The Republic of Karelia

Labyrinths of the Sámi gods

Kuzova Archipelago is a unique world of Karelian megaliths

26.09.2022// Karelia is famous for its rich folklore, where tales of the Sami and Pomors are woven together, seasoned with sea salt, the sound of pine trees and sacred sieidi. In the Kuzova Archipelago, you can feel the atmosphere of ancient legends to the full—there is a megalithic complex of stone labyrinths built for the worship of spirits and gods. For centuries, its fierce idols have preserved the peace of those places, bathed in the breath of the North.

In Onega Bay, on the way from the port of Kem to the Solovetsky Islands, lies the Kuzova Archipelago. It consists of two large and 14 small dome-shaped islands with steep slopes. The Island of Nemetsky Kuzov, rising 140 m above water level, and the Island of Russky Kuzov, 123 m high, are the highest landmarks in the entire White Sea water area.

In clear weather, from the top of Nemetsky Kuzov, one can get a perfect line of sight up to 40–50 km long.

The cluster of islands in the western part of the White Sea spreads out before the viewer. On some islands, such as Kurichya Niloksa, Sredny and Zhiloy, pristine spruce forests hundreds of years old have been preserved perfectly. They are actually the origin of the archipelago’s name; according to one version, it does not stem from the name of the discoverer, as one might think, but rather from the Sami phrase 'kuz-oive,' meaning 'spruce heads.'

The natural treasures of the archipelago are only part of the riches it holds. The oldest of them are two stone labyrinths discovered on Oleshin Island. The smaller maze, 6 m in diameter, is almost entirely overgrown with thick moss. The larger one is in a better shape. Its diameter varies from 10 to 11 m, and it’s almost 190 m long in total. It’s made up of about a thousand boulders.

How to get to Kuzova Archipelago: private boats leave daily for the archipelago from the Rabocheostrovsk settlement in the Kemsky district of Karelia. You can pay for the ride in cash on site. The Kuzova Archipelago lies about 10 km off the coast.

The plan of the large labyrinth is based on two spirals, laid out as the outer and inner horseshoe shapes. In the centre, a 0.5 m high elongated boulder is erected. The labyrinths on Oleshin Island are nearly untouched by either time or people, and archaeologists believe that they are of the greatest historical value among all similar structures in the world.

The mazes have been laid out on a slightly sloping cliff top, twenty metres above sea level. This means they could not have been designed to serve as traps for sea creatures, despite what many researchers of such labyrinths believe. The remains of the maze builders are yet to be found; only some traces of their presence on the archipelago have been discovered. Neolithic sites found on the terrace of the Nemetsky Kuzov in the 1980s contained arrowheads and tools carved out of stones.

The Islands of Nemetsky Kuzov and Russky Kuzov are home to countless megalithic stone structures created in the later period by the Sami. They left several hundreds of sieidi and idols, seen nowhere else in the world, in easily noticeable parts of the Nemetsky Kuzov—cliffs, mountains and bluffs. The largest cluster of sieidi was found at the very top of the island. Here one can see an entire pantheon of Sami deities: around 150 sieidi and many idols that look like human busts carved out of stone, with smaller rocks placed atop larger boulders. Some resemble figures, with a distinct body and a human, bird, or dog 'head.' Some of the stone statues also have elongated 'arms' placed nearby.

On the Russky Kuzov, there are fewer stone megaliths than on the Nemetsky Kuzov, though they still are numerous. Most of them are found on Mount Lysaya.

Idols on this island look like anthropomorphic stone stelae, being oblong granite slabs propped up with round stones. Remains of tombs lined with granite can also be seen on the mountain.

It is possible that the Kuzova Islands were once split between different phratries, or tribal groups, hence the differences in the size and shape of the megaliths.

The Sami not only visited the northern islands from time to time, they stayed there for long periods. In some areas, there are statues under which 'Lopar pits' (Lopar here being the obsolete Russian name for the Sami) have been found, in which Sami families may have lived for some time. Russian pioneers, the Pomors, are also known to have been to the Kuzova Archipelago. Gurii, stone pillars that served them as navigation signs, have been preserved on some of the islands.

The Northern Islands have also become part of the Pomor folklore. Their legends reflect the actual events of the early 17th century when Swedish troops attempted to conquer the Solovetsky Monastery. According to legend, 'nemetskiye lyudi' ('nemets,' from 'nemoy'—'mute', being the then-general Russian designation for foreigners), as the Pomors called the Swedes, tired of long sailing on the troubled White Sea, landed on a high island to regain their strength before assaulting the Solovki. From the top of it, the monastery could be seen. One of the enemy warriors began cursing the holy place, threatening to lay waste to it, and was immediately turned into stone, his companions sharing his fate within moments. The few survivors left in a great hurry. This is where the name of the island, Nemetsky Kuzov, comes from.

Studies have shown the international importance of the cultural and natural heritage of these sites, as well as the need for a further comprehensive study of the Northern Islands. In order to preserve the rich nature and historical heritage of the Kuzova Archipelago, a landscape sanctuary was established there in 1991.

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