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Caerdroia - the Journal of Mazes & Labyrinths
Reprinted from Caerdroia 23 - 1990 - pp.32-37
Karl von Löwis of Menar mentioned an Estonian labyrinth situated at Tahkuna, on the
northern tip of Dagö, in 1912. In 1925 A.M.Tallgren mentioned two labyrinths: the
one at Tahkuna and another on the little island of Viirlaid. Peter Mey wrote an article
in the Estonian newspaper Päevaleht in 1931, where he mentions that there was a partly
preserved labyrinth on the island of Aegna near the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Mey
also mentions that there were labyrinths on the islands of Aski and Prangli in the
The next important step in Estonian labyrinth research was taken by two enthusiasts
in Tartu, Mart Rahi and Tonu Viik, who searched the archives, visited the locations
and looked for people who still knew about the labyrinths. Their results were published
in an article in 1978. Rahi and Viik have continued with their fieldwork since 1978
but have not published further. Through letters and on visits to Sweden they have
kept John Kraft informed of the results of their continued work. Rahi and Viik mention
a couple of labyrinths at Kootsaare on northern Dagö, one of which was probably preserved
and another that had been destroyed not long ago. They were also able to publish
more information about the labyrinths on the islands near Tallinn. On the island
of Aski there were two labyrinths, which they made drawings of, while on Aegna there
was one. The labyrinth (or labyrinths) on Prangli, mentioned by Peter Mey in 1931,
were not known by the local population on the island.
Labyrinths in Estonia
John Kraft & Urmas Selirand
The labyrinth carving from Ormsö
Modern stone labyrinth, Hiiessaare, Estonia, constructed 1996
Photo: Urmas Selirand
Photo and plan of the labyrinth at Kootsaare, excavated by Urmas Selirand in 1986
A local farmer told Urmas Selirand, director of the local museum on Dagö, about the
labyrinths at Kootsaare in 1984, and Urmas excavated one of these labyrinths in 1986.
In 1989 Urmas made contact with John Kraft, which led to an exchange of information
and plans for a joint "expedition" to excavate the second Kootsaare labyrinth during
the summer of 1990. This project was favoured by the political development in Estonia.
Earlier Dagö was closed territory, but since 1989 has been open to visitors with
a special permit. This opened the gates for the joint Swedish-Estonian excavation
in July 1990.
The work at Kootsaare was carried out on July 17th-21st 1990. The local farmer, Oskar
Kaibald, who had shown Urmas the location of the first labyrinth which was excavated
in 1986, had also told him that there had been three labyrinths altogether at this
place. He pointed out a place for the second labyrinth about 100 metres southeast
of the first labyrinth. Unfortunately he could not say where the third labyrinth
was situated. There were no visible traces of an intact labyrinth at the spot shown
by Oskar Kaibald, but the area was obviously very rich in stones of a suitable size,
while there were hardly any stones at all in the surrounding area. When the turf
was removed, a large number of stones were uncovered, but there were no preserved
traces of the stone "walls" of a labyrinth, on the contrary the stones had been piled
up into a couple of small "cairns" which must have been man-made. The fact that Oskar
Kaibald had pointed out the place as the location of another labyrinth and the fact
that here was a remarkable concentration of stones obviously arranged strongly indicates
that this is the location of a destroyed labyrinth.
The other target for our efforts was the labyrinth at Tahkuna, mentioned by Löwis
in 1912 with the remark that he had no detailed knowledge about it. Would we be the
lucky ones to find it? Could a labyrinth have been preserved and hidden here on the
northern tip of Dagö for such a long time without being reported and described? We
spent a day searching a large area from the lighthouse in the north to the ruins
of a coastal battery from World War II in the south, but we found no trace of the
This was all that came of our expedition, but Urmas had a little surprise that compensated
for much of the disappointment at Kootsaare and Tahkuna. One of his friends, Vello
Pohia, who had been working on a film crew, had recently been allowed into one of
the windmills at the large open-air museum at Rocca al Mare, near Tallinn. On one
of the walls he discovered a labyrinth, so far the only known labyrinth carving in
Estonia. According to the records kept by the museum the windmill was built in 1748
on Ormsö, an island with a Swedish-speaking population. It was later moved to the
village of Sutlepa in Noarootsi parish on the mainland, which was also inhabited
by Swedes. Finally the windmill was moved from Sutlepa to the museum in 1958. Its
history confirms the general impression that the labyrinths in Estonia were limited
to the small areas dominated by Swedes.
