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In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth (Greek λαβύρινθος labyrinthos, possibly the building complex at Knossos) 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 mythical creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he 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.
In colloquial English, labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two: maze refers to a complex branching (multicursal) 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.
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 BC, 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 mazes were reintroduced only when garden mazes became popular during the Renaissance.
Labyrinths appeared as designs on pottery or basketry, as body art, and in etchings on walls of caves or churches. The Romans created many primarily decorative labyrinth designs on walls and floors in tile or mosaic. Many labyrinths set in floors or on the ground are large enough that the path can be walked. They have been used historically both in group ritual and for private meditation.
|This section possibly contains original research. (November 2012)|
Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek (Minoan) origin, which the Greeks used for the palace of Knossos in Crete, and it is derived from the Lydian word labrys ("double-edged axe"). This was a symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace in Crete and meant "palace of the double-axe" (the suffix -nth as in Korinth). However the designation "The house of the Double Axe" cannot be limited to the palace of Knossos, because the same symbols were discovered in other palaces of Crete.
Labrys was a cult-word that was introduced from Anatolia. In Labraunda of Caria the double-axe accompanies the storm-god Zeus Labraundos (Ζεὺς Λαβρυάνδις). It also accompanies the Hurrian god of sky and storm Teshub (his Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun). A lot of these symbols were found in the Minoan palaces in Crete, and they usually accompanied goddesses. It seems that the double-axe was the symbol of the beginning (arche) of the creation.
The goddess of the double-axe probably presided over the Minoan palaces, and especially over the palace of Knossos. The Linear B (Mycenaean) inscription 𐀅𐁆𐀪𐀵𐀍𐄀𐀡𐀴𐀛𐀊 on tablet ΚΝ Gg 702, is interpreted as da-pu2-ri-to-jo,po-ti-ni-ja (labyrinthoio potnia, "Mistress of the labyrinth), and she was undoubtedly the goddess of the palace. The word daburinthos (labyrinthos) may possibly show the same equivocation between initial d- and l- as is found in the variation of the early Hittite royal name Tabarna / Labarna (where written t- may represent phonetic d-).
The complex palace of Knossos in Crete is usually implicated, though the actual dancing ground, depicted in frescoes 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).
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 BC, 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 particular circular shape (illustration) or rendered as square. At the center, a decisive turn brought one out again. In Plato's dialogue 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.
Knossos has been supposed since Classical times to be the site of the labyrinth. When the Bronze Age site at Knossos was excavated by explorer Arthur Evans, he found various bull motifs, including an image of a man leaping over the horns of a bull, as well as depictions of a labrys carved into the walls. On the strength of a passage in the Iliad, it has been suggested that the palace was the site of a dancing-ground made for Ariadne by the craftsman Daedalus, where young men and women, of the age of those sent to Crete as prey for the Minotaur, would dance together. By extension, in popular legend the palace is associated with the myth of the Minotaur.
In the 2000s, archaeologists explored other potential sites of the labyrinth. Oxford University geographer Nicholas Howarth believes that 'Evans’s hypothesis that the palace of Knossos is also the Labyrinth must be treated sceptically.' Howarth and his team conducted a search of an underground complex known as the Skotino cave but concluded that it was formed naturally. Another contender is a series of underground tunnels at Gortyn, accessed by a narrow crack but expanding into interlinking caverns. Unlike the Skotino cave, these caverns have smooth walls and columns, and appear to have been at least partially man-made. This site corresponds to an unusual labyrinth symbol on a 16th-century map of Crete contained in a book of maps in the library of Christ Church, Oxford. A map of the caves themselves was produced by the French in 1821. The site was also used by German soldiers to store ammunition during the Second World War. Howarth's investigation was shown on a documentary produced for the National Geographic Channel.
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 "11½ 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 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 BC 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']."
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.
At about the same time as the appearance of the Greek labyrinth, an essentially 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 BC. 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 the 1910 translation of Al-Beruni's India (c. 1030 CE) p. 306 (with a diagram on the following page).
By the White Sea, notably on the Solovetsky Islands, there have been preserved more than 30 stone labyrinths. The most remarkable monument is the Stone labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky Island - a group of 13–14 stone labyrinths on 0.4 km2 area of one small island. These labyrinths are thought to be 2,000–3,000 years old.
In antiquity, the less complicated labyrinth pattern familiar from medieval examples was already developed. In Roman floor mosaics, the simple classical labyrinth is 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" (Kern 169; Kerényi fig.31).
