The vast majority of stone labyrinths in the Nordic countries are fairly recent in
origin -not older than 900 years. This means that they werebuilt in Christian times,
but several stories connected with them reveal that their purpose and use had little
to do with the new religion. On the contrary, they give us a taste of the old Pagan
It seems as if people who were particularly exposed to the hazards of nature have
continued to practice the old magic in the labyrinths. The traces of old fertility
cults soon faded away, but in many areas in Finland and Sweden, labyrinths were still
built and used by superstitious people who thought these twisting and winding paths
would help them to overcome different difficulties. At several places these Pagan
customs survived into the 20th century.
Fishermen probably used labyrinths for protection against the perils of the sea,
and probably also to increase their catch. Lapps and shepherds have used labyrinths
for protection against wolves and wolverines, and it seems as if labyrinths have
also been used as protection against other threats and as a remedy for mental illnesses.
In fact, they seem to have served a multitude of different magic purposes.
In this article I want to present a number of examples indicating that labyrinths
have certainly been used for magical purposes.
1) The local historian J.A. Udde, from Haparanda in northern Sweden, has told me
that he has heard that labyrinths in the archipelago outside Haparanda, Luleå and
further south were built to calm strong winds. If the labyrinths had “seven rounds”
one should walk it “out and in” seven times. If it had “eleven rounds” one should
walk it eleven times. Udde says that older people often found this walking tiresome
and preferred to instruct children to do it.
Fig.1:Stone labyrinth at Revonsaari, on the bank of the River Torne in northern
Drawing by John Kraft, 1982.
According to a local tradition it was built in the early 19th century by a man who
was well known for his knowledge of sorcery. He used to walk in the stone-figure
as a preparation before doing important things.
2) Udde told me in 1982 about two brothers named Tano from the village of Mattila
on the banks of the river Torne, north of Haparanda. According to reports from their
neighbours, they used to walk in a nearby labyrinth before they examined their fishing
nets. They often walked in the labyrinth. Udde, who heard of this in the 1950’s,
has the impression that it must have happened around the turn of the century.
3) In 1952, the province-antiquarian of the museum of Umeå, Gunnar Westin, wrote
in a book that he had recently heard that labyrinths were used to improve the fishing.
4) The Journalist Olle Wikström wrote in 1982 about an old fisherman of the parish
of Nederkalix, who told him that in the old days, people thought there were “little
people” (smågubbar) who could bring bad luck to the fishing, if they came along in
the boats when the nets were examined. But -if one walked the labyrinth to the centre,
then the “bad luck people” would accompany you. From the centre, one should run as
fast as possible to the boat, and immediately put to sea, The smågubbar would be
left behind still trying to retrace their steps out of the labyrinth.
5) Eva Eskilsson, a teacher from Härnösand, wrote in a newspaper article in 1973
that an old pilot had told her about sailors who used to build labyrinths when waiting
in harbour, because of bad weather, The purpose of the labyrinths was that thewind
should blow into the figure and get lost or be caught in it.
In another article for a newspaper in 1974, Eva Eskilsson refers to Otto Lundström,
a local historian from the parish of Husum, who had heard from “old people” that
the wind could be controlled if one built a labyrinth.
In an unsigned newspaper article from the same area in 1945, we learn that labyrinths
were built in order to appease theweather or the deities ofweather -particularly
the deity of the north-west winds. My research shows that this unsigned article was
probably written by a chief pilot, Fridolf Engström from Haraskär. Otto Lundström
confirmed for me that one of his sources, who had told him that labyrinths were used
for magical wind control, was the father of Fridolf Engström. Eva Eskilsson died
before I had the opportunity to check her sources, but I know that she had been in
contact with Fridolf Engström, so it was probably to him she refers when she writes
about “an old pilot.”
6) A number of other examples come from the archipelago east of Stockholm, Gösta
Janssen, a photographer from the parish of Rådmansö, told me that he had heard that
people used to walk the labyrinth when they laid their nets, in order to exorcise
evil ghosts and to secure a good catch. The purpose could also have been to bring
luck with the weather and to ensure good winds.
7) Ake Janhem, who has written books about the Stockholm archipelago for sailing
enthusiasts, wrote about a labyrinth on the small island of Svenska Högarna in 1965:
It was important to follow the path of the labyrinth to the centre and out again.
If one can manage that, it will bring luck and success, but bad luck will follow
if one jumps over the stone walls.
8) The journalist Anders Öhman wrote the following in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter
If one succeeds in finding the way to the centre without jumping over the stones,
and after that finds the way out again, then one can expect luck and success, according
to the local tradition among the people living in the archipelago.
