Reading the new book Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways,I began to feel what I was really doing was refinding myself.
Let me explain. Back in the 1980s, it was OK to dream. It was OK to find spiritual significance in visions and see the numinous in the world around us. Then scientists and historians stepped in and told us it wasn’t. Instead of following our dreams, we had to follow in their footsteps. Academic rigour was what was required on the pagan path, not psychic inspiration.
And, in some ways, the scientists and historians were right. To be taken seriously, we needed to check our facts. We needed to read old documents to see if what we thought was done in the past really was; we needed to dig up bones and do tests to see if the ancestors we venerate really are the ancestors we thought they were. We needed to check our maps are accurate, otherwise we could be pixie-led into the Wonderful World of Woo, never to return again.
Back in 1981, in the hey-day of psychic questing and earth mysteries, Caroline Wise was part of the Dragon Project – an interdisciplinary investigation into the ideas that certain prehistoric sites had unusual forces or energies associated with them. At the Rollright Stones, she had a strange vision of an old trackway. Later, while reading a booklet about legends associated with St Helen and St Elen of Wales, she had another vision, of a deer inviting her to follow it on a woodland trail. These led her, and a group of colleagues including Chesca Potter and Andrew Collins, to try to trace an ancient and elusive pagan Goddess, who Caroline named Elen of the Ways. They saw Elen as an ancient antlered Goddess of paths, reindeer, water sources and sovereignty.
In 1986 Caroline wrote a book called Elen of the Shimmering Ways, now long out of print, and later published information about Elen on a website. These sparked a huge interest among the pagan community in the Goddess Elen. Many have tried to follow her and some have published material about her based on their own experience and research.
Yet Elen of the Ways has always been elusive. Historical and archaeological evidence for her is scant - and we live in the post The Triumph of the Moondays when historical and archaeological evidence are considered very important. For some, they are all-important. But is there still a place in pagan spirituality for books that balance solid research with accounts of visionary experiences?
Finding Elen shows that there is. Caroline Wise's new book, which came out earlier this month, puts facts and folklore side by side, not trying to pretend one is the other, but setting them out for readers to take what they want. One of the many things associated with Elen is the cornucopia - and in some ways this book is a cornucopia of information about Elen - tales, history, geography, travelogues, descriptions of visionary quests and lore about shamanic herbs and plants.
Caroline Wise says at the end of the book: "Elen Luydogg, St Helena, Nehelennia, a tree nympth, Helen of Troy, Greek Goddesses, a Lily Maid, Illona the Fairy Queen, Arinna of the Spring, and a Scandinavian deer who returns the sun, all led to finding Elen. Each was a fruitful path to follow. For most of the contributors to this book she led at first along the dream paths and we found the Deer Mother ancestor... The track she has taken my friends and me down was not always straight... It is as if the figure of Elen has awakened, and many are hearing her call."
I hope that Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Waysleads the way for more books of this kind, that tread the scenic path between the well-signposted road of academic rigour and the Fool's journey to the cliff-edge. It is one of the most important books I have read in a long time and has helped me refind my own way in exploring where visions may take me.
Links and previous related posts
Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways