Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia

John Kraft, author or “The Goddess in the Labyrinth”[1] has shown that a labyrinth symbol accompanied by myths and rituals that appear to have been common in the Mediterranean world as well as in Afghanistan and India during the Bronze Age was adopted by contemporary Scandinavians. This universal labyrinth symbol has been found carved into rock surfaces as far north as Northern Norway. Real stone and turf labyrinths still abound in Scandinavia, especially along the coastlines, and particularly along the coastlines between Sweden and Finland. But most of these surviving labyrinths are much younger – only between 20 and 30 labyrinths date back to the Viking Age, whereas many have been built later, many as late as the 18th or 19th century.[2] ’

(See illustration with the distribution of labyrinths in Scandinavia at the bottom of this article.)

What connect the labyrinths across time and space is not only their shared design, but also essential myths or legends as well as rituals associated with them. It is well-known that walking the stone-labyrinths had a magical purpose: It was generally thought, up to the present time, that walking the stone labyrinths in the proper way gave fortune and protection, healing and magical aid – even fishermen used labyrinths in the hope of being able to control the weather and increase the catch, as well as protection against perils at sea.[3]

The labyrinths are frequently named after ancient and famous fortress cities, such as Jericho, Jerusalem, Niniveh, Babylon, Constantinople and most importantly; Troy. The latter is the most widespread city used to name labyrinths young and old in Scandinavia, to the degree that place-names such as Trojeborg indicate a former existence of turf-labyrinths in the area. These Troy-names are of an impressive age and are found in other geographical areas as well, such as Caerdroia (=City of Troy or City of Turnings) in Wales. The association between Troy and labyrinths is old, and on a ceramic vessel from Tragliatella in Italy, dating back to 600 BC, there is a labyrinth design with an Etruscan inscription reading “Troy” within the path of the labyrinth. This 600 BC labyrinth symbol is found next to an image of sexual intercourse.

The Virgin Dances in Finland


This ancient sexual association to labyrinths is repeatedly hinted at in much later Scandinavian sources. In Sweden and Finland, there are many tales as well as games where a girl is supposed to stand in the center of the labyrinth while young men have to work themselves through the winding path in order to “liberate her from her fortified prison”.[4] In Finland, it is not uncommon to name labyrinths “Virgin Dances”, obviously connected to the idea of a woman in the labyrinth. The explanation for this curious name for labyrinth is found in several 19th century reports of how young people would play and dance in the labyrinths: A virgin took her place in the center of the labyrinth, and the others would dance towards her, following the windings of the labyrinth. Often, only young men would approach and try to reach the girl first, sometimes in order to be able to dance with her.[5] That the idea was old is suggested by older finds, such as a 15th century wall painting from Sibbo church in Finland, where a woman with a beak-like face is depicted in the center of a labyrinth.[6]

The Virgin Circle in Sweden

From Sweden, there are similar reports. The folklore department of Åbo Akademi reported, as late as in 1985, that old people recalled that turf labyrinth games had been held secretly but regularly during bright summer nights: a girl would stand in the center of the labyrinth while a boy would try to reach her. If he could manage to reach her without taking any wrong turns, he should carry the girl out of the labyrinth the same way. If he was successful both ways, the girl belonged to him. The spectators would be singing and clapping their hands. An 80 year old woman remembered how the participants were sworn to secrecy and that there were many rules regarding symbolic objects and clothing, and that the outcome of the game was used to predict the joint future of the boy who had succeeded and of the girl who had waited in the center.[7]

In 1979, a person from a fishing village in northern Sweden reported that it had been common to let the most beautiful girl in the village stand in the center of the labyrinth while the men tried to seize her or reach her first.[8] According to a 1934 report from another place in northern Sweden, it was believed that the labyrinth was the home of trolls, and that the trolls had taken a girl and kept her captive in the labyrinth. All the people of the village were brought together, knowing that there was a troll´s lair in the mountain. They walked to and fro seven times before they could enter inside, and there they had to keep watch until the old troll fell asleep. After that, they rescued the crying girl.[9] Apparently, the ritual game had blurred in with reality.

