The Ancient Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky
The labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky
The Solovetsky Islands (or Solovki), are an archipelago located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea, Russia. It is here where there can be found thirty-five Neolithic labyrinths, known as ‘vavilons’ (‘Babylons’) in the local dialect, which date back to around 3,000 BC. The most remarkable are the stone labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky Island, a group of fourteen labyrinths in a 0.4km 2 area. They are particularly well preserved and have been documented and speculated about, without any definite conclusions being reached as to their purpose.
In addition to the labyrinths, as many as 850 heaps of boulders have been found on the island, many containing bone fragments. Other stone formations discovered on the island include a representation of the sun, complete with radial spokes. It is generally agreed that these ancient labyrinths and stone formations were related to spiritual beliefs, and may have symbolized a border of sorts between the material world and the underworld – the mythical abode of the dead.
The labyrinths are constructed from boulders placed on the surface of the ground, and it has been determined that these boulders were gathered locally. The smallest labyrinth measures around six meters in diameter, with the largest being 25.4 meters in diameter. The rows of boulders form spirals, with some consisting of two spirals, described as resembling two serpents with their heads in the centre. The entrances to the labyrinths are mostly on the south and while there are five different settings, they each have only one entrance/exit point. All the labyrinths on Bolshoi Zayatsky are found on the western side of the island, while the eastern part of the island features a significant collection of stone formations, but no labyrinths. Although the labyrinths have become quite overgrown with the island's shrub-like vegetation, their shapes remain clearly visible.
One of the stone labyrinths on Bolshoi Zayatsky Island
Why were the labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky built?
Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain why the Neolithic settlers of the Solovetsky Islands went to the considerable effort of constructing numerous stone labyrinths.
In the 1970's, the predominant hypothesis, advanced by N. Gurina, was that the labyrinths were built as traps for fish. Evidence comes from the fact that all of the labyrinths in the region were built close to the sea and water levels were much higher 5,000 years ago, when it is believed they were constructed. The fish would have swum in through the entrance and become trapped in the labyrinth, making it easier for fisherman to retrieve their catch. However, the major flaw in this argument is that numerous labyrinths have been found inland throughout the world.
Researcher L. Ershov had a different theory. Ershov maintained that within the lines of labyrinths was the schematic reflection of both the sun's and moon's orbits, thus the labyrinths were used as calendars. However, this has been debated on the basis that labyrinths do not have a consistent direction of entrance.
One theory popular today, particularly among esoteric circles, is that a labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It represents a journey to our own centre and back again out into the world. Walking the labyrinth can be considered an initiation in which one awakens the knowledge. It is believed that walking the path of the labyrinth brings about a change to one’s state of consciousness and the perception of time and space. Indeed, Vlad Abramov, a researcher who explored the labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky, described the surreal experience of walking the twisting and turning paths of the labyrinth.
After entering a labyrinth and circle several times around the centre you leave it through the same entrance. Just after several turns it becomes unclear how much you have walked and how much more to walk. Subjectively, the time stops, but by watch the great labyrinth is passed in 15 minutes. It is difficult to think about something collateral; the path is narrow and you are required to look permanently underfoot. The path is twisting clockwise and anticlockwise. At last – the exit; and you are happy that the journey is over.
Despite the theories presented above, and numerous others, the accepted theory today, and one which has been put forward by Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter, is that the construction of the labyrinths was linked to religious beliefs. Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits, as defined paths for ritual dances, and/or as a symbol for the barrier between this world and the underworld. It is speculated that the labyrinths may have been included in rituals to assist the souls of those who have died to cross over to the underworld. Archaeologist A.L. Nikitin suggests that labyrinths, as indicated in legends, point the way to the ‘entrances’ and ‘exits’ of a subterranean kingdom which could be opened only by those who knew the ‘magic key’ to this back door.