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In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth (Greek λαβύρινθος labyrinthos) was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a skein of thread, literally the "clew", or "clue", so he could find his way out again.
Labyrinth patterns have appeared as designs on pottery, basketry, as body art, and carved onto stones or rock walls. The Romans built many primarily decorative labyrinth designs on walls and floors in tile or mosaic. Many labyrinths set in the floors of churches or cathedrals, cut out of turf, or laid out on the ground are large enough for the path to the center and back to be walked. They have historically been used both in group ritual and for private meditation and continue to be used in these ways today.
The words "labyrinth" and "labyrinthine" (the adjective) are widely used to describe any area of extremely complex topography, whether natural or man-made, and by metaphorical extension, complicated ideas or thought-processes.
"Maze" or "labyrinth"?
In colloquial English labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two, using maze to refer to a complex branching puzzle with choices of path and direction, while a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.
Depictions of the Labyrinth
Although early Cretan coins occasionally exhibit multicursal patterns, the unicursal seven-course "Classical" design became associated with the Labyrinth on coins as early as 430 BCE, and became widely used to represent the Labyrinth – even though both logic and literary descriptions make it clear that the Minotaur was trapped in a complex branching maze. Even as the designs became more elaborate, visual depictions of the Labyrinth from Roman times until the Renaissance are almost invariably unicursal: branching layouts were reintroduced only when garden mazes became popular in the Renaissance.
Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek (Pelasgian) origin absorbed by Classical Greek and is perhaps related to the Lydian labrys ("double-edged axe", a symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace on Crete and meant "palace of the double-axe"), with -inthos meaning "place" (as in Corinth). The complex palace of Knossos in Crete is usually implicated, though the actual dancing-ground, depicted in frescoed patterns at Knossos, has not been found. Something was being shown to visitors as a labyrinth at Knossos in the 1st century AD (Philostratos, De vita Apollonii Tyanei iv.34).
Greek mythology did not recall, however, that in Crete there was a Lady who presided over the Labyrinth. A tablet inscribed in Linear B found at Knossos records a gift "to all the gods honey; to the mistress of the labyrinth honey." All the gods together receive as much honey as the Mistress of the Labyrinth alone. "She must have been a Great Goddess," Kerenyi observes.
The labyrinth is the referent in the familiar Greek patterns of the endlessly running meander, to give the "Greek key" its common modern name. In the 3rd century BCE, coins from Knossos were still struck with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple seven-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth.
The term labyrinth came to be applied to any unicursal maze, whether of a circular shape or square. At the center, a decisive turn brought one out again. In the Socratic dialogue that Plato produced as Euthydemus, Socrates describes the labyrinthine line of a logical argument:
"Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first." ... Thus the present-day notion of a labyrinth as a place where one can lose [his] way must be set aside. It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but, provided [the traverser] is not devoured at the midpoint, it leads surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning.
Cretan labyrinth at Knossos
Wrapped in legend, but also clearly manifested in the archaeological record, is the huge Bronze Age labyrinth at Knossos. That the Cretan labyrinth had been a dancing-ground and was made for Ariadne rather than for Minos was remembered by Homer in Iliad xviii.590–593, where, in the pattern that Hephaestus inscribed on Achilles' shield, one incident pictured was a dancing-ground "like the one that Daedalus designed in the spacious town of Knossos for Ariadne of the lovely locks." Even the labyrinth dance was depicted on the shield, where "youths and marriageable maidens were dancing on it with their hands on one another's wrists... circling as smoothly on their accomplished feet as the wheel of a potter...and there they ran in lines to meet each other."
Herodotus' Egyptian labyrinth
Even more generally, labyrinth might be applied to any extremely complicated maze-like structure. Herodotus, in Book II of his Histories, describes as a "labyrinth" a building complex in Egypt, "near the place called the City of Crocodiles," that he considered to surpass the pyramids in its astonishing ambition:
It has twelve covered courts — six in a row facing north, six south — the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I was taken through the rooms in the upper storey, so what I shall say of them is from my own observation, but the underground ones I can speak of only from report, because the Egyptians in charge refused to let me see them, as they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms, on the contrary, I did actually see, and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me, as we passed from a courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms and thence into yet more courtyards. The roof of every chamber, courtyard, and gallery is, like the walls, of stone. The walls are covered with carved figures, and each court is exquisitely built of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade.