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)
Basilica of St-Quentin, Aisne, France
Cathedral of Amiens, France
Stone labyrinth on Blå Jungfrun (Blue Virgin) island, Sweden
Small turf maze near Dalby, North Yorkshire, UK
Turf maze at Wing in Rutland, UK
Portrait of a man with labyrinth design on his chest, by Bartolomeo Veneto, Italy, early 16th century
Labyrinth at St. Lambertus, Mingolsheim, Germany, following the Roman paradigm
When the early humanist Benzo d'Alessandria visited Verona before 1310, he noted the "Laberinthum which is now called the Arena"; perhaps he was seeing the cubiculi beneath the arena's missing floor. The full flowering of the medieval labyrinth came about from the twelfth through fourteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the gothic cathedrals, notably Chartres, Reims and Amiens in northern France. These labyrinths may have originated as symbolic allusion to the Holy City; and some modern thinkers have theorized that prayers and devotions may have accompanied the perambulation of their intricate paths. Although some books (in particular guidebooks) suggest that the mazes on cathedral floors served as substitutes for pilgrimage paths, the earliest attested use of the phrase "chemin de Jerusalem" (path to Jerusalem) dates to the late 18th century when it was used to describe mazes at Reims and Saint-Omer. The accompanying ritual, supposedly involving pilgrims following the maze on their knees while praying, may have been practiced at Chartres during the 17th century. However, no contemporary evidence supports the idea that labyrinths had such a purpose for early Christians. The cathedral labyrinths are 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 general 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 7- or 11-course classical forms. 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 from before the nineteenth century.
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.
|This section possibly contains original research. (November 2012)|
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the labyrinth symbol, which has inspired a revival in labyrinth building.
Countless video games depict mazes and labyrinths.
In modern imagery, the labyrinth of Daedalus is often represented by a multicursal maze, in which one may become lost.
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. In Rick Riordan's series Percy Jackson & the Olympians, the events of the fourth novel The Battle of the Labyrinth predominantly take place within the labyrinth of Daedalus, which has followed the heart of the West to settle beneath the United States. 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. Lawrence Durrell's The Dark Labyrinth depicts travelers trapped underground in Crete.
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), 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). The Italian painter Davide Tonato has dedicated many of his artistic works to the labyrinth theme.
In February 2013 it was announced that Mark Wallinger has created a set of 270 enamel plaques of unicursal labyrinth designs, one for every tube station, to mark the 150th anniversary of the London Underground; each will be numbered according to its position in the route taken by the contestants in the 2009 Guinness World Record Tube Challenge.
Prehistoric labyrinths are believed[by whom?] 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). In their cross-cultural study of signs and symbols, Patterns that Connect, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter present various forms of the labyrinth and suggest various possible meanings, including not only a sacred path to the home of a sacred ancestor, but also, perhaps, a representation of the ancestor him/herself: "...many [New World] Indians who make the labyrinth regard it as a sacred symbol, a beneficial ancestor, a deity. In this they may be preserving its original meaning: the ultimate ancestor, here evoked by two continuous lines joining its twelve primary joints."
One can think of labyrinths as symbolic 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. Modern mystics use labyrinths to help them 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.
In addition, the labyrinth can serve as a metaphor for situations that are difficult to be extricated from, as an image that suggests getting lost in a subterranean dungeon-like world. Octavio Paz titled his book on Mexican identity The Labyrinth of Solitude, describing the Mexican condition as orphaned and lost.
Labyrinths have on various occasions been used in Christian tradition as a part of worship. The earliest known example is from a fourth-century pavement at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria, with the words "Sancta Eclesia" [sic] at the centre, though it is unclear how it might have been used in worship.
In medieval times, labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around 1000 C.E.. The most famous medieval labyrinth, with great influence on later practice, was created in Chartres Cathedral. The purpose of the labyrinths is not clear, though there are surviving descriptions of French clerics performing a ritual Easter dance along the path on Easter Sunday. Some books (guidebooks in particular) suggest that mazes on cathedral floors originated in the medieval period as alternatives to pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but the earliest attested use of the phrase "chemin de Jerusalem" (path to Jerusalem) dates to the late 18th century when it was used to describe mazes at Reims and Saint-Omer. The accompanying ritual, depicted in Romantic illustrations as involving pilgrims following the maze on their knees while praying, may have been practiced at Chartres during the 17th century.
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