This is part 2 of a convoluted path towards interpreting an old remote labyrinth I sought out and visited in Iceland in June 2021. This post will make little sense without first reading part 1, subtitled “Trolls, Christianity, and ‘Excrement Bay’.” There I introduce the labyrinth at Dritvík, the sole pre-modern surviving stone maze in Iceland. Then I get seemingly sidetracked on the odd Icelandic saga Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, where the weird but amusing name of the bay is first given and explained. More than just the source of the name Dritvík (politely, “Excrement Bay”), however, I came to view the saga as illustrative of phenomena that I am convinced explain features of the labyrinth there, about which there is confusion and disagreement among researchers. The first installment can be found HERE.

Ancient Dan checks out the Dritvík labyrinth with the glacier-covered volcano Snæfellsjökull in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

Labyrinths in Iceland and the one at Dritvík

Early geographers and ethnographers of Iceland published four pre-modern stone labyrinths in western Iceland. Only the one at Dritvík, at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, could be located in August of 1997 by labyrinth savant Jeff Saward.[1] In addition to the full-sized examples, three labyrinths are represented by carvings in bed boards of the 18th and 19th centuries held by the National Museum of Iceland (see footnote 19 below).

The Dritvík labyrinth was first documented in 1900 by Brynjúlf Jónsson, who conducted archaeological reconnaissance in Snæfellsnes the previous summer.[2] One of his few published drawings was a plan of the Dritvík labyrinth, which is the source of the mild controversy over this structure. By the time of Saward’s visit 98 years later, the labyrinth was covered by a “thick blanket of moss and lichens,” but he seems to accept that it conformed to Jónsson’s plan.[3] The Dritvík labyrinth was restored (apparently in 2000)[4] and the Saward’s excellent 2003 book contains a photo of the newly restored work with a layout that appears different from the 1900 plan.[5] My visit confirmed that the reconstructed plan is definitely not what Jónsson drew. Clearly something is amiss, but is the original plan incorrect or is the restoration?

Brynjúlf Jónsson’s 1900 plan of the Dritvík labyrinth

An Irrelevant Mystery?

This seemingly irrelevant mystery was highlighted by an excellent blog I follow, blogmymaze, in a series of posts that fortuitously appeared just before I planned my journey to Iceland. A guest post by Richard Shelton Myers pointed out that several “historic” (pre-modern) Scandinavian labyrinths include branched paths, dead ends, and even paths totally isolated from the outside (i.e., not walkable without stepping across a boundary). These features are normally considered “mistakes,” either on the part of the creator or the researcher that drew and published the plans. A prime example is the original plan of the Dritvík labyrinth.

Richard Myers Shelton argues that branched or isolated paths and dead ends of Scandinavian mazes are not mistakes at all, but rather intentional devices for purposes other than what is typically assumed for labyrinths.[6] I shall return to this critical issue below. Meanwhile, Shelton’s argument is countered in a friendly way by Erwin Reißmann, creator and main author of blogmymaze, in series of follow up posts entitled, “How to Repair the Mistakes in Historical Scandinavian Labyrinths” (3 Parts).[7] As an engineer I have the greatest respect for the mathematical and logical precision Erwin brings to the study, explanation, and appreciation of labyrinths. Anyone interested in their creation, development, and categorization should visit his site! As a researcher of “what happened” in the past, I also am impressed with Erwin’s logic on how “mistakes” could be made, resulting in the examples regarded as such. This is especially true with regard to the Dritvík structure, which he explains and diagrams in Part 3 of his series.

