Ueber labyrinth-förmige Steinsetzungen im Russischen Norden German flag


2. On labyrinth-shaped stone layouts in the Russian North; communicated by Academician von BAER. (Read 14 January 1842).

(With one illustration.)

While I was on a voyage in the Gulf of Finland in Summer 1838, the dropping of the wind caused us to land on the small and totally uninhabited island of Wier, which lies about 8 versts 1 verst = 3500 English feet = 1.0668 km south of Hochland. This island consists entirely of boulders, many of which are so round that one might believe they were shaped on a lathe. Some of them can be called perfectly spherical, and the eye cannot decide which axis is the shortest; in most of them, however, one axis is noticeably shorter or longer than the two others at right-angles to it. On the north coast these boulders form three very distinct terraces, as if recording three different levels of the sea, and lie over one another with no binding material, like cannon-balls in a huge artillery depot; further to the south, however, a very delicate plant cover and finally a thin turf has formed over them.

However, it is not the physical structure of this island that I wanted to take note of here, but a monument that has been left on it by human hands. On the completely bare part of the boulder deposit I noticed, as I wandered idly over it, the shape of a so-called labyrinth or maze put together out of these same rounded boulders. Stone layout on Wier Island Since the stones from which this figure is built are the same throughout as those that Nature has piled up here in a large deposit, the artificial arrangement of stones can easily be overlooked; but once noticed, it was impossible to miss the regularity, which was still almost entirely undisturbed. It seems pointless to describe the shape of this stone layout in detail, since it can be assumed that almost every reader has at some time vied with playmates to draw – in pencil on a slate, or perhaps on the ground – a labyrinth where a path winds about itself many times inside a circle, and emerges only at the single gap or opening. In any case, the attached drawing of this stone layout will make any further description unnecessary.

The labyrinth – as this stone layout may be called for short – on the island of Wier has nothing at all monumental about it; the diameter of the outer circle measures only some 6 cubits“cubit” for “Elle”, presumably = the Russian arshin = 28 English inches = 711.2 mm, or somewhat more, and the stones are only 5–8, or at most 10, inches thick. So I would not have hesitated for a moment to see here the work of idle seafarers waiting for a wind, just as we were, if I had not remembered seeing the same shape, much more extensive and built with larger blocks, in a ravine in Lapland near the village of Ponoi, and if on our desert island there were not further traces of human work, whose construction was of a more permanent nature. These are conical heaps of stone, which stand in considerable number in two mutually enclosing curved lines, and in respect of size fall into two classes. The larger ones are as high as a grown man can reach without artificial aid. On this island, where all means to make a scaffold are lacking, they can be built no higher; it is not possible to climb the stone heaps themselves, in order to build further, for the building blocks are much too round. Thus these cairns at least are not piled up by children. Whether they have any meaning apart from being mere signs of land, I will not presume to decide. They reminded me however of similar pyramids, made of broken-off pieces of rock, that I had often seen in Lapland and Novaya Zemlya. In the latter country we came across a stone pyramid on every mountain peak that we climbed. Man is so inclined to leave some trace of his existence, especially where he finds himself alone, that if he cannot write on rocks he at least scrawls his “I was here” with rock fragments, not caring whether his successor could puzzle out who the builder might have been.

