I remembered that it was on that hill that nurse taught me to play an old game called ‘Troy Town,’ in which one had to dance, and wind in and out on a pattern in the grass, and then when one had danced and turned long enough the other person asks you questions, and you can’t help answering whether you want to or not, and whatever you are told to do you feel you have to do it. Nurse said there used to be a lot of games like that that some people knew of, and there was one by which people could be turned into anything you liked, and an old man her great-grandmother had seen had known a girl who had been turned into a large snake. And there was another very ancient game of dancing and winding and turning, by which you could take a person out of himself and hide him away as long as you liked, and his body went walking about quite empty, without any sense in it.
This is an extract from “The Green Book” – a diary kept by an unnamed young girl – from Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen’s 1899 Weird Tale “The White People”. The journal itself forms the bulk of Machen’s story, with a framing narrative in which two men begin by discussing the true nature of good and evil, and end in discussing the contents of “The Green Book” and the fate of its adolescent author. “The White People” is one of Machen’s finest, and weirdest, stories and this is largely thanks to the wonderful, eerie voice which he gives to his diarist. She writes so much, yet leaves almost everything to the imagination of the reader. A passage from the very beginning of “The Green Book” reads:
I am going to write here many of the old secrets and some new ones; but there are some I shall not put down at all. I must not write down the real names of the days and months which I found out a year ago, nor the way to make the Aklo letters, or the Chian language, or the great beautiful Circles, nor the Mao Games, nor the chief songs. I may write something about all these things but not the way to do them, for peculiar reasons. And I must not say who the Nymphs are, or the Dôls, or Jeelo, or what voolas mean. All these are most secret secrets, and I am glad when I remember what they are, and how many wonderful languages I know, but there are some things that I call the secrets of the secrets of the secrets that I dare not think of unless I am quite alone, and then I shut my eyes, and put my hands over them and whisper the word, and the Alala comes.
“The White People” was a great favourite of American Weird Fiction author H. P. Lovecraft who called it “a triumph of skilful selectiveness and restraint” in his 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. Many of the supernatural seeds – hints of otherworldly names, languages, ceremonies, and even races – planted by Machen’s diarist have since blossomed in their own right, not least “the Aklo letters” mentioned above. Aklo was referenced in the diary of H. P. Lovecraft’s young occultist Wilbur Whatley in his heavily Machen inspired 1929 story “The Dunwich Horror”: “Today learned the Aklo for the Sabaoth […] I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it. He that came with the Aklo Sabaoth said I may be transfigured, there being much of outside to work on.” The “dark Aklo language used by certain cults of evil antiquity” is also mentioned in HPL’s final Weird Tale, “The Haunter of the Dark” (written in 1935). Following Lovecraft’s own references, the Aklo the language made its way into the wider Mythos and has since been referenced everywhere from the Pathfinder roleplaying games, to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. The “old game called ‘Troy Town’” mentioned in the quotation at the top of this essay sounds like yet another of Machen’s invented occult rites, but there is historic and even physical evidence of it, or at the very least of its namesakes.
THE LUSUS TROIAE
The Lusus Troiae (Game of Troy) was an ancient custom revived by Dictator of the Roman Republic Gaius Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Images on a 7th century BC Etruscan wine-server depicting a group of youths emerging from a labyrinth carrying clubs and shields with images of horses on them are argued by some to be the earliest surviving evidence of the rite. The Lusus Troiae was said to have been brought to Italy by the mythic Trojan hero Aeneas, through whose son, Ascanius, the (also mythic) Kings of Alba Longa learned of it and passed it down to Rome proper. Julius Caesar claimed to be a descendant of Aeneas’ son Lulus, and so the revival of the custom was a way of making clear his connection to those kings said to have ruled the place that was to become Rome for centuries before Romulus founded the city officially.