Some interesting labyrinth names are known in Estonia. The inhabitants of Prangli
used to call one of the two labyrinths on Aski island Türgi linn (Turkish city).
The preserved labyrinth at Kootsaare was called Jeruusalem. Peter Mey mentions in
his 1931 article that Jeruusalemma linn and Türgi linn, made of stones, were common
among the coastal population in the old days. School children used to play Jeruusalemma
mäng (game of Jerusalem) on the blackboard, but Mey does not explain how it was played.
These names fit perfectly into the widespread pattern of describing labyrinths as
famous cities or fortresses. Several labyrinths in Sweden and Finland have borrowed
their names from Jerusalem, but the name Türgi linn is unique to Estonia. Could it
refer to Constantinople?
On Dagö there are a couple of Estonian place names that might have some kind of connection
with old labyrinth lore. One is the place name Neitsikoppel (virgin enclosure) at
Korgessaare, which is mentioned by Rahi and Viik. The other is Neitsisäär (virgin
leg) at Kopu, which Urmas Selirand has found in an old local tale. Both places are
situated in an area that was under Swedish influence until 1781, when most of the
Swedes on northern Dagö were deported to the southern Ukraine. Unfortunately it is
no longer possible to find out exactly where these two places were situated.
Some of the labyrinths in Estonia are connected with local folk traditions explaining
their use and how they were built. Mart Rahi and Tonu Viik mentions a report in the
Estonian Museum of Literature (ERA II, 229, LA3) where it is told that the Kootsaare
labyrinth was believed to have been built by a shipwrecked seaman who had managed
to survive. Oskar Kaibald has told Urmas Selirand the same story and added that one
could easily enter the labyrinth but never get out again. Jörgen Hedman from Stockholm
was told in 1990 by Viljam Greis on Dagö that his grandfather's sister, Greta Greis
(born 1866), said that the labyrinth at Kootsaare was built by shipwrecked soldiers
who had landed there.
Oskar Kaibald also told Urmas Selirand that seamen used to play in the Kootsaare
labyrinth before going out to sea, in order to have good winds and a good trip. In
his article in 1931 Peter Mey mentions an old fisherman who remembered that it was
possible to allay bad weather and storms by using a labyrinth. These stories fit
perfectly into the pattern of labyrinth folklore in Sweden. The story of a shipwrecked
seaman has many parallels, but such stories have probably been connected with labyrinths
by people who did not know about their original use and purpose. The two stories
from Estonia with hints about wind and weather magic are probably much closer to
the truth. They also have many parallels in Sweden and magic seems to have been the
real purpose for fisher-folk to build labyrinths.
Catalogue of Historic Stone Labyrinths in Estonia
Karl von Löwis of Menar first mentioned the labyrinth at Tahkuna on the northern
tip of Dagö in 1912, in a speech which was published in 1913. He had obviously not
seen it himself and he remarks that he has no details about it. No further information
has later been added about this labyrinth.
A.M.Tallgren mentions a labyrinth on the small island of "Viirlaid" in a book on
Estonian archaeology in 1925. He adds a question mark in parenthesis to the name
of the island, suggesting that this information was uncertain. Nobody has subsequently
confirmed this labyrinth location. Mart Rahi and Tonu Viik have suggested that this
ought to be the island of Viirelaid, situated between the large island of Saaremaa
and the mainland, but another possible interpretation should also be taken into consideration.
In one of the early classics of labyrinth research, from 1844, the Estonian natural
scientist Karl Ernst von Baer describes a labyrinth on the small, uninhabited, island
of Wier, approximately eight kilometres south of Hogland in the Gulf of Finland.
"-laid" is an Estonian word for "small island." This means that the "Viirlaid" mentioned
by Tallgren comes close to the island of "Wier" mentioned in 1844 by von Baer. Against
the latter interpretation is the fact that Wier belonged to Finland, although it
was situated close to Estonia. Tallgren came from Finland and he ought to have known
this, but it is nevertheless possible that he made a mistake. In favour is that the
island of Wier is situated in an area that is rich in labyrinths, while the island
of Viirelaid near Saaremaa seems more isolated from other labyrinths and from Swedish
The stone labyrinth on Wier Island, drawn by von Baer, 1844
A partly preserved labyrinth on Aegna island, near Tallinn, was mentioned by Peter
Mey in his article in the Päevaleht newspaper in 1931. It is situated in the village
of Eerikneeme. Mart Rahi and Tonu Viik have told John Kraft that this labyrinth was
partly destroyed by fortification works in World War 1. Heino Gustavsson could not
find the labyrinth when he looked for it in 1977, but Rahi and Viik later rediscovered
it, buried in the sand.