In 1978, not far from Stockholm, Sweden, an old man told John Kraft of a labyrinth known locally as Jungfruringen – The Virgin Ring. As a little child at the beginning of the 20th century, he heard from old people how the labyrinth had been used previously: A girl was placed in the center, and two boys would race from the two entrances of this particular labyrinth. The goal was to reach the girl first. They both had to run the same distance and they would meet each other on the path somewhere on their way. The one who arrived first at the center could have the girl.[10]

In Västergötland, Sweden, a similar type of labyrinth game was reported in 1933: Here, people used to draw labyrinths in the snow on the ice during winter. The paths would be wide enough to skate on. In the center was a girl placed, who was called the “Bride of Grimborg”. Grimborg is a medieval legendary hero well known from many parts of Sweden. According to the song of Grimborg, the hero forced his way through fences of iron and steel in order to reach the beautiful daughter of a king. He had to fight the king´s men three times before the king allowed him to marry his daughter. In the skating labyrinth, a guard, like in the legend, would stand to protect the “castle” – that is, the labyrinth. The guard would try to mislead and stop the young man playing Grimborg, who was trying to find his way to the bride.[11]

British Mazes

Such ethnographic reports about labyrinth games abound in Scandinavia, but were also known in other parts of Northern Europe such as Germany and Britain. In Essex, the turf labyrinth at Saffron Walden is described in an 18th century manuscript:

“The Maze of Saffron Walden is the gathering place of the young men of the district who have a system of rules connected with walking the maze, and wagers in gallons of beer are frequently won or lost. For a time it was used by the beaux and belles of the town, a young maiden standing in the center, known as home, while the boy tried to get to her in record time without stumbling.”[12]

Although there are no more stories from Britain of the same kind, this particular story is clearly related to the Northern labyrinth traditions, and there are some other indications that this tradition also existed in Britain, such as several turf labyrinths known as “Julian Bower”. According to Michael Behrend, “Julian” or “Gillian” is a woman´s name while “bower” refers to a lady´s apartment. The name Julian, from the French Julienne, was one of the most common names in the late middle ages, so common that it came to mean a woman in general, so that the name “Julian/Gillian Bower” indicated that the labyrinths were love-nests.[13]

Rescuing the Sun Goddess


After looking closely at labyrinth legends and symbols, Kraft decides that the 1893 theory of Ernst Krause, who claimed that labyrinths in pagan times served as arenas for cult-dramas, where a hero every spring had to fight a winter-demon to be able to liberate the Sun, represented by the Sun-virgin, from the labyrinth castle, must be very close to the truth.[14]

Afghanistan and India


Kraft continues his study by reporting from Afghanistan, where a labyrinth drawing from Sutan is described as “Shamaili´s House”. According to local tradition, Shamaili was a princess concealed within the labyrinth, which only she knew how to enter. The legend tells the tale of how one young prince finally manages to trick his way into the labyrinth and become the husband of Shamaili. Likewise, in the Indian epos Ramayana, there is a myth about how the evil demon Ravana abducts Sita, the wife of the hero Rama, and brings her to his castle in Lanka. Rama has to rescue his wife from this fortress. After the victory, the hero and his wife circle around the magical fortress seven times, a number of times which is also reported in the Scandinavian labyrinth games. In a 1045 AD manuscript by the Iranian geographer Al-Bhiruni, the fortress Lanka is illustrated, made to look like a labyrinth with a woman in the center.[15] Kraft continues to argue the universality of the labyrinth legends, where the core issue always appears to be the rescue of a woman – who usually is placed in the center of the labyrinth.

The House of the Labyris – Minoan Origins


The word “labyrinth” is ancient and derives from Minoan Crete, which provides some of the oldest labyrinth designs. The Minoan labyrinth symbol was inspired by a real labyrinth – the Labyrinthos of Knossos in Crete. The name means “The Abode of the Labrys (=Double Axe)”. According to Rodney Castleden, archaeologist and author of Knossos- Temple of the Goddess, the name of the Labyrinthos suggests that its conceptual origins was the sacred caves in which worship in Crete was conducted before the great temples were built, since these caves have been found containing thousands of labyris – double axes – which was a symbol as important to Minoan religion as the cross is to Chrisians. The caves of Crete are indeed maze-like and may have provided a perfect location for initiation rituals where the initiate had to walk through the Underworld.

Likewise, the Labyrinth of Knossos descends underground into dark and red-painted chambers. Knossos is traditionally described as a “palace”, the “palace of King Minos”, but as Castleden shows, it was very likely a temple, and no sign of kings have been found at all. Its maze-like design was adapted to rituals of initiation leading into a great central court in which the famous Minoan bull-games were conducted. The temple was run by priestesses who also seem to have run the country itself, and dedicated to a goddess and to the sacred bull.