But to return to labyrinths, I saw three on my last journey in the Russian portion of Lapland: one near the small uninhabited bay Vilovata, on the south coast, and two near the village of Ponoi, which lies on the River Ponoi about 12 versts from its mouth. The labyrinth of Vilovata lies on bare rock and the building stones are small sharp-edged pieces of rock debris; it is no bigger than the artwork on Wier island. Here too it had been completely preserved and was being preserved still, although another 11 Russian ships had come in with us to wait for a change of wind, and the crewmen young and old were strolling about on the surface of the rock. The two labyrinths near Ponoi lie on the floor of a river valley, albeit on a somewhat raised bank, which is probably no longer reached by the river, and is well grassed. They are much bigger than the others that I have seen, being 12 to 15 cubits in diameter, and are built of large rounded boulders. In one of these labyrinths especially, the building stones are of considerable weight and could only have been set up by the combined efforts of many strong men and some perseverance. It was these labyrinths that first made me think they could have some historical significance, for they seemed too large to be merely the outcome of boredom. Also, they had the marks of antiquity on them, for the heavy blocks were deeply sunk; and their position was still very completely preserved. But to disturb the order is for the inner paths, which consist of smaller stones, very easy. If this order, close to a village where there is no lack of children playing, has been preserved for centuries, there is very little doubt that at least in former times these stone layouts have had some value. Today, it is true, their preservation may have become only a matter of custom. In reply to my inquiries, all I could learn from the parish priest was that the labyrinths near Ponoi dated from very old times, but that it was not known who put them there, or for what purpose. A citizen of Kem assured me that such a stone layout was called Вавилонъ (Vavilon, i.e. Babylon); he was however unaware of any historical significance, but supposed they were an exercise in intelligence and skill. Even today, he thought, people built such things to show off their skill. The man may be right in thinking that such things are still built today merely for entertainment, and I will not decide whether the labyrinth in Vilovata Bay is not modern, for the building stones and the rock are both quite bare, without even a covering of lichen, so that signs of high antiquity are lacking. Only it was remarkable to me that youths of 15 to 18 years old, who gathered together just here from several ships, did not throw the easily-moved smaller blocks into confusion (and perhaps rearrange them), for youths generally take even more pleasure in destroying regular structures of no value than in building them.

At any rate the labyrinths near Ponoi are old, as I have already remarked, and old too was the labyrinth on Wier island, for the covering of lichens, which grow only here and certainly with unusual slowness, spread in places from a building stone onto the underlying scree.

Herr von Reguly, from Hungary, who has travelled through Finland as far as Lapland, tells me that a labyrinth of the same kind is said to exist on an island at the head of the Gulf of Bothnia, not far from the mouth of the River Kemi. He has not seen it himself, but only learnt of its existence from a native. It must however be large enough to impress, and not be just the outcome of a familiar children’s game, or else a native would not have mentioned the matter as something remarkable.

My conjecture that these northern labyrinths, of which I now know of four from my own observation and a fifth from a kind communication, were memorials, at least in earlier times, was confirmed for me in quite another way, when I was trying to familiarize myself with the negotiations over the claims to possession of Lapland, which were carried on for a long time between Russia and the Dano-Norwegian empire. Karamzin, who was able to look through at least part of the papers exchanged at that time, has unfortunately not told us much about the basis of the Russian demands. But he does narrate the following: When Russian plenipotentiaries arrived at Kola for the adjustment of the frontier, and did not find the Norwegians, they made inquiries among the natives about legends from olden times, and received the following account: “Among the Karelians there lived a famous ruler, named Valit or Varent, a vassal of Great Novgorod, a man of uncommon strength and courage. This man overran Lapland with war, in order to win the Murmansk district for himself. The Lapps sought help from the Norwegians, only for Valit to defeat the Norwegians too at the pogost (outpost) Лѣтный Варенской (Letnyy Varenskoy), i.e. on the bank of the Varanger Fjord; where, as a memorial through the centuries, he set up a huge stone over a fathom high, round which he reared a twelve-fold wall, and called it Babylon. This stone is even now called the Valit Stone. Just such a wall existed on the site of the future Kola ostrog (fortress). In Lapland there are still known a Valit’s Bay and a Valit’s Castle (Городище, Gorodishche) in the middle of an island or a rock, where the brave Karelian warrior used to take his rest in safety. To the fortunate Valit, who went by the Christian name of Vassili and was buried in Kexholm, the defeated Norwegians ceded Lapland as far as the River Ivger, and from then on the Lapps paid tribute to Novgorod.” – The Norwegians appealed against this northern hero to the works of Saxo Grammaticus and Münster’s Cosmographia. “The proofs on both sides were not very convincing”, says Karamzin, and gives us to understand that fable has here been bandied against fable.*1) Yet does this Valit really thus float away into the air, having no connection with anything in the modern or ancient world, like Saxo’s ancient heroes such as Frode the Peacebringer, who first conquered half the world and Finnmark too, and then, having cast down two hundred and twenty kings**2), gave to the world the peace during which Christ was born?***3)

First of all let us remark that there is indeed something in the world that bears the name of this Valit, namely Valitova Guba (Bay), on the extreme border of Russian Lapland in the district that was long disputed between Russia and Norway. Moreover, the oldest description of the Russian Empire, the Древняя Идрографiя (Drevnyaya Idrografiya), names here a Valitova Gorodishche. Whatever this Gorodishche may have been – a ruin, a memorial, or even just a rock – it holds Valit firmly to the ground. And we shall bind him down the more firmly if we ask why the hero, having already two names Valit and Varent, received yet a third? Answer: because neither Valit nor Varent was a personal name. Valit is in fact a root of many words in the Finnish language group, meaning a ruler; and in Varent a Vareng or Varäger is surely unmistakable. The man was called thus in the speech of Finland and Novgorod, as if we said: he is called Prince, but by Christian baptism his name is so-and-so. The Varanger Fjord however is probably named after him, for the Valitova Guba lies at the entrance to the Varanger Fjord.