What then actually was the Lusus Troiae? It was an elaborate horseback drill performed (according to the most detailed account we have, from Virgil’s poem The Aenid, completed in 19 BC), by three troops of twelve riders, each also having a leader, and two armour-bearers. These men were too young for active military service and the display seems to have been intended not just as a means of demonstrating their horsemanship, but its public performance as a kind of rite of passage. While there were mock battle elements of the Lusus Troiae, it seems to have borne a closer resemblance to modern dressage where the horses perform a series of highly complex, choreographed movements. The troops would split and move in synchronization with their mirror opposites, turning and winding around and around their fellows in what must have been a fascinating and hypnotic spectacle. The cunning, yet invisible path the riders and their charges seemed to follow was described by Virgil like so:
In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say
The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,
Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways
Devised by guile, a maze insoluble,
Breaking down every clue to the way out.
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses,
Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes
Like dolphins in the drenching sea.
The Game of Troy was not truly Trojan then, its inspiration apparently stemming from that most potent and ancient of structures The Cretan Labyrinth. As we all know, after decapitating the Minotaur at the labyrinth’s heart, the Greek hero Theseus followed the thread he had let out behind him, leading all of the monster’s captives into safety. Theseus is said to have later performed a dance, or game (as in “an entertainment”), which mimicked his winding course through the labyrinth and this in time became an elaborate ceremony known as Geranos (Crane Dance). The Crane Dance in turn shares many aspects with the Greek Hyporchema – an energetic mimic dance which accompanied the songs used in the worship of the god Apollo. We may assume then that these Ancient Greek rites filtered down to the Romans, via their own mythic “founding fathers”, eventually becoming the Lusus Troia of Julius Caesar’s time. But how do these Greco-Roman traditional dances and movements bear any relation to the uncanny magical misadventures of Arthur Machen’s young diarist?
THE TROY TOWNS
Readers of our previous chapters will have noticed the frequency with which the name “Troy” is associated with the idea of the labyrinth.We find this association, for instance, in the case of the “Troy-towns” of Somerton and Hillbury, the “Walls of Troy” of the Cumberland Marshes and Appleby (Lincs), and the “Caerdroia” of the Welsh shepherds. In northern Europe we find it as “Troja” or in such combinations as “Trojeborg” or “Tröborg.” That this association is not of recent origin we have an interesting token in a reference which occurs in a fifteenth-century French manuscript preserved in the British Museum. This manuscript is the record of a journey made by the Seigneur de Caumont to Jerusalem in 1418, and is entitled “Voyaige d’oultremer en Jhérusalem.” Calling at the island of Crete en route, the Seigneur, like most other travellers on similar occasions, takes occasion to make a few remarks about the famous legend associated with it. He speaks of the “mervelleuse et orrible best qui fut appellé Minotaur,” who, he says, was confined within “celle entrigade meson faite par Dedalus, merveilleux maquanit, lequelle meson fut nominée Labarinte et aujourduy par moultz est vulguelmant appellé le cipté de Troie.” It would seem from the latter observation that the expression “Troy-town” or “City of Troy” was in general use 500 years ago as a title for the Cretan Labyrinth, and seeing that the renaissance of classical learning was as yet in embryo the inference is that the name was a popular tradition of some antiquity.
These are the opening paragraphs of chapter eighteen of W. H. Matthews’ 1922 book Mazes and Labyrinths – a General Account of their History and Development. Again we see the connections between Troy and the Cretan Labyrinth but here we find evidence for the word Troy actually being used as a term for labyrinth. In England the word has long been associated with a specific kind, the turf labyrinth.