We know that the Minoans worshipped several goddesses who seem to be the prototypes of later Greek goddesses. The three dominating goddesses are each associated to three particular kinds of sanctuaries: the natural peak sanctuaries, the cave sanctuaries, and the artificial temple complexes and towns.

Britomartis – “The Sweet Maiden” – was worshipped at peak sanctuaries as the goddess of wild animals, akin to Artemis and Diana. She is also clearly related to an older Anatolian goddess known as Cybele, the mother goddess of the Phrygians, dwelling in rocky mountains and wilderness. It is likely that the Cretans mostly descend from Anatolian emigrants who left the continent around 6000 BC, and that they may have brought with them ancient religious elements from there. There are indeed some interesting symbolical and artistic style parallels between the early Neolithic townships of Anatolia, such as Catal Höyük and Hacilar, and the later Minoan Bronze Age art. Among these similarities is the iconography of the enthroned goddess flanked by felines: Like Cybele, Cretan Britomartis is usually shown flanked by two great felines, an iconography which reaches back to the earliest of human civilizations; a figurine of a powerful lady flanked by felines on both sides has been found at the site of Catal Höyük, dating back at least 9000 years. The same site has revealed several figurines where a lady handles or nurses great felines. 

Cybele was later adopted by the Romans, who believed she was the original Roman deity and gave her the title Magna Mater – The Great Mother. The most common iconography from this time onwards is the goddess driving a chariot drawn by two large felines. Interestingly, Snorri writes that Freyia, at Baldr´s funeral, arrived, “driving her cats”.[16] There are also archaeological and linguistic evidence that cats were associated with Freyia. Otherwise it seems that Norse myths associate the wilderness and the mountains with giantesses, of whom the most important one is Skaði, the goddess of skiing, who hunts in the mountains and likes the howling of wolves.

Next to the peak sanctuaries, the Minoans worshipped at caves, which abound in Crete. There appears to have been a goddess of caves called Eleuthia, associated with childbirth, midwifery and the Underworld, perhaps regarded as the Earth mother, recognizable as Rhea in later Greek myths. It has been suggested that the name is Greek, from the verb eleutho (ελεύθω), to bring, the goddess thus being The Bringer. But the Cretan Eleuthia could also be derived from eleutheria, which means “Freedom”. The earliest form of the name is the Mycenaean Greek e-re-u-ti-ja, written in Linear b syllabic script, which suggests a link to the Greek name Eileithyia, which according to Hesiod in 700 BC was a daughter of Hera. Pausanias, writing in the 2nd century AD reported that a Lycian poet called Olen composed a hymn for the Delians to the goddess Eileithyia, who is described as ‘the clever spinner‘, clearly identifying her with Fate, and makes her older than Cronus, who fathered the gods.

The caves, as we saw, may have provided the archaic prototype of the labyrinth temple. It is not known for certain what the goddess of the labyrinth was called, but the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in the first century BC that Knossos was the ancient temple of the goddess Rhea, the Mother of the Gods. In the last decades of the Labyrinth, the Great Goddess was called Potnia, which is a title and means The Lady (equivalent to the Old Norse name Freyia – “Lady”). A tablet refers to an offering of honey made to Labyrinthos Potnia – “The Lady of the Labyrinth” – a deity appearing as the chief goddess in Minoan religion. She was also a guardian of households and cities. It is very likely that Ariadne was the original, divine Lady of the Labyrinth.

Next to the “Divine Mother”, a god called Velchanos was worshipped as the “Divine Child”, a prototype of Dionysos. There is also a prototype of the god Zeus, nurtured in a great cave in Crete before he grew big enough to slay his cannibalistic father. But the male gods did not take precedence in Minoan religion, where the Lady reigned supreme. Such absolute predominance of female deities was common in many Mediterranean island cultures during the Bronze Age.

The Labyrinth temple was clearly associated with an initiation ritual, but we do not know exactly what kind. The complete lack of kings and other important single individuals in Crete suggest that the initiation was not one of royal inauguration as we see in the surrounding cultures contemporary to the Minoan era. Crete was ruled by collectives of men and women – particularly by priestesses who are depicted as larger than other human beings of both sexes in Minoan art. [17]

Theseus and Ariadne


In later Greek myths, we may see an echo of the memory of the initiation rituals that were conducted in the Labyrinth: The young hero Theseus has to enter the Labyrinth, which had been constructed by the master engineer Daidalos at the counsel of the Oracle at Delphi, in order to slay the half-man, half-bull Minotaurus who dwelled there and who craved human sacrifice. He was the son of the Minoan Queen, Pasiphäe, daughter of Helios the Sun god, and a white bull created by the god of the oceans, Poseidon.

The Minoan princess Ariadne [The Completely Pure One] saves the day by giving to Theseus a yarn of thread that will help him find his way out of the Labyrinth after he has slain the bull-man. Ariadne was originally a Minoan goddess worshipped in Crete, Naxos, Cyprus and Athens, identifiable with the Lady of the Labyrinth and with a later Roman goddess called Libera [“To Free”]. In Cyprus, she is called Aphrodite-Ariadne, thus identified with the goddess of love and beauty. In Naxos, she was worshipped as a vegetation goddess who died and was reborn every year, resembling Persephone, who spends half the year in Hades with her Underworld husband, and half the year on Earth with her mother, Demeter.

In the myth that has been left to us, Ariadne was not placed in the center of the labyrinth, but the core issue of “eloping with the bride” after labyrinth trials is the same as elsewhere. Originally, it seems, this is a myth of initiation where the initiate has to enter the Underworld (the Labyrinth) in order to conquer his monsters of fear, rage and hatred before he may be resurrected – a resurrection that is connected to the guidance of a goddess of death and resurrection to life.

However, the myth seems a bit distorted by negative Greek attitudes to the Minoan religion, accusing it of human sacrifice where the real issue may have been initiation through a symbolic death. The myth that has been left to us may indeed describe the end of the Minoan religion, since the death of the Minotaur means the end of the “human sacrifice” of maidens and youths that according to the myth took place there until the bull-man was killed. Theseus takes the goddess with him from Crete, yet leaves her stranded at Naxos, where she falls in love with Dionysus. We know that Theseus represents the new and more aggressive and male-dominated culture that developed within the Mycenaean-Greek region towards the end of the Bronze Age and which conquered Crete after a terrible volcanic disaster which eventually led to the destruction of the temple of Knossos in 1380 BC.

The Scandinavian Cult-Labyrinth in Pagan Times


The oldest sources to labyrinth mythology clearly suggests that the “virgin” in the Labyrinth was originally a goddess, and that the trials of the hero who tried to reach her was a matter of ritual and ceremony. Labyrinth rituals may have taken several forms: It appears obvious that the theme of waking the Sun goddess from her winter slumber or else the Earth goddess may have been an important concept in this regard. But the theme of initiation is just as powerful, related to either a Sacred Marriage ritual or to something like a Mystical Union. The one purpose may not necessarily exclude the other. In Scandinavia, Kraft points out that all the most ancient labyrinths are situated in the heart of very old farmlands, often in prehistoric gravefields and close to some of the most important medieval churches. In the same areas, there are many place names which indicate ancient Pagan cult-centers dedicated to a male-female couple. The most important deities associated with labyrinthine geography are the old god Ullr and the goddess Nerthus or Härn (a name for Freyia which means “Flax” and symbolizes fate). These deities most connected to the labyrinths are very old and had lost their previous dominant significance by the time of the Viking Age, suggesting that the origin of the cult-labyrinths is also very old.

In Old Norse, the word for “labyrinth” is Vǫlundarhús – literally translating as “The House of the Sacred Grove/Grove of Staffs”. The master smith and elf-king Vǫlundr [Sacred Grove or Grove of Staffs] has an Edda poem of his own, the Völundarkvíða, where he forges a precious ring of red gold to his lost wife Allvís [All-Knowing]. The wife was a valkyria, one of three fate-spinning norns found by the smith and his two brothers at the beginning of the poem. The three men and the three women live happily together for seven years. The eight year, the norns or valkyriur, also described as dísir and southern goddesses, begin to yearn for battles, and the ninth year, they leave their husbands. One brother searches for his lost wife to the south, another to the eaSt. But Vǫlundr remains at home forging seven hundred red golden rings, of which one belongs to his beloved wife All-Knowing. He is captured by the evil King Níðuðr [Undercurrent] who complains that he has found no “red gold” in various locations and paths associated with the initiation journey.[18] The elf-smith declares that the red gold existed when the three brothers and the three sisters lived together in harmony, a reply that makes the evil King very angry. At his Queen´s counsel, he places the smith on an islet and cuts his hamstrings. The smith takes a terrible revenge in which his red ring is restored to him by the King´s daughter, enabling him to escape in the shape of an eagle. The King´s daughter is left pregnant and is now called “the Woman of the Sacred Grove”, protected by the Elf lord.

In the poem, there is no actual mention of a labyrinth, except through the indication of the word for “labyrinth” and the name of the smith. The labyrinth of Knossos was also built by a master craftsman. There are, however, frequent mentions of groves, paths and the issue of “walking the full length of the entire hall”. Also, the Edda lore abounds with stories of a golden bright maiden hidden behind an impenetrable fortress within the Underworld, and the hero who has to face severe and dangerous trials before he can reach her and receive her blessed embrace, illuminating mead and sacred teachings.

There are indications that the oldest known Mystery school of Eleusis near Athens, Greece, was built by Cretan emigrants at the time of the destruction of the Labyrinth in Knossos. I believe that both the labyrinth legends and the Norse myths of the mead-maiden may be survivals of an initiation ritual that is closely related to that of ancient Mystery cults.


[1] Kraft, 1985

[2] Ibid, p.8

[3] Ibid, p.11

[4] Ibid p.15

[5] A.O.Freudenthal: Öfversigt af Östra Nylands fasta fornlemningar,Finska fornminnesföreningens Tidskrift 1, p.67, Helsingfors 1874, J.R. Aspelin: Steinlabyrinthe in Finland, Zeitskrift für Ethnologie, Teil 9, 1977, p.440, Berlin 1877, Johannes Klockars: Första boken om Malax, p.31, Helsingfors 1930 (in Kraft, 1985, p.15)

[6] Kraft, 1985, p.16

[7] Ibid, p.16-17

[8] Information from Peter Gustafsson at Skellefteå Museum, in Kraft, 1985, p.17

[9] Unpublished report (NO 6847) of the Ethnological Survey of the Nordic Museum, Stockholm, in Kraft, 1985, p.17

[10] Kraft, 1985, p.17

[11] Unpublished report (NO 5193) of the Ethnological Survey of the Nordic Museum, Stockholm, in Kraft, 1985, p.18-19


[12] Jeff Saward, A-mazing turf at Saffron Walden, Essex Countryside, April 1982, p.35, in Kraft, 1985, p.21

[13]Michael Behrend: Julian Bowers, Caerdroia 15, 1984, p.4-7, in Kraft, 1985, p.21-22

[14] Ernst Krause: Die Trojaburgen Nordeuropas, p.3, Glogau 1893, in Kraft, 1985, p.22

[15] Kraft, 1985, p.23-24

[16]en Freyja ók köttum sínum – «and Freya drove her cats», Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning, Prose Edda, 49

[17] Castleden, 1997

[18] Kvilhaug

9 Responses to Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia

  1. Ole Martin Rønning says:

    Jeg har sett på disse labyrintene som mulige minner fra en neolittisk kultur, Jeg har også sett noen av disse, og det merkelige er at både i Kandalaksa, Solovki og Varzina elv på nordkysten av Kolahalvøya har disse samme layout og må være gjort av de samme mennesker. Jeg spekulerer ikke hvorfor, eller hvilken betydning de har, men er kommet til at de 13 labyrintene fra Murmanskfjorden til Kandalaksa og Solovki øyene må være gjort av de samme mennesker. Derfor er det bare en forklaring, det må være norrøne som først kom dit med Ottars reise i 890 Ad og at det senere har blitt etablert norrøn bosetting der.
    Den som ligger ved Varzina har ikke vært gjenstand for oppmerksomhet
    Ole M. Rønning

  2. Pingback: The Labyrinth | Tried by Fire

  3. Pingback: Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia | Ars, Arte et Labore

  4. Bo S. Olsson says:

    Bemerk at man i spåktradisjonen kaller disse labyrintene for “Jungfrudansar” eller “Trojaborgar”.

  5. Pingback: Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia « WiccanWeb

  6. Tori says:

    What kind of rituals do you do?

  7. Erik M says:

    A pleasant change from all the “forn sed” gibberish published on the net recently. All those people who say that “we can’t possibly know anything about Old Norse religion, so we just make up our own rituals from scratch, as we go along”. How false, and how misleading when the facts are out there for all to see. Mr Kraft’s book is rare, and hard to come by, but very informative..

  8. wonderful issues altogether, you just won a new reader.

    What may you recommend in regards to your publish that you
    made some days ago? Any sure?

  9. Meridian says:

    I have been researching the Labyrinth since I found it on the Tor in Glastonbury, England, and came to similar conclusions on the meaning of the Labyrinth, which only reaffirms my suspicions based on your work. Thank you.

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