But why did the man build his Babylon from a twelve-fold wall, seeing that elsewhere a double wall would have already seemed secure enough, if a single one was not satisfactory, while against the Lapps half a wall would have been sufficient? Answer: because building it was not difficult to him, for in Lapland the Walls of Babylon are built from simple rows of stone. I had heard tell in Lapland of such a memorial in the interior of the Varanger Fjord, later I found a description of it in Keilhau’s Journey to Finnmark*4), and recently I even received a picture of it from Herr von Galjävain, who 15 years ago made a definitive adjustment of the frontier between Russia and Norway. It shows a tall upright block of stone, surrounded by several stone rings, the outermost of which is not more than 12 cubits in diameter, and which appear, as Keilhau says, to be circular. But I believe that originally they would most likely not have formed complete circles, but a labyrinth, which, as we have seen, is called in Lapland Babylon, or in Russian Vavilon.

The small promontory, on which stands the historic monument that we have just been speaking of, is called Mortens Naes, or in English Martin’s Point, for Morten is the Danish name for Martin. This puts us in mind of a Lappish King Martin, who was in Drontheim in 1313 and there, after the Lappish tribute had been withheld for a long time, paid it and promised to pay it in future, and did homage to King Hakon**5). But three years later the Russians invaded Helgeland once again***6) and for a long time there was no more tribute from the Lapps (or Finns, as they were and are called in Norway), for the Norwegians on their own territory could not withstand the by now oft-repeated invasions of the Russians as far as Helgeland, and had to give up Lapland entirely. It is altogether too much of a coincidence, and from the context one is almost forced to identify these Russians with our Валитъ, Варентъ (Valit, Varent), who now appears under a fourth alias, as a Russian.

I must leave it to a future detailed work on the history of Lapland to show how the Novgoroders were for a long time the rulers in Lapland, and how, supported by the Karelians, they won and kept their rulership; that work may also discuss more fully the question whether the Norwegian Morten, the Novgoroder Varäger and the Karelian Valit were the same or different persons. Here I will content myself with pointing out how the appearance of this Lappish King Martin, even according to the accounts of Torfæus, falls directly in the period of strongest pressure of the Karelians and Russians against Lapland. In 1302 the Karelians penetrate the northern district of Norway. Troops have to be sent against them. Now the Lappish tribute fails to be paid. The king of Norway therefore sends out a trusted advisor to see how things stand in Lappish territory. This man finds King Martin, who lets himself be persuaded to come to Drontheim and, according to this report at least, pays the arrears of tribute and also promises to pay in future. But nothing comes of this: rather, the payment of the Lappish tribute to Norway ceases entirely, and now the Russians ravage as far as Helgeland, where they have not been seen before. Torfæus, who had certainly never heard of the accounts from Kola, does not hesitate to represent this King Martin as a good subject of the kings of Norway, although the outcome is completely against this. The memorial on Mortens Naes, at least, is not a memorial to subjection, for the Lapps call the site Victor’s Point*7). Also, Norwegian reports tell us that a certain Augmund Jungedanz was dispatched against the Karelians cum numeroso milite**8). That he was defeated they do not say, but the unpaid tribute proves it. But past and future fit very well together, if we allow that a certain Varäger of Novgorod set himself up as a leader to get a share of adventure and plunder. The Lappish tribute, which Norway has been collecting for a long time, is thus brought to a stop. Then King Hakon Magnusson sends an enterprising man, whose name has even been preserved for us by the story – he was called Gissur Galle – to Finnmark, to spy out how things stand there.*9). This man presses on as far as the Varanger Fjord, and there finds our adventurer, whom the Lapps call their king, and prevails on him to submit to the king of Norway and pay the arrears of tribute. Varäger accepts the invitation and appears in Drontheim as King Martin (whether or not he has previously borne this name, which was perhaps not much used in Novgorod), and also brings presents with him. But after he has investigated the condition of the country and learnt that in the northern regions there are only very isolated farms, he finds it much more pleasant to levy tribute from Helgeland on his own account, than to send tribute to Drontheim. Then the Norwegians will have sought him out in his hiding-place there and suffered a defeat, which the memorial on Mortens Naes may be assumed to record for posterity, if it is not already a reference to the defeat of Jungedanz. The king of Norway now seems to have complained bitterly of these Russian-Karelian plunderings to the Holy See, which in 1346, as it had so often done before, proclaimed a formal crusade against the heathen (i.e. non-Catholic) Russians, Karelians, and so forth; which Magnus Smeck, king of Sweden and Norway, carried out in 1348 with such ill-success that in the peace treaty the Novgoroders not only gained undisputed possession of the River Neva, but also had their rule over Lapland confirmed.