A turf labyrinth is pretty much what it sounds like. A complex, winding pathway cut deliberately into an area of trimmed grass. People often use the term maze and labyrinth interchangeably but the difference between the two is simple: a maze has dead ends and is designed to be a challenge to navigate, whereas a labyrinth only has one winding route leading to, and from, its centre. Nevertheless the term turf maze – sometimes miz-maze – has been, and still often is, applied to turf labyrinths. Turf labyrinths are, by their very nature, high maintenance; if they are not tended regularly they will become overgrown and in a very few years disappear completely. Matthews listed a total of thirty-seven extant English turf labyrinths in his 1922 book, noting that there were once many more, including some in Scotland and Wales. Today, only eight historic turf labyrinths survive in England, only two of which still bear the name of Troy: The City of Troy in Dalby, North Yorkshire, and Troy at Troy Farm, Somerton, Oxfordshire. Saffron Walden is home to the largest, and some maintain oldest, surviving English turf labyrinth, a signpost there proclaiming:
THE LARGEST PUBLICLY-OWNED TURF CUT MAZE IN ENGLAND. DATE OF ORIGINAL CUTTING UNKNOWN. IN 1699, 15 SHILLINGS WAS PAID FOR RE-CUTTING THE MAZE.
The way in which turf labyrinths are created and kept makes dating them accurately extremely difficult. The earliest explicit written reference of any of England’s turf labyrinths seems to be when Gelyan Bower in Louth, Lincolnshire was mentioned (according to Matthews) in a record from 1544. While this might seem to indicate that claiming any of them as “ancient monuments” would be a bit of a stretch, one has to consider how England’s ancient monuments were thought of and treated by our ancestors. To use an example close to my own home here in Liverpool; the neolithic tomb from which the six decorated stones now known as The Calderstones came, was only originally recorded at all because of its proximity to a disputed boundary in 1568. Despite the (already ruined) tomb having stood on that spot for millennia, people took it so much for granted that there were no objections to it being destroyed to make way, and provide materials for, a house being built in the early 1800s. It was only when the six stones were arranged in an ornamental stone circle some fifty years or so later that 19th century antiquarians began to take note, and to draw their rather fanciful conclusions about them. Indeed, the earliest written reference to Stonehenge only dates back as far as the 12th century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded it in his Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), showing that even a ruin so huge and obviously ancient could be taken for granted by scholars for centuries upon centuries. It does seem strange, does it not, that no Roman historian ever wrote of the great stone monument.
With the links between the Game of Troy and Rome, is there any chance that England’s turf mazes may date back to the Roman invasion? In Mazes and Labyrinths, Matthews puts forward an interesting theory on the subject. Citing Pliny’s 1st century AD work Naturalis Historia (Natural History), Matthews points to the distinction made by the historian between the great labyrinths of the Egyptians and “what we see traced on our mosaic pavements or to the mazes formed in the fields for the entertainment of children“. From this, Matthews ponders the idea that the British turf labyrinths may originally have been cut by the Romans as entertainments for their children, perhaps in direct reference to the Lusus Troiae.
Assuming for the moment that such was the case, we are faced with some difficulty in accounting for the preservation throughout the intervening ages of a class of earthwork which, without attention, is liable to become effaced in a few decades. Is it likely that the Britons, after the Roman recall, would trouble to preserve the playgrounds of their late rulers’ children? Is it at all probable that the successive waves of immigrants, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Norse-men, would concern themselves with the maintenance of such alien frivolities? Is there not a chance that perhaps some of these invaders brought the custom with them? If we had to rely solely on our own historical records, we should find it extremely difficult to arrive at any conclusion in the matter.
LOST IN THE LABYRINTHS
Labyrinths were not the invention of the Romans, nor ancient Greeks, nor even of the ancient Egyptians, indeed some prehistoric examples still exist. A painted labyrinth on the ceiling of a cave in Sicily is believed by some historians to be five-thousand years old, one carved into the wall of a tomb in Sardinia perhaps four and a half thousand, and another Italian painting in Val Camonica maybe four-thousand. Ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) of proper labyrinths are rare yet widespread, with examples not just across Europe but as far away as Peru and Goa. Two very clear examples can be found engraved onto a shale outcrop at Rocky Valley, Cornwall. The date of their carving remains disputed however, because despite their similarities with Bronze Age petroglyphs (particularly with graven labyrinths in Galicia, Spain and Valcamonica, Italy), it appears they were carved with metal rather than stone tools. The suggestion has been put forward however, that the labyrinths were merely re-scored with metal tools at a later date, following the lines of the original, century faded, designs. When we see these carvings most of us tend to think of them as mere decoration, yet there is evidence that these are not simple patterns but rather images of actual labyrinths.