During the 19th century, the remains of the Labyrinth were discovered "11 1/2 miles from the pyramid of Hawara, in the province of Faioum." The Labyrinth was likely modified and added upon "at various times. The names of more than one king have been found there, the oldest" name being that of Amenemhat III. "It is unnecessary to imagine more than that it was monumental, and a monument of more than one king of Egypt."
In 1898, the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities described the structure as "the largest of all the temples of Egypt, the so-called Labyrinth, of which, however, only the foundation stones have been preserved."
Pliny's Lemnian labyrinth
Pliny the Elder's Natural History (36.90) lists the legendary Smilis, reputed to be a contemporary of Daedalus, together with the historical mid-sixth-century BCE architects and sculptors Rhoikos and Theodoros as two of the makers of the Lemnian labyrinth, which Andrew Stewart regards as "evidently a misunderstanding of the Samian temple's location en limnais ['in the marsh']."
Pliny's Italian labyrinth
According to Pliny, the tomb of the great Etruscan general Lars Porsena contained an underground maze. Pliny's description of the exposed portion of the tomb is intractable; Pliny, it seems clear, had not observed this structure himself, but is quoting the historian and Roman antiquarian Varro.
Ancient labyrinths outside the Mediterranean region
At about the same time as the appearance of the Greek labyrinth, a topologically identical pattern appeared in Native American culture, the Tohono O'odham labyrinth which features I'itoi, the "Man in the Maze". The Tonoho O'odham pattern has two distinct differences from the Greek: it is radial in design, and the entrance is at the top, where traditional Greek labyrinths have the entrance at the bottom (see below).
A prehistoric petroglyph on a riverbank in Goa shows the same pattern and has been dated to circa 2500 BCE. Other examples have been found among cave art in northern India and on a dolmen shrine in the Nilgiri Mountains, but are difficult to date accurately. Early labyrinths in India all follow the Classical pattern; some have been described as plans of forts or cities .
Labyrinths appear in Indian manuscripts and Tantric texts from the 17th century onward. They are often called "Chakravyuha" in reference to an impregnable battle formation described in the ancient Mahabharata epic. Lanka, the capital city of mythic Rāvana, is described as a labyrinth in Al-Beruni's India, p. 306.
Labyrinth as pattern
In antiquity, the labyrinth pattern familiar from medieval examples was already developed. In Roman floor mosaics, the simple classical labyrinth is sometimes framed in the meander border pattern, squared off as the medium requires, but still recognisable. Often an image of the Minotaur appears in the centre of these mosaic labyrinths. Roman meander patterns gradually developed in complexity towards the fourfold shape that is now familiarly known as the medieval form. The labyrinth retains its connection with death and a triumphant return: at Hadrumentum in North Africa (now Sousse), a Roman family tomb has a fourfold labyrinth mosaic floor with a dying minotaur in the center and a mosaic inscription: HICINCLUSUS.VITAMPERDIT "Enclosed here, he loses life" (Kerenyi, fig.31).
The Romans were familiar enough with the labyrinth design for it to be used in graffiti: an inscription scratched on a house wall in Pompei shows the pattern with the words LABYRINTHUS / HIC HABITAT / MIN OTAURUS: "Labyrinth. The Minotaur lives here" – perhaps an insult to the house's occupant.
Earliest recovered labyrinth, incised on a clay tablet from Pylos
Minotaur in Labyrinth—a Roman mosaic at Conímbriga, Portugal
Sketch by Villard de Honnecourt (c.1230)
Wall maze in Lucca Cathedral, Italy (probably medieval)
Illustration of Jericho in a Farhi Bible (14th century)
Cathedral of Amiens, France
Stone labyrinth on Blå Jungfrun (Blue Virgin) island, Sweden
Seven-ring classical labyrinth of unknown age in Rocky Valley near Tintagel, Cornwall, UK.