This last account sounds very much like Ake Janhem's report, published 12 years earlier,
but Anders Öhman has told me that he heard it from his own father, who was a fisherman
from the small town of Trosa. Öhman repeated:
If one walked the proper way through the labyrinth, all would go well. But if one
walked the wrong way, things would go badly.
9) The author Einar Malm wrote about the labyrinth on the island of Svenska Högarna
in 1952. He describes it as:
A stone labyrinth bringing magic hapiness to anyone who succeeded in walking through
the twisting path without displacing any of the stones.
I interviewed Einar Malm, but he could not remember the source of this statement.
10) When the labyrinth researcher Bo Stjernström was working on a labyrinth on the
small island of Bergen, he heard from people living nearby on Ornö that according
to "old people" the labyrinth was walked to bring luck for the fishing.
11) I have only a single similar record from Norway. S. Sörenson wrote in 1872 about
a labyrinth called “Truber Slot”, at the mouth of the Oslo Fjord. According to local
legend it had been built by a virgin, who in this way secured favourable winds for
12) Mart Rahi, of the University of Tartu in Estonia, told me that old Estonianfishermen
remembered that it was possible to allay bad weather and storms using a labyrinth.
13) The most recent and exciting example comes from the small fishing village of
Kuggören in northern Sweden. It seems that the old magical practices connected with
labyrinths were still performed here in the 1950’s. A fisherman from Södermöja, in
the archipelago east of Stockholm already mentioned, told me that he sailed to Kuggören
in his fishing boat in 1955. There he saw an old man running through a large labyrinth
and at the same time spitting in his hand, or on something in his hand, and throwing
it backwards over his shoulder. The purpose was to bring luck for the fishing; probably
for his sons who were out at sea fishing at the time. It was obvious that the old
man thought he was doing this in secret, without being discovered by anyone.
Unfortunately the old main died in 1963, several years before I heard of him and
visited Kuggören. None of the inhabitants, would confirm for me that the old man
had practiced magic in the labyrinth, but it is obvious that he was well known for
his “sorcery”. He was often asked to help people when their animals were ill. He
used “steel” (editor's note: the use of iron as a protective charm for humans and
livestock is well known and documented in northern Europe) to cure diseases, and
he could staunch blood. His daughter in law told me that before he died he wanted
to teach his sons about his magic secrets, but they showed no interest. As a matter
of fact, hardly anyone in Kuggören could understand why I was so keen on finding
out about that old man -who might have been the last surviving labyrinth magician
of northern Europe!
17) The Lapps also practiced magic in labyrinths. One report from Gällivare in northern
Sweden mentions that three old Lapps talked about stone figures resembling labyrinths,
situated in places the Lapps used for sacrifice or magical rites. They also made
the following confusing remark:
The belief in prophecies within a 'labyrint-borg' was considered to have been strong
enough to move other’s reindeer over long distances.
18) Labyrinths among the Lapps are also mentioned in an old 18th century poem. One
of these verses describes how the Lapps used labyrinths forprotecting their reindeer
from the ravages of wolverines.
John Kraft, Västerås, Sweden; July 1986.
These examples are all taken from a lecture given at a symposium on maritime history
in Örnsköldsvik in 1982. It was published the same year (John Kraft, “Labyrinter
I magins tjänst”, in Bottnisk kontakt, maritimhistorisk konferens Örnsköldsviks Museum
12 -14 February 1982, pp. 90-101 and 112. Örnsköldsvik 1982). This article, written
in Swedish, contains all references to the sources mentioned.
Labyrinth magic has not only been practiced in relation to fishing. There are also
a few examples of other types of use.
14) In the parish of Fridlevstad in southern Sweden is the labyrinth of Tvingelshed,
quite far from the sea. It was probably built about 1870 -80. I have been told by
a local historian, Rikard Svensson, that when he wasa small child, at the beginning
of the 20th century, he heard from an old man that the labyrinth had been used to
cure mental illness and that it was not a place where children ought to be playing.
15) In a report from Skår, 5 km west of Alingsås in south-western Sweden, there is
a description (with a simple sketch) of stone figures that were probably labyrinths.
They have not since been located. In the report they are called “trollcirklar” (troll’s
circles) and it is mentioned that their purpose was to scare evil gnomes and give
protection against the “evil.”
Fig.3: The labyrinth at Hedared
Drawing by John Kraft, 1978.
16) At Hedared, near the town of Borås in south-western Sweden, I excavated a labyrinth
which had been hidden under moss. An old farmer in the neighbourhood told me that
his grandfather (born in 1832) had told him long ago that shepherd boys had used
the labyrinth for protection from wolves. They thought that wolves were confused
by the winding path. The labyrinth probably dates from the 18th or early 19th century.