But, alas, I am compelled to agree with Shelton that the “mistakes” are intentional. Here we must return to the question of purpose. Modern proper labyrinths are intended to be “walkable” as a contemplative exercise or spiritual ritual wherein one reaches the inner goal by sticking with the path through twists and turns, and then returns confidently to the real world without encountering challenging diversions or dead ends. By contrast, mazes are mysteries and challenges to be conquered through decisions with the likelihood of false starts and backtracking.[8] So, the question of whether the features above are mistakes or intentional in the original labyrinths hinges entirely on their purpose.[9]

The Roles of Icelandic Labyrinths and Bárðr Snæfellsáss

The origin and purpose of the most ancient labyrinths remains uncertain, but the concept was freely “repurposed” for various adaptations, including Christian ones. The Medieval period saw a lengthy transformation of the labyrinth “from an elemental pagan symbol into a configuration more suited to the medieval Christian mind.”[10] This very brief exploration is limited to suggesting the intent of Icelandic labyrinths like the one at Dritvík. As they form a subset of Scandinavian examples, however, it is worth nothing that Scandinavian church labyrinths often include “mistakes” and feature elements of local folklore.[11]

The Christianization of Iceland—and other parts of Scandinavia—was powered more by politics than by heartfelt missionary conversion. Pagan practices and beliefs continued, but only covertly.[12] In Part 1 (required reading), I characterized the part troll, part giant, half human protagonist of the Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss, “as a personification of the pagan tradition in the newly Christianized world of medieval Iceland.” Despite his forsaking of society and withdrawal to the glacier, Bárðr was “practically worshipped . . . called upon . . . in times of difficulty” and “for many he also proved to be a source of real help in need” (Bárðar Saga 6). I concluded that Bárðr represents “enduring pre-Christian beliefs that were no longer openly accepted in society but resurfaced as comfort mechanisms in times of distress.” Thus, an ostensibly Christian-themed Íslendingasögur features a main character who not only rejects the new faith but is himself a being whose very existence is denied by it. And yet, as a guardian spirit Bárðr provides protection and comfort for the inhabitants of Snæfellsnes in ways the church cannot and against threats the church does not recognize as legitimate.

View from above Djúpalónssandur toward the rock formation called Trollakirkja (“Troll church,” so named by Bárðr’s group), with the stone maze on the plateau above Drivik (small oval, right center with Ancient Dan barely visible), and the perilous ocean beyond (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

I suggest that the Dritvík and other Icelandic stone mazes are physical representations of the same phenomenon. Outwardly accepted Christian modes of prayer and comfort, Icelandic labyrinths likely functioned as magical protection against perceived threats born in paganism but not acknowledged by the church. There are many precedents for this kind of thing. A remarkably relevant manifestation appears at Sönghellir, a cave first mentioned in the Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss where it is named by Bárðr’s group (Bárðar Saga 4). The cave has inscriptions dating 1483-1970 including many prayers for safe travel that include runic and magical signs alongside Christian crosses.[13]

Sönghellir Cave, known for its acoustic resonance and inscriptions (dating 1483-1970) that include runic and magical signs alongside Christian crosses (photo: Hyun “Teddy” Thor Ko, 2021)

Purpose and Design of Icelandic Labyrinths

Fishing has always been understood as a singularly dangerous profession in Iceland.[14] Significantly, all stone mazes known there were at fishing camps. What was their purpose? It seems reasonable to suggest that they provided a venue for ritual walking or praying to ensure safety at sea—perhaps by concerned wives or mothers of fisher crewmen. This purpose would require a “walkthrough” labyrinth.

“Looking Seawards” (1997) by Ingur Gislason; this piece, in the Reykjavik harbor, captures the concern for those who brave the sea to provide for those on land (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-13)

Alternately, one could posit the labyrinths were meant to provide magical protection. But from what? Two potentially perceived perils are probable. Fear of attack by trolls looms as the more typically Icelandic/Nordic fear. Accordingly, Bárðr Snæfellsáss performed the deed of saving a fisherman from the wiles of a troll witch (Bárðar Saga 8). As trolls could not pass over water, a labyrinth could be expected to slow them (likewise for curses or evil winds) down so boats could get safely away.[15]

The same magical protection would be afforded against the other likely fear: ghosts—of souls lost at sea, unidentified corpses washed ashore, and improperly buried or disturbed dead. Christer Westerdahl convincingly argues that Scandinavian stone mazes served to bind ghosts in addition to catching evil winds.[16] These fears are highlighted for Dritvík by folktale and a historical event.