Small turf maze near Dalby, North Yorkshire, UK.
Turf maze at Wing in Rutland, UK.
Portrait of a man, by Bartolomeo Veneto, Italy, early 16th century
Medieval labyrinths and turf mazes
The full flowering of the medieval labyrinth design came about during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the gothic cathedrals, notably Chartres, Reims and Amiens in northern France and the Duomo di Siena in Tuscany. These labyrinths may have originated as symbolic allusion to the Holy City; prayers and devotions may have accompanied the perambulation of their intricate paths. No contemporary evidence, however, supports this. It is this version of the design that is thought to be the inspiration for the many turf mazes in the UK, such as survive at Wing, Hilton, Alkborough, and Saffron Walden.
Over the same period, some 500 or more non-ecclesiastical labyrinths were constructed in Scandinavia. These labyrinths, generally in coastal areas, are marked out with stones, most often in the simple classical form. They often have names which translate as "Troy Town". They are thought to have been constructed by fishing communities: trapping malevolent trolls or winds in the labyrinth's coils might ensure a safe fishing expedition. There are also stone labyrinths on the Isles of Scilly, although none is known to date back as far as the earliest Scandinavian ones.
There are examples of labyrinths in many disparate cultures. The symbol has appeared in various forms and media (petroglyphs, classic-form, medieval-form, pavement, turf, and basketry) at some time throughout most parts of the world, from Native North and South America to Australia, Java, India, and Nepal.
Labyrinth on floor of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Edinburgh labyrinth, George Square Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the labyrinth symbol, which has inspired a revival in labyrinth building, notably at Willen Park, Milton Keynes; Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; Tapton Park, Chesterfield; Old Swedes Church in Wilmington; the Labyrinth in Shed 16 in the Old Port of Montreal, and Trinity Square in Toronto.
Cultural and metaphorical meanings
The myth of the labyrinth has in recent times found incarnation in a stage play by Ilinka Crvenkovska which explores notions of a man's ability to control his own fate. Theseus in an act of suicide is killed by the Minotaur, who is himself killed by the horrified townspeople.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was entranced with the idea of the labyrinth, and used it extensively in his short stories (such as "The House of Asterion" in The Aleph). His use of it has inspired other authors' works (e.g. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves). Additionally, Roger Zelazny's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Amber, features a labyrinth, called "the Pattern", which grants those who walk it the power to move between parallel worlds. The avant-garde multi-screen film, In the Labyrinth, presents a search for meaning in a symbolic modern labyrinth. Australian author Sara Douglass incorporated some labyrinthine ideas in her series The Troy Game, in which the Labyrinth on Crete is one of several in the ancient world, created with the cities as a source of magical power.
The labyrinth is also treated in contemporary fine arts. Examples include Piet Mondrian's Dam and Ocean (1915), Joan Miró's Labyrinth (1923), Pablo Picasso's Minotauromachia (1935), many works by Michael Ayrton, M. C. Escher's Relativity (1953), Friedensreich Hundertwasser's Labyrinth (1957), Jean Dubuffet's Logological Cabinet (1970), Richard Long's Connemara sculpture (1971), Joe Tilson's Earth Maze (1975), Richard Fleischner's Chain Link Maze (1978), István Orosz's Atlantis Anamorphosis (2000), Dmitry Rakov's Labyrinth (2003), and Labyrinthine projection by contemporary American artist Mo Morales (2000).
Countless computer games depict mazes and labyrinths.
Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth).
Labyrinths can be thought of as symbolic forms of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Many people could not afford to travel to holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Later, the religious significance of labyrinths faded, and they served primarily for entertainment, though recently their spiritual aspect has seen a resurgence.
Many newly made labyrinths exist today, in churches and parks. Labyrinths are used by modern mystics to help achieve a contemplative state. Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind. The Labyrinth Society provides a locator for modern labyrinths all over the world.
- Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth, p 36.
- Kern, Through the Labyrinth, p. 23. The usage restricting maze to patterns that involve choices of path is mentioned by Matthews (p. 2-3) as early as 1922, though he argues against it.
- Kern, Through the Labyrinth, 2000, item 43, p. 53.
