mazes


mazes
   The mazes of folk tradition are not intended as puzzles; they are single-track coiling patterns cut in turf and used for communal sport, the point being to run round them without stumbling or touching the banks even at the sharp bends. Having reached the centre, the runner retraces his steps along the same path to emerge. *Aubrey noted that one in Dorset had been 'much used by the young people on Holydaies and by ye School-boies', and that 'There is a Maze at this day in Tuthill fields, Westminster, & much frequented in summer-time on fair afternoons' (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 71).
   Eight such labyrinths survive, including those at Alkborough (Humberside), Saffron Walden (Essex), and Winchester (Hampshire). At least a hundred more have disappeared for lack of maintenance. On the island of St Agnes in the Scillies there is one marked out with small boulders; it was clumsily 'restored' in 1989, so now neither the site nor the design is accurate.
   Several English mazes are named 'Troy Town' or 'Walls of Troy', terms probably derived from a passage in Virgil (Aeneid, v. 545-603) describing the 'Troy Game', a test of skill in which young riders maneuvered along a mazy track. Since medieval and Elizabethan English believed themselves to be descended from the Trojans, the appeal is obvious.
   There is no way of dating these mazes, nor are they likely to be all equally old; a range of dates from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century is plausible. On the Continent, mazes can symbolize penance or pilgrimage, and some scholars have proposed this interpretation for English ones too. However, surviving English traditions are non-religious: the Winchester maze is said to have been cut by a schoolboy, that on the Scillies by a lighthouse keeper, a lost one at Shrewsbury was called 'The Shoemaker's Race' and was maintained throughout the 17th century by the city's shoemakers' guild for their annual Whitsun feast.
   Pennick, 1990. Matthews, 1922, is accurate up to that date, but more mazes have since been discovered.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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