Brynjúlf Jónsson, the archaeologist that documented the Dritvík labyrinth 1900, also related a folktale he collected from a local resident “under the glacier.” Fishermen going out from the gravel beach at Djúpalónssandur (just south of Dritvík) stole the body of a recently buried woman and used the meat for bait. One crewman was uncomfortable with this and, warned by a woman in a dream, stayed in sick the next day whereupon the boat and remainder of the fishermen were lost![17] Somber reminders of a more tangibly known fishing disaster greet any visitor to Djúpalónssandur today. The beach is littered with the rusting remains of the British fishing trawler FV Epine (GY7), wrecked on rocks off Dritvík in 1948. While Icelanders rescued 4 and another swam to shore, 14 of the crew were lost with the ship.[18]

Remnants of the FV Epine GY7 fishing trawler, wrecked in 1948 off Dritvík with the loss of 14 crewmen, lie rusting on Djúpalónssandur beach; view E toward Djúpalón lagoon with Snæfellsjökull in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

A device created with the purpose of magically containing trolls, evil winds, or spirits of the dead would require features designed to delay, confuse, or trap. While a walkthrough labyrinth would certainly provide delay, a maze with choices, dead ends, and isolated paths would be all the better, even with the sacrifice of elegance in design.[19] Fear and superstition win the battle of function over form.

The Stone Maze at Dritvík

Returning to the structure that captured my attention (and “trapped” me for some time); what of the Dritvík design? Jónsson’s 1900 plan shows branched paths, dead ends, and isolated circuits which I now believe to be intentional rather than “mistakes.” But is the plan accurate or were the mistakes in Jónsson’s sketch? As noted above, the labyrinth was restored as what Shelton characterizes as a “typical Baltic-style labyrinth,”[20] which should have a walkthrough plan with a long one-way path to the center and a simplified exit.[21]

Dritvík labyrinth, restored, as it appeared in June 2021 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021

However, the restored Dritvík stone maze retains much of Jónsson’s 1900 plan, as my aerial photos and derived plan (see pics) reveal. The current plan still has a branched path which, at first glance, may seem to be a typical Baltic feature. But the expected long path to the center (by taking the left branch at the entrance) eventually dead ends in the right “lobe.” The right branch leads quickly to the center, as expected when entering the “exit” of a Baltic type; but continuing through the center also results in a long path and dead end. In short, the current form is not “walkable” with the center as a ritual goal. It is confusing and frustrating—exactly what a magical device should be.

Restored Dritvík labyrinth plan, created from aerial image (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021)

Which is the original plan, the restored version or Jónsson’s? I suspect the 1900 Jónsson plan is correct and that restorers with good intentions made a couple of changes on the right side of the entrance to result in the present layout. There is even evidence for how this could happen. Jónsson writes that the area around the entrance had become somewhat obscure. So it remains possible that the restorers recovered the original. In the end, it does not matter for our interpretation, for both the current result and the 1900 plan present a maze designed to confuse, delay, and trap rather than one for contemplative ritual.

Ultimately, my conclusion is one about human nature. Confronted with fears, uncertainties, and sudden changes in life (it happens), persons find solace in ritual and prayerful acts. But the extra comfort promised by superstition or magical devices has a primal appeal in the face of life’s terrors. We need our labyrinths but also, apparently, our mazes.

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[1] Jeff Saward and Deb Saward, “The Labyrinth in Iceland,” Caerdroia 29 (1998): 58–60.

[2] Brynjúlf Jónsson, “Rannsoknir í Snæfellsnessýslu Sumarið 1899,” Árbók Hins íslenzka fornleifafélags (1900): 21-22.

[3] Saward and Saward, 58-59; where it is noted that the plan enabled Saward and his wife to trace the path, except for the innermost circuits.

[4] “Volunderhus Stone Labyrinth: ID# 1900,” World-Wide Labyrinth Locator – Locate a Labyrinth, accessed August 15, 2021, https://labyrinthlocator.com/locate-a-labyrinth?labyrinth_id=1900&action=locate.

