and try to escape to connect with the relief force he believes must be coming. It’s the wrong choice. The barbarians catch Alexios and his men in the open; the Romans are slaughtered. The relief troops arrive just in time to rescue Alexios; he will come to wish that he had died with his men.

The key issue, we learn, is that Alexios had already ordered the alarm brazier to be lit. This was a key piece of equipment in every Roman fort, intended to be used in just this situation. Wet wood and vegetation would be fired with oil, sending “a pillar of smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night”, alerting nearby garrisons of trouble. Standing orders were to sit tight and wait for rescue. If Alexios had done this, his men would have lived.

What’s this got to do with Elen?

In Welsh myth, Elen is a Welsh princess, and wife of the Romano-British emperor Macsen Wledig, who first saw her in a dream.

Elen, the tales tell us, persuaded Macsen to build roads across the Island of the Mighty, so that it might better be defended against invasion. For this reason, she is regarded as the patron goddess of roads, and the protector of travellers.

In modern pagan texts, I often see her referred to as “Elen of the Ways”, reflecting this connection with roads such as Sarn Helen. Many writers now seem to be associating her with forest paths and wandering ways.

It may be that She has now adopted these, but this isn’t how she is known in the Welsh tradition, where she is instead called “Elen of the Hosts”.

The Welsh, in other words, remember what Elen’s roads were for. Elen is the patron of Roman military roads, built straight as an arrow to get fierce warriors to war as quickly as possible.

When soldiers in trouble finally lit the emergency pyre, and watched the black smoke billowing towards the distant sky, they didn’t care what form the relief would take; they just prayed to see someone, anyone, marching towards them to save them. Marching, that is, along Elen’s roads.

Elen is the goddess of armed hosts; she is the goddess who brings help to those who are desperate and have no-one else to turn to. Elen herself does not directly intervene; she will open the way to whichever God is best able to help given the situation. Those who do not know who to pray to can call upon Elen, asking her to dispatch whatever help can be sent, whatever form it may take.

Of course, travellers can be ambushed or waylaid on the roads, so she protects them too. But she is, primarily, the Lady of the Hosts, the Opener of the Ways, sending help to those who can no longer help themselves.

And as for Alexios, what did he do when he once again found himself surrounded in a burning fort? Did he sit tight as he should have done before, or did he once again abandon his post? Sorry. You’ll have to read the book…

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