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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.