It would be inappropriate here to pursue the historical context any further. Our concern was only to show how, through the kind of stone layout that is known in our northern districts as Babylon, the old Norwegian and Russian reports on Lapland are brought into coherence and harmony, and that King Martin, whom Torfæus mentions only in a line, becomes a historical person – and thus to recommend this kind of stone layout to the attention of antiquaries.

Should this recommendation lead, as I hope, to the discovery of still more places where such stone layouts exist, it will then be possible for the first time to decide with confidence which people was the first to make use of them. That they originate in Scandinavia seems to me very doubtful, for I find them illustrated neither in the older works of Rudbeck and Ol. Worm, nor in the more recent comprehensive work of Sjöborg (Samlingar), nor again mentioned in the brief Guide to Northern AntiquityLedetraad til nordisk oldkyndighed, udg. af det Kongelige nordiske oldskrift-selskab, Copenhagen, 1836 published by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries. It is possible, of course, that this kind of stone layout is not altogether unknown to authorities on Scandinavian antiquities. But for now it seems more likely that it belongs to the Finnish people, or the Russian, which would give it a local interest. And then there would be cause to expect that it occurs in many places in our fatherland. My knowledgeable travelling companion, Professor von Middendorff, thinks he can remember that this stone layout is also known in Estonia, but more as an object of entertainment. That may be – even so, it is part of the national character.*10). In the preceding, however, I think I have shown that it was formerly used as a commemoration or monument, whatever its application my be today.

That the name Babylon or Вавилонъ can only have been used after the introduction of the Christian religion, little Christian though the city of Babylon was, is obvious. Whether the name is not younger than the thing itself is a question that, like many others, cannot be decided until we have a more complete knowledge of the distribution of this stone layout.

That labyrinth-shaped drawings are today a widespread pastime of Russian youth, I learn from many quarters, among others Dr. Dahl. Then last summer such a labyrinth was seen unearthed on Petrovski Island (Academician Brandt). From Russian youth the game may have been passed on to the German youth of Livonia, who are accustomed to draw this figure on slates, without however using the name Babylon, and without, as far as I know, executing it as a stone layout. In Germany even the game on slates seems to be little known, as I must conclude from communications sent by colleagues who were born there.

In southern Russia extensive ice-cellars are even today called Vavylony, proving that this word is also used for underground passages.

As I now see, my learned colleague Sjögren, who in his journey to Lapland heard of the monument on Mortens Naes, has already associated it with the Lappish king Martin of Torfæus, but without identifying him with Valit. The legend of Valit seems to him more a personification of the Karelian race.*11)

July 2012: In this Web version, the footnotes have been moved to the end and given numbers.

*1) Карамз. XI. ст. 44, прим. 56.
**2) Dahlmann’s Forschungen I. p. 243.
***3) Saxo Grammat. ed. L. V.
*4) Reise in Oest- og Vest-Finnmarken. Af B. M. Keilhau pp. 15–16.
**5) Torfæi hist. rer. Norveg. IV. p. 439.
***6) ibid. p. 442.
*7) Keilhau p. 15.
**8) Torf. IV. p. 410.
*9) Torf. IV p. 434.
*10) Many of the stone layouts that Sjöborg illustrates may be the work of children.
*11) Sjögren, Anteckningar om församlingarne i Kemi-Lappmark p. 386.