The heART of Ritual


Labyrinths and Mazes

Rocky Valley labyrinth rock carvings in Cornwall, England

Labyrinths and mazes are well documented in Ireland and western Europe in general, also in the Mediterranean, but lesser known are the labyrinths and mazes of Northern Europe, which is what this article hopes to highlight.

As long ago as 1838, Dr. E. von Baer, whilst held up by bad weather on the uninhabited island of Wier, south of Hochland in the Gulf of Finland, observed a curious pattern formed in the ground by means of large pebbles. He also noticed several very similar arrangements on the southern coast of the peninsula of Lappland and presented a paper on the subject to the Academy of St. Petersburg. In some of these figures the stones employed were small pebbles, in other instances they were as large as a child's head, and in one case they were so large that they required several strong men to lift them. Some of the figures had nearly disappeared through the action of moss, earthworms, etc.

In 1877, Dr. J. R. Aspelin, of Helsingfors, drew attention to the existence of similar figures in Finland and on the east coast of Sweden. He describes some of the figures as having one "centre," others two, and others again none at all. They are usually from ten to fifteen yards in diameter. One large specimen, nearly twenty yards across, at Wisby, on the Island of Gothland, is of a design very similar to the circular labyrinth which appears on certain coins of Knossos. They were generally found on islands or close to the sea-coast, and were known by various names in different localities.

The fishermen and peasants said that they were used for children's games, a girl standing at the centre whilst the boys raced for her along the winding paths; but Dr. Aspelin pointed out that they were in any case ancient remains, and thought that the idea might have originated in the Bronze Age.

Corresponding figures have been found in Iceland, and a somewhat similar arrangement, consisting of concentric circles of pebbles, with sometimes a cross at the centre, has long been known in the province of Brandenburg, Germany.

The names given to these devices in the various localities in which they occur are of some interest. Around the Finnish coasts the names Jatulintarha (Giant's Fence) and Pietarinleikki (St. Peter's Game) predominate. Around Helsingfors the figures are more frequently spoken of as "Ruins of Jerusalem," "City of Nineveh," or "Walls of Jericho." In the neighbourhood of Viborg they are known as Jätinkatu (Giant's Street), Kivitarha (Stone-fence), or Lissabon. In Lappland a common term is Babylon; in Iceland, where the mazes are sometimes formed of earth, the name applied is Völundarhus (Wieland's, or Weyland's, House). In Norway and Sweden they are sometimes called Nunnentarha (Nun's Fence), Jungfrudans (Maiden's Dance), or Rundborg (Round Castle), and on an island in the Kattegat the name Trelleborg (The Troll's, or Giant's, Castle) is found; but more frequently they are known by some name akin to our "Troy-town," such as Trojin, Trojeburg, Trojenborg, or Tröborg. Another name sometimes associated with them was Steintanz (Stone Dance). The Wisby labyrinth is named Tröjeborg.

That labyrinths of some kind were also known in olden Denmark appears from the works of the seventeenth-century Danish antiquary Olaf Worm, one of whose woodcuts shows the symbol engraved on an ancient cross.

If, as the above considerations lead us to guess, the use of labyrinthine figures was a common feature of the northern peoples before the Norse invasion of Britain, we may wonder whether there is any evidence of the use of the symbol by earlier inhabitants of the same parts; are there any indications of this nature to be found among the relics of prehistoric man in the northern countries?

Well, there are certain remains which have been held to afford an affirmative reply to this question. The remarkable prehistoric rock engravings in Northumberland and the Borders, first noticed about a hundred years ago and described in detail by Mr. G. Tate in 1864, are very suggestive in this connection. They include many figures of a character closely approaching that of a circular labyrinth, but no actual design of the conventional Cretan type has been discovered.

Buttony 4 Prehistoric Rock Art, Doddington, Northumberland. Source: Tumblr

In Figs. 129 and 130 are seen examples found on rocks at Routing Linn and Old Bewick respectively. The engravings are as much as three or four feet in diameter, and in many cases are interconnected by grooves which terminate at their cup-like centres. They often coalesce and interconnect to form mazy patterns of great complexity. The greater number consist merely of a series of concentric circles around a central cup, the circles in some cases being interrupted along a radial line which is generally occupied by a straight groove. Their origin and purpose are very obscure. Very similar rock engravings have been found, though not in such profusion, in other parts of Great Britain, as far north as the Orkneys, and as far south as Devonshire, and also in the south west of Ireland. In other parts of Ireland the engravings have chiefly the shape of a simple spiral.

There is strong suggestion of the labyrinth idea in the elaborate series of engravings which adorn the stones of a cromlech on the island of Gav’r Innis, off the coast of Brittany.

Further reading: Mazes and Labyrinths: A General Account of their History and Development, by William Henry Matthews