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.
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.
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?
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.
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.