Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

This article was first published #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty on 21/06/2018 by zteve t evans

Elen of the Dream

Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further.  She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute.  Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully  encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?

Who was Elen?

Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.

She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.

There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.

Elen’s Power

From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …

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9 thoughts on “Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

  1. I am trying to get into reading a book you might enjoy, Zteve, if you you haven’t read it yet. It’s about a historical female pirate in 16th century, I believe it was, Ireland. The author has the hypothesis that women (e.g. Bodecia, which I’ve probably misspelled) were more commonly accepted into “male roles” such as warrior, soldier, etc. before Christianity and, thus, a patriarchal way of thinking and doing things permeated Britain and much of the West. Anyway, this post about Elen, whom I wasn’f familiar with until now, made me think of strong women throughout history (and so-called prehistory). Thanks for sharing your knowledge, as always!

    • Hi Leigh, lovely to hear from you! The pirate story sounds fascinating. I think the role of women was different in Celtic and other cultures before the rise of Christianity certainly for high-status women, who could and did lead and were very effective. In the research I did for some of the articles on #FolkloreThursday particularly the Albina and Guinevere ones it became apparent that there was a clash of philosophies happening in Medieval times which show in many of the legends and Arthurian stories which the patriarchal side won at least for a while, but there were still many clever and highly competent women in important roles we just do not hear so much about them, but I am glad to say that is changing

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Considering the national antipathy between Romans and Celts, the Dream of Macsen Wledig reads as a very mind-baffling story. While Elen is definitely portrayed with all the charm and power of Celtic women, Macsen is way too de-romanized and given the sentimentality of all the male heroes one encounters in the Mabinogion. Why the oral storytellers attempted at such an unorthodox union remains a mystery to me. Seemingly, there appear no missing pieces from the Dream of Macseb Wledig. The plot of the story appears tight. However, I think that initially the story must have been either fundametally different or much more illuminating in that regard.

    • I think the are at least two ways of reading the title. The first is someone having a dream. The second is someone desiring something. The Celtic imagery around in the Elen is important because it speaks of sovereignty. Britons of the day would have recognized this through the images. There is a lot more and I am slowly unraveling this for a different work. Anyway, its interesting to hear your thoughts on it and thanks for commenting, appreciated!

  3. Pingback: Via Under the influence!-Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons – Fang & Saucer

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