In the Solovetsky Islands, located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea, Russia, thirty-five Neolithic labyrinths (known locally as “vavilons” meaning “Babylons”) can be found. These stone labyrinths do not have high walls, rather they were constructed some five-thousand years ago by arranging boulders into spiralling patterns, paths forming between the rows of rocks. These rough stone walls were soon overgrown with moss and vegetation, making the resemblance between the ancient Russian labyrinths and the English turf mazes is striking and obvious.
A pair of, admittedly much more modern, labyrinths exist in Sør-Varanger in Finnmark county, Norway. A website dedicated to the area explains:
The labyrinth at the island of Kjø Island is overgrown and almost invisible, but at Holmengrå the maze is still easy to see […] These labyrinths are dated to approximately 1000-1600 AD, and are probably the remains of East Sami (East Lappish) culture and habitation. No written documentation about the use of the labyrinths exists, but one believes that it has been used in some kind of rituals.
Again, the resemblance, between the Holmengrå labyrinth and English turf labyrinths is great. The Saami are an ancient people; originally highly specialized seal hunters who also practised animal husbandry, farming, and metallurgy in ways analogous to the Norse. In the early fourteenth century they were assimilated by the Swedish state, Christianized and driven inland where many became nomadic reindeer herders. There are just over one-hundred-thousand Saami people in the world today, the vast majority of whom still live in Sápmi, or Lapland as we usually call it.
In his 2013 book Lapps and Labyrinths – Saami Prehistory, Colonization and Cultural Resilience, Noel D. Broadbent has the following to say of Saami labyrinths and their origins:
The stone labyrinth is the consummate symbol of Swedish colonization of the Bothnian coasts. There are more than three hundred known in Sweden, of which more than 156 are found between Soderhamn, south of Hornslandet, and the Finnish border. John Kraft, Sweden’s fore-most expert on labyrinths, calculated that of these, 128 are found on islands, 70 are within 200 m of herring fishing sites and an additional 19 are within 500 mi of fishing sites (Kraft 1977, 1982). Their association with medieval fisheries and old sailing routes is indisputable (Westerdahl 1995b), even those found upstream on rivers (Kraft 1977).
Like the Russian Neolithic vavilons, the Saami labyrinths are constructed from stone blocks arranged into walls. Archaeological evidence suggests that, in many cases, the stones used in their construction was taken from Iron Age huts which already stood on the islands. A method of dating the labyrinths via the lichen growing on these labyrinths seems to suggest that none pre-dates the 2nd century AD. Here Broadbent describes the rites which at least some or these Swedish labyrinths have been used for, and the difficulty in finding out about them:
Kraft (1977, 1982) has painstakingly gone through the historical materials, interviewed locals, mapped many sites himself and evaluated all the evidence regarding their functions. Ideas about them vary from pastimes by shipwrecked sailors to the Russian invasions of the 1700s and 1809, or children’s games and dances. In fact, there is a scarcity of oral histories about them and informants tended to profess ignorance or speak of strangers, implying a much more serious and an even ominous context. Fishing was a risky undertaking in the North and is still one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The labyrinths were physically associated with this working environment and were logically related to protection at sea and good luck in fishing. “Walking the labyrinth” was a way of magically entering dangerous waters, real or imagined, and then returning safely. Kraft has even documented this rite as having been performed as late as the 1950s (Kraft 1981:13).
The labyrinth is one of the most magical and universal of symbols and has been likened to the brain, the bowels and womb of Mother Earth, a city (Troy) and the cosmos. As a pathway, it relates to an individual’s journey through life, a pilgrimage and The Way (Puree 1974). It was readily adopted as a Christian symbol and is found in medieval European churches, especially in Italy and France (Bord 1976). In Sweden, labyrinths are found in Hablingbo church and by Frojel church on Gotland, in churches at Morklinta, Enkoping, Viby and Horn, as well as in Linkoping’s cathedral in southern Sweden. There are also labyrinths at Sibbo church in Finland, Telemark church in Norway, and Gerninge and Skive Old Church in Denmark (Kraft 1977:74).
Broadbent sees strong evidence that the labyrinths were built by Sammi Christian converts rather than being something more ancient. He cites other Saami customs – offerings being left in small stone circles, and the ritualised burying of bears – which there is also archaeological evidence of within these settlements, pre-dating the labyrinths by centuries, at least.
The earliest known example of a Christian labyrinth is a 4th century pavement labyrinth at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria. One of the most famous and influential church labyrinths was completed at the Gothic Catholic Chartres Cathedral, France in 1200. Some say church labyrinths are designed to be walked as an aid to prayer, some to aid contemplation, some as a form of penance, and some have suggested they were once intended as a form of compact pilgrimage. In fact, despite their still being in use and indeed newly installed in many Christian churches, the “true” meaning and purpose of even these labyrinths seems, if not lost, then at least subject to much speculation and interpretation. And this makes sense when one considers the very clear evidence presented above that labyrinths pre-date Christianity by thousands and thousands of years.
Was the labyrinth an invention of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, or was it a discovery? As Broadbent noted above, the pattern has been compared to the brain, the bowels, to the womb, to the stars in the heavens. Labyrinths, or proto-labyrinths, occur all around us in the natural world; in the rings of a felled tree, in the ripples rain send spreading upon a body of water, in the ridges on the tips of each of our fingers. Perfecting that design, tweaking the natural order ever so slightly to achieve something even more clean and clear – a path that could be followed all the way into, and out of, the heart of the thing – was, and is, nothing short of a magical act. The mastery of that pattern – and so many of the ancient labyrinths, regardless of there location, nevertheless do follow remarkably similar patterns – seems to have been a pivotal moment for them, and by extension for us. If you could trace the pattern with your finger, you could make and walk a larger version – travel in circuits designed by your own hand – and that would be a powerful act, even if you weren’t exactly sure why. It still is, and we still aren’t.
Returning to Machen’s diarist and her weird reminiscences about that old game called Troy Town, Matthews records something which I think is relevant:
A correspondent, “J. F.,” writing to Notes and Queries about the Alkborough Julian’s Bower [a turf labyrinth in North Lincolnshire] in 1866, says that he has lively impressions of the oft-repeated pleasure derived from the feat of “running it in and out,” in company with others, sixty years previously, and of seeing the villagers playing May-eve games about it, “under an indefinite persuasion of something unseen and unknown co-operating with them.” If this last-quoted phrase is anything more than a whim of retrospective old age it affords an interesting fragment of material for the student of “folk-memory.”
Once upon a time solving the labyrinth made us more than animal, yet within its walls, and at its heart, there still lurks something more than human. Something truly magical.
This article was originally published in June 2017 at patreon.com/johnreppion.
- “The White People” by Arthur Machen http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25016/25016-h/25016-h.htm#Page_111
- Mazes and Labyrinths – a General Account of their History and Development by W. H. Matthews, 1922 http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/ml/ml15.htm
- “The Calderstones of Liverpool” http://www.dailygrail.com/guest-articles/2013/3/the-calderstones-liverpool
- “The Ancient Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky” by April Holloway, 2010 http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/ancient-stone-labyrinths-bolshoi-zayatsky-001573?page=0%2C1
- Labyrinten på Holmengrå http://www.bealljecohkka.no/labyrint.htm
- Lapps and Labyrinths – Saami Prehistory, Colonization and Cultural Resilience by Noel D. Broadbent With contribution by Jan Stora, 2013