Fragments of myth: Elen, Ahès, and the giant women who build the roads

I’ve always loved the story of Elen of the Hosts, in ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’, from the medieval Welsh manuscript The Mabinogion. I love the way that Elen, a Welsh noblewoman, draws Macsen (Magnus Maximus, emperor of Rome) to her along the old dream-paths. I love the fact that when he finally sends his men to find her, she declares that she will not go to him: the Emperor of Rome must come to her. The symbology in the story makes it clear that Elen is a representative of Sovereignty, the old goddess of the land who bestows kingship where she pleases, and this story clearly emerges out of an old native mythical tradition.

I’m also fascinated by the way that this particular story, emerging out of that oral native tradition, interfaces with the actual history of Magnus Maximus (and the ways in which his character perhaps takes on, as at least one academic has suggested, the qualities of other Roman leaders of the time, creating a kind of ‘Macsen complex’). Not to mention the mystery sounding the character of Elen, who may also be a composite character, perhaps based partly on St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, with whom she is often conflated. But it seems highly likely that she is based on an older tutelary figure from the native tradition. One of the most fascinating parts of Elen’s story is that, after she marries Macsen, she asks for three great castles to be built for her; and when the castles have been built, Elen looks around her and declares that she will build great roads which connected one castle to the other. This part of the story ends in this way: Elen it was who caused the great roads of the land to be built, and her army watched over her roads and used them to travel up and down the country to keep it safe. And that is why they are called Sarnau Elen: the Causeways of Elen. For Elen was a native of this land, and the men of Britain would not have built such great roads for anyone other than her.

Elen it was who built the great roads, then, and so it is that some call her Elen of the Ways. It’s not as unlikely an idea as it may sound: in his ground-breaking book The Ancient Paths, historian Graham Robb argues convincingly that many of the roads attributed to the Romans actually were founded on old Celtic tracks which already formed a great network across Europe. These long, straight roads were created after exacting surveys and precise geometric analyses, because the Celtic peoples were surprisingly sophisticated astronomers and engineers. And so it is entirely possibly that these old causeways which are known as Sarnau Elen, as well as other such roads, were founded on paths which had been constructed and used by native people long before the arrival of the Romans.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig, by Alan Lee
The Dream of Macsen Wledig, by Alan Lee

More evidence that this story is from an old Brythonic mythological tradition comes from Brittany. When I was researching Breton mythology for If Women Rose Rooted, I had the great pleasure of meeting Pascal Lamour, a musician who specialises in native Breton lore. Pascal told me about the giantess Ahès, old goddess of the Osmises, the Gaulish tribes who occupied the land before the arrival of the British settlers. Ahès too is credited with the construction of causeways. The Roman roads throughout Brittany, then, are called the ‘Chemins d’Ahès’, or ‘Henchou Ahes’ (in Breton), and the stories say that Ahès built the roads herself, carrying with her the rocks and stones which were needed. Following the same mythical thread, we find that ‘Chemin d’Ahès’ is also a name given in Brittany to the Milky Way.

There is undoubtedly another thread here: European and Scandinavian mythology is replete with stories about giantesses. In this sense, Ahès also reflects the Gaelic figure of the Cailleach: the Old Woman who shaped the land, about whom I’ve written many things in these pages in the past. Like Ahès, the Cailleach too carried boulders, and is said to have created the hills when she dropped them from her apron. In turn, the Cailleach is reflected in the Brythonic tradition by the Groac’h, an old woman (in later folklore, sometimes a malevolent fairy) usually associated with water, and after whom old rock formations are named in Brittany.

And so fragments of the old threads remain; fragments of an old native tradition, ready to be woven again.

2 thoughts on “Fragments of myth: Elen, Ahès, and the giant women who build the roads

  1. I knew about Elen but hadn’t heard of Ahès. It’s great to hear about a female giant having such a powerful role in shaping the land in Brittany. In the best known Welsh myths most of the giants are male and their daughters little more than love interests. However I’m starting to find other female giants as I dig a bit deeper and ask questions.

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    1. For complicated reasons, Ahès is often (incorrectly) conflated with Dahut in Breton legend, and so her ‘true’ nature is rarely written about. Look forward to hearing about your giants! There are some to be found in Scandinavian mythology and if my memory serves me correctly, Germanic, but I haven’t formally put them all together yet.

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