[5] Jeff. Saward, Labyrinths & Mazes: A Complete Guide to Magical Paths of the World (New York: Lark Books, 2003), 147. The photo also appears in the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator (see previous note) which Saward manages.

[6] Richard Myers Shelton, “The ‘Mistakes’ in Historical Scandinavian Labyrinths,” Blogmymaze (blog), January 16, 2021, https://blogmymaze.wordpress.com/2021/01/17/the-mistakes-in-historical-scandinavian-labyrinths/.

[7] Erwin Reißmann, “How to Repair the Mistakes in Historical Scandinavian Labyrinths, Part 1,” Blogmymaze (blog), February 13, 2021, https://blogmymaze.wordpress.com/2021/02/14/how-to-repair-the-mistakes-in-historical-scandinavian-labyrinths-part-1/; “How to Repair the Mistakes in Historical Scandinavian Labyrinths, Part 2,” Blogmymaze (blog), March 13, 2021, https://blogmymaze.wordpress.com/2021/03/14/how-to-repair-the-mistakes-in-historical-scandinavian-labyrinths-part-2/; and “How to Repair the Mistakes in Historical Scandinavian Labyrinths, Part 3,” Blogmymaze (blog), May 9, 2021, https://blogmymaze.wordpress.com/2021/05/09/how-to-repair-the-mistakes-in-historical-scandinavian-labyrinths-part-3/.

[8] The definitions of and distinctions between “labyrinth” and “maze” are a convoluted and cannot be covered here. The observant reader may have noted that I have tipped my hand on by using the term “stone maze” to describe the structure at Dritvík.

[9] This, of course, assumes that the drawings of researchers like Jónsson are accurate—i.e., that the “mistakes” were present the originals (which no longer exist in cases like Dritvík), not just in the drawings of them. This assumption is supported somewhat below.

[10] Saward, Labyrinths & Mazes, 82; see all of Chapter 3 for this fascinating story. Footnote readers such as you get the extra datum that Scandinavian church labyrinths frequently feature “mistakes” and scenes from local folklore; ibid., 108ff.

[11] Saward, Labyrinths & Mazes, 108-110.

[12] See, conveniently and entertainingly, Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big Story of a Small Island (Penguin, 2021), 23-24. 

[13] Árni Hjartarson, Guðmundur J. Guðmundsson, and Lilja B. Pálsdóttir, “Sönghellir: the Singing Cave,” in Dreaming of a Glacier: Snæfellsjökull in a Geocritical Perspective, eds. Matthias Egeler and Stefanie Gropper (Munich: Utzverlag, 2020), 64-84.

[14] In the sailing period, mariners had the highest mortality rate of all professional groups; David J. Stewart, The Sea Their Graves : An Archaeology of Death and Remembrance in Maritime Culture, New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2011).

[15] Christer Westerdahl, “The Stone Labyrinths of the North” (Caerdroia 43, 2014).

[16] Christer Westerdahl, “The Maritime Middle Ages—Past, Present, and Future. Some Ideas from a Scandinavian Horizon,” European Journal of Archaeology 17, no. 1 (2014): 120–38, https://doi.org/10.1179/1461957113Y.0000000046; and “The Stone Labyrinths of the North.”

[17] Jónsson, “Rannsoknir í Snæfellsnessýslu Sumarið 1899,” 22-23.

[18] “WRECKSITE – EPINE TRAWLER 1946-1948,” accessed September 12, 2021, https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?153228.

[19] It is worth noting that the bed boards of the 18th and 19th centuries held by the National Museum of Iceland also feature the “mistakes” of branched and isolated paths, as demonstrated by Shelton.

[20] Shelton, “The ‘Mistakes’ in Historical Scandinavian Labyrinths.”

[21] Erwin, “How to Make a Wunderkreis or a Baltic Wheel,” Blogmymaze (blog), June 17, 2017, https://blogmymaze.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/how-to-make-a-wunderkreis-or-a-baltic-wheel/.




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