- Kern, Through the Labyrinth, 2000, item 50, p. 54.
- Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth, pp. 40-41.
- Kerenyi, Dionysos, p. 101, n. 171.
- Kerenyi, Dionysos, p. 91.
- Kerenyi, Dionysos, p. 92f.
- Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Book II, pp. 160-61.
- Leonhard Schmitz, George Eden Marindin, Labyrinthus entry, in William Smith et al. (editors), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, published 1890.
- Peck, Harry Thurston (chief editor). "Hieratic Papyrus. (Twentieth Dynasty.)" in the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, published 1898, page 29.
- Andrew Stewart, One Hundred Greek Sculptors: Their Careers and Extant Works, "Smilis."
- Labyrinthos, The First Labyrinths, Jeff Saward
- Labyrinth in Catholic Encyclopedia
- Russell, W. M. S. (1991). "English Turf Mazes, Troy, and the Labyrinth". Folklore. Taylor and Francis. 102 (1): 77–88. Retrieved 2009-03-26. Unknown parameter
- Hermann Kern, Through the Labyrinth, ed. Robert Ferré and Jeff Saward, Prestel, 2000, ISBN 3-7913-2144-7. (This is an English translation of Kern's original German monograph Labyrinthe published by Prestel in 1982.)
- Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-80142-393-7.
- Herodotus, The Histories, Newly translated and with an introduction by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Harmondsworth, England, Penguin Books, 1965.
- Karl Kereny, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton University Press, 1976.
- Helmut Jaskolski, The Labyrinth: Symbol of Fear, Rebirth and Liberation, Shambala, 1997.
- Adrian Fisher & Georg Gerster, The Art of the Maze, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1990. ISBN 0-297-83027-9.
- Jeff Saward, Labyrinths and Mazes, Gaia Books Ltd, 2003, ISBN 1-85675-183-X.
- Jeff Saward, Magical Paths, Mitchell Beazley, 2002, ISBN 1-84000-573-4.
- W.H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development, Longmans, Green & Co., 1922. Includes bibliography. Dover Publications reprint, 1970, ISBN 0-486-22614-X.
- Andrew Stewart, One Hundred Greek Sculptors: Their Careers and Extant Works.
- Henning Eichberg, 2005: "Racing in the labyrinth? About some inner contradictions of running." In: Athletics, Society & Identity. Imeros, Journal for Culture and Technology, 5:1) Athen: Foundation of the Hellenic World, 169-192.
- Edward Hays, The Lenten Labyrinth: Daily Reflections for the Journey of Lent, Forest of Peace Publishing, 1994.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Labyrinth.|
- Labyrinthos maintained by Jeff Saward
- The Labyrinth Society
- Through Mazes to Mathematics Exposition by Tony Phillips, SUNY
- Maze classification Extensive classification of labyrinths and algorithms to solve them.
- IRRGARTENWELT.DE Lars O. Heintel's collection of handdrawn labyrinths and mazes
- Labyrinthe in Deutschland Website (in German) with diagrams and photos of virtually all the public labyrinths in Germany.
- Mystery Labyrinth German website (in German and English) with descriptions, animations, links, and especially photos of (mostly European) labyrinths.
- British turf labyrinths by Marilyn Clark. Photos and descriptions of the surviving historical turf mazes in Britain.
- Jo Edkins's Maze Page An early website providing a clear overview of the territory and suggestions for further study.
- "Die Kretische Labyrinth-Höhle" by Thomas M. Waldmann, rev. 2009 (in German, English, French, and Greek). Description of a labyrinthine artificial cave system near Gortyn, Crete, widely considered the original labyrinth on Crete. (Presentation somewhat amateurish – including <blink> tags – but many detailed photos.)
- SpiralZoom.com an educational website about the science of pattern formation, spirals in nature, and spirals in the mythic imagination & labyrinths.
- Guerrilla Labyrinths Light-weight site by David Brazzeal, who creates "occasional" labyrinths.
- The Geometry of History, Tessa Morrison, U. of Newcastle, Australia. An attempt to extend Phillips's topological classification to more general unicursal labyrinths.