Peter Mey mentions Prangli in 1931 as one of the islands with labyrinths. But Rahi
and Viik say that the inhabitants on Prangli do not know of any labyrinths on their
Map showing the Estonian labyrinths and the areas that were populated by Swedes in
Estonia (shaded), based on the work of Paul Johansen, 1951
Modern stone labyrinth, Suursadam, Estonia, constructed 1998
Estonia has at least five, and maybe as many as nine, historic stone labyrinths documented.
They are all situated on islands along the coast, in those parts of Estonia that
were colonized by Swedish speaking farmers and fishers during the mediaeval period.
This pattern of distribution can be compared with Finland where most stone labyrinths
are also found along the coast in areas where Swedish speaking farmers and fishers
settled in the early mediaeval. The most reasonable interpretation of this pattern
is that the idea of building and using stone labyrinths was part of the cultural
heritage brought in from the west by Swedish settlers.
Peter Mey also mentions Aksi as one of the islands with labyrinths and Heino Gustavsson
has found and described two labyrinths on the island. Tonu Viik and Mart Rahi made
drawings of them when they visited Aksi. According to local tradition, a young Swedish
officer David Weckman, who came to Aksi when the Swedish fortress of Sveaborg at
Helsinki surrendered to the Russians in 1808, built the oldest one. His initials
"DW" and the figures "1849" are marked in stones close to the entrance of the labyrinth.
It is generally believed that 1849 is the year when Weckman built the labyrinth.
The other labyrinth, on the NW tip of Aksi, seems to be younger. Immediately north
of the labyrinth are some letters built of stones: "EKA 1914". According to Viik
and Rahi these are the initials of Ewald Konstantin Aksberg and the year when the
labyrinth was built. Harald Aksberg, who comes from Aksi and later moved to Sweden,
has told John Kraft that the labyrinth was built in 1915 and that children often
played in it. The people living on Prangli used to call the oldest of the Aksi labyrinths
Türgi linn (Turkish city). This labyrinth is situated only 50 metres from the seashore
and 3-4 metres above sea level.
Right: left, the older and right, the younger of the two labyrinths on Aksi, drawn
by Rahi and Viik
Up to three labyrinths have been reported at Kootsaare on the island of Dagö. Rahi
and Viik mention Kootsaare in their article in 1978. In December 1982 they told John
Kraft about a visit "last autumn" to Kootsaare where they met an elderly woman, who
remembered that in her childhood (about 1900-1910) there were two labyrinths situated
200-300 metres from each other. One of these was found but she could not discover
the other in the dense bush. Rahi and Viik described the labyrinth they saw as "destroyed".
They were unable even to determine its type. In 1984 a local farmer, Oskar Kaibald,
told Urmas Selirand about the labyrinths at Kootsaare. Kaibald had settled in a farm
close to the labyrinths as recently as 1946, but he had heard from an elderly woman
in the neighbourhood about the labyrinths. According to Kaibald there were three:
one "big", which he had shown Selirand in 1984, and two smaller examples. Kaibald
also pointed out the site of one of the smaller ones, but was not able to find the
third. Kaibald told Selirand that according to the elderly woman the large labyrinth
was called Jeruusalem. Selirand excavated this labyrinth in 1986 and made a drawing
of it. It has eight walls and is either of classical design with a central cross
or opened cross at its centre. The labyrinth is eight metres in diameter and has
the entrance to the north. Oskar Kaibald died in 1988. Two years later the other
site he had pointed out at Kootsaare was excavated by Urmas Selirand and John Kraft
(see description above).
John Kraft & Urmas Selirand, 1990.
von Baer, Karl Ernst, 1844. "Ueber labyrinth-förmige Steinsetzungen im Russichen
Norden." Bulletin de la Classe Historico-Phiologique de l'Academie imperiale de Sciences
de St.Petersbourg. Tome premier, p.70-80. St.Petersbourg & Leipzig. von Löwis of Menar,
Karl, 1913. "Trojaburgen." Jahrbuch des Vereins für Heimatkunde in Livland 1911/12,
p.83-91. Riga. Mey, Peter, 1931. "Troojalinnad Eestis." Päevaleht, nr.206. Rahi, Mart
and Viik, Tonu, 1978. "Kivilabürindid Eestis." Eestis Loodus, May 1978, p.315-317. Tallgren,
A.M., 1925. Zur Archäologie Eestis, II, p.171. Dorpat.