Out in the cold grey seas of the Onega Bay, in the White Sea of Russia is a windswept archipelago of islands called the Solovetsky Islands. The bleak landscape here is sparsely populated, the people living a simple existence, but one island that has remained uninhabited is the one they call Bolshoi Zayatsky. It is little more than a speck of rock, measuring less than one square mile in total area and covered with moss and tangles of brush, and this forlorn, remote location long made it known as an almost impenetrable fortress and it was also used as a gulag labor camp at one time. In modern times from a distance it would be easy to ignore, just another barren rock in the churning sea, but this is a place of mystery, and among the boulders and brush are scattered ancient labyrinths that have managed to elude understanding.
Dotted throughout a small area of Bolshoi Zayatsky are dozens of Neolithic stone labyrinths known locally as “vavilons,” meaning “Babylons,” constructed from local boulders and set into spiral patterns, with diameters ranging from between 6 and 25.4 meters across. The rows of stones and boulders that form these spirals are often formed of two separate intertwining spirals, like embracing serpents, and along the rows are sometimes thicker heaps of stones giving them an irregular feel. The labyrinths may vary in size and design, but one common feature is that they all have a single entrance that also serves as the exit for the mazes. Around the labyrinths are numerous arranged piles of rocks and boulders as well as a stone symbol with radial spokes, making it all the more enigmatic and dream-like. There is a surreal quality to seeing these mysterious structures sitting out on this rocky land, and one researcher of the labyrinths has described the experience of walking through them as almost magical, saying:
After entering a labyrinth and circle several times around the center, 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 be distracted; the path is narrow and you are required to look permanently underfoot. The path is twisting clockwise and counterclockwise. At last – the exit; and you are happy that the journey is over.
There is very little known about the labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky, and indeed even their precise age has been debated. The Solovetsky Islands are known to have been inhabited from at least from as far back as the 5000 B.C., possibly earlier, and although most researchers tend to estimate the labyrinths as being between 2,500 to 3,000 years old, they could be far more ancient. No one really knows. Their purpose is also steeped in mystery and lost to the mists of time, with many theories proposed. One is that they served as fishing traps, although most are too inland for this to be feasible. Another is that they had some sort of astrological function, such as mapping out the solstices or eclipses. There is also the idea that they had some ritualistic use, and one prominent idea is that they were used by the superstitious ancients as a means to trap evil spirits of some kind. One of the more interesting theories is that the labyrinths serve as some doorway, border, or transitional point between the land of the living and the underworld, somehow helping lost souls find their way to the other side.
The purpose and origins of the labyrinths remain clouded and lost to history, and we are left to wonder just why these ancient people came out to this tiny island to construct these stone oddities. What are they and what do they represent? No one knows, and we perhaps never will.