From Academic Kids

This article is about the mazelike labyrinth. For other uses, see labyrinth (disambiguation)
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Classical labyrinth
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Medieval labyrinth
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Walking the famous labyrinth within the Chartres Cathedral.

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate maze constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a fateful thread to wind his way back again.

The term labyrinth is often used interchangeably with maze, but a maze is a puzzle with choices of path and direction, while a single-path ("unicursal") labyrinth has only a single, Eulerian path to the centre.

Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek ("Pelasgian") origin absorbed by classical Greek, and is apparently related to labrys, a word for the archaic iconic "double axe", with -inthos connoting "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, noted in Kerenyi, p 101 n. 171)

The oldest known examples of the labyrinth design are small simple petroglyphs (incised stones) perhaps dating back 3000 years. These spiralling labyrinth-pattern petroglyphs are found in numerous places across the world, from Syria to Ireland.

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 (Kerenyi 1976 p 91).

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."

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 BCm coins from Knossos are still struck with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple 7-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth (illustration).

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 the Socratic dialogue that Plato produced as Euthydemus, Socrates describes the labyrinthine line of a logical argument:

Then it seemed like falling into a labyrith: 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 layrinth as a place where one can lose one's way must be set aside. It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but, provided one is not devoured at the midpoint, it leads surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning." (Kerenyi p 91).

In Antiquity the more 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 a bull-man, a minotaur, appears in the centre of these mosaic labyrinths. Roman meander patterns gradually developed in complexity towards the four-fold 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, 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 full flowering of the medieval labyrinth design came about during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the gothic cathedrals, most notably Chartres and Amiens in Northern France and Siena in Tuscany. It is this version of the design that is thought to be the inspiration for the many secular turf labyrinths in the UK, such as survive at Wing, Rutland, Hilton, Cambridgeshire, the Alkborough Turf Maze, and at Saffron Walden in Essex.

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 are thought to have been constructed by early fishing communities, to trap malevolent trolls/winds in the labyrinth's coils in order to ensure a safe fishing expedition. There are also stone labyrinths on the Isles of Scilly, although none of them are known to date back as far as the Scandinavian ones.

There are remarkable examples of the labyrinth shape from a whole range of ancient and disparate cultures. The symbol has appeared in all forms and media (petroglyphs, classic-form, medieval-form, pavement, turf and basketry) at some time, throughout most parts of the world, from Java, Native North and South America, Australia, India and Nepal.


Modern Labyrinth Building

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; and Tapton Park, Chesterfield.

Modern Interpretations of the Greek Labyrinth

In modern imagery, the labyrinth is often confused with