The Stone Labyrinths of Gotland

Labyrinth at Frojel, Gotland
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Over the past few years I’ve been exploring English turf mazes, and now it was time to discover their predecessors, the stone labyrinths of Scandinavia. My destination was the Swedish island of Gotland, home to more than 40 stone labyrinths, both old and new.

Labyrinth at Sodra Hallarna, Gotland
Looking down on the modern labyrinth at Sodra Hallarna Nature Reserve

Ancient Labyrinths of Gotland

There are more than 500 stone labyrinths across Scandinavia, some of them reputed to date back to the Bronze Age. They are generally sited on islands or by the sea, and may have served a variety of religious or ritual purposes. It is known that it was traditional for fishermen to walk the labyrinths as a way of ridding themselves of evil spirits before setting out to sea. They would lure the spirits to the centre of the maze, leaving them struggling to escape while the fishermen ran back to their boats.

Labyrinth outside the church at Fröjel
Pinnable image of the medieval labyrinth at Frojel

The oldest labyrinths on Gotland are medieval. The first one I found was in the churchyard at Fröjel. The name of the village (derived from the goddess Freya) suggests that this was the centre of a heathen cult; perhaps the labyrinth was associated with fertility rites. My next stop was also at a church (Gotland is known as the “Island of a hundred churches”). This one was at Hablingo, where the labyrinth is an old fresco on the western wall. Intriguingly, there is also a small (and faint) graffito of a labyrinth on an adjoining wall.

Labyrinth at Hablingo, Gotland
Not just stone labyrinths – labyrinths are everywhere, like this fresco in the church at Hablingo

The Trojaborg Labyrinth, Visby

Gotland’s most famous labyrinth is Trojaborg, on the outskirts of the capital city Visby. According to legend it was built by a princess who was held captive in a nearby cave. She laid out one stone a day and her captors were so impressed by the finished labyrinth that they set her free. (At the rate of one stone a day it must have been many years before she got home!)

Trojaborg, Visby, Gotland
Trojaborg, the ancient stone labyrinth at Visby

Whatever the truth of the story it is likely that Trojaborg had pagan origins. Visby was a major trading port in the Middle Ages, but before that it was an important cult place. For many centuries the labyrinth was used for midsummer celebrations and each year at the end of April fires were lit on the nearby hill to mark the arrival of spring. And maze games continue to be played here: my AirBNB host in Gotland told us she remembered running around the labyrinth when she was much younger.

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Modern Stone Labyrinths on Gotland

There is also a more recent tradition of building labyrinths, and many of those on Gotland were created in the 19th century or later. I visited the Sodra Hallarna Nature Reserve, where I stood on a cliff top and looked down on a classical 7-circuit maze, finished in time for the Spring equinox in 2008. And outside the cathedral in Visby was a modern pavement maze, built from brick and similar in design to a Roman labyrinth.

Pavement maze in Visby, Gotland
Modern pavement maze outside the Cathedral in Visby

My tour ended with a mystery. I found a labyrinth in the grounds of the ruined Cistercian monastery of Romakloster (where the ghosts of monks still roam). But I have been unable to find any information about it. Is it old or is it new? Was it built for religious reasons, or is it a modern work of art? I stood in the deserted monastery, the evening sun setting behind me, and contemplated the twists and turns of the maze. Somehow it seemed appropriate that it should remain an enigma.

Labyrinth at Romakloster, Gotland
The mysterious stone labyrinth at Romakloster, Gotland

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9 thoughts on “The Stone Labyrinths of Gotland”

  1. That’s quite a few labyrinths. They are beautiful. I haven’t walked one in years since my college days. My campus at St. Kates in St. Pauls had on on campus and used to walk it all the time 🙂

  2. These are fascinating, I had never heard of them until we got to Europe, the village we housesit in England has one on the village green but it is not a stone one…..it makes me wonder how they became linked with Christianity

    1. Hi Michele, as with other things (such as festivals) pagan rituals were often adapted to Christianity. Which village were you in? I will have a blog post about it somewhere.

  3. We’ve seen some “New Age” type labyrinths in Costa Rica and Curacao but I found your post of the ancient labyrinths to be fascinating as well as the legends that accompany them. I loved the story about the fishermen walking the labyrinth before they set out to sea. It’s so interesting to learn about people from long ago and their beliefs and rituals! Anita

  4. Hello,

    I want to know where you found the information about the labyrinth at Romakloster, Gotland. Because there is no one there… Your website is the only place where you can read about it and I live and work at Romakloster and no one have heard about it…

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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