Playing a Viking Game

Way back in what we no longer call the Dark Ages, this part of the world – north east England – was overrun by Vikings.  They came, they saw, they settled.  They left their mark on the language: villages such as Thirn, Thrintoft, Skeldale, Kirkby, Slingsby, Ainsty all betray their Norse ancestry.  Vikings have a reputation for ravaging and plundering, but in fact many of them and their families made their lives here.

The scenery won’t have been so tidily organised back then.

And settlers need some down-time in among the hard work of clearing and working the land and looking after stock: pursuits like this forerunner of the board game, which was played throughout what is now Scandinavia. We found one while walking the Howardian Hills last weekend. It looks like a maze, and it’s called City of Troy.

 

City of Troy, near Dalby, Sheriff Hutton.

It’s one of only eight still left in England, and this one is the smallest- barely bigger than a large picnic blanket.  There used to be one near Ripon apparently, but it was ploughed up in 1827.  Nobody any longer knows how to play this game.  Why City of Troy?  Well, it’s thought that it refers to the walls of that city, which were apparently built in such a way as to prevent unwanted intruders finding their way out.  I’m astonished by the idea that the average Norseman (or woman) was up to speed with Ancient Greek history and myth, but what do I know?

A close up view.

It’s related though to labyrinths found all over Europe.  Every ancient culture: Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Indian, Native American – had their own take on this one-way-in and one-way-out puzzle.  The labyrinth made its way into mediaeval churches.  There was even one in the cathedral local to us in France, in Mirepoix.

The labyrinth in Mirepoix Cathedral.

To Christians of those days, it may have been a symbol of wholeness, and an aid to reflection and prayer.  That spiral path within a circle may represent a meandering path, leading us to our very centre, then back out into the world.

The maze game probably doesn’t run so deep.  But what its rules were, and when and how it was played, out on a hillside some distance from any known settlement is a mystery that will almost certainly never be solved.

40 thoughts on “Playing a Viking Game”

  1. Ah, the Vikings and our place names! Most fascinating, never a dull moment at Margaret’s! I recall reading about spiral labyrinths in churches in Europe

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  2. Wow. This is fascinating. I’m wondering how they know it was called City of Troy? It certainly seems to suggest some sophisticated knowledge of the classical world. (Quite who I mean by ‘they’ is as much your guess as mine!)

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  3. I think the naming of this, and other similar labyrinths, was much later than the actual construction date. From what I’ve read such constructions were likened to the manner in which the city of Troy was constructed. They may have been used as a sort of religious pilgrimage to signify an (possibly) unattainable journey. I can’t remember where I read that, and cannot find it again so I may well have dreamed that!!

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    1. I agree you must be right about the naming, although I have also read accounts that suggest that Viking tale-tellers did know something of Greek legends. And all accounts of the mazes include the word ‘Troy. It’ all very mysterious.

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    1. Fair point, Lisa. I read every website I could find, and it seemed to be the consensus. A religious site of some kind is the other option I suppose, but It doesn’t seem to fit in with what’s known about religious practice at the time. A mystery indeed.

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  4. Fascinating. You sent me off to read up on these Troy Town labyrinths. I like the idea that some Finnish ones are called jungfrudans, or Maiden’s Dance, used as a game for a young man to rescue a young woman from the centre of the rings, and the link made with Helen of Troy. I also like that there were Welsh ones called caerdroea, used for folk dancing, which became caerdroia, and then a link made with the myth of Aeneas’s grandson Brutus founding Britain.

    We followed a modern labyrinth made to look old at Dunure Castle in Galloway last year. It was small, made of stones on the ground, and I found it oddly relaxing.

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      1. I’ve remembered its location wrong – it’s up the coast near Ayr. The castle has a grim history, but it’s a beautiful location and there’s a great tearoom down the hill at the harbour.

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  5. That’s an inviting little maze. Were you allowed to tramp it? Apparently, it was trading up and down the great European rivers, particularly the Danube, that brought East Mediterranean culture all the way up to Scandinavia and the British Isles. What future after 1st January 2021?

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    1. Oooh no, it was far to fragile to trample. Of course, you must be right about the cultural influences of trade. Influences that my diminish, if not cease three and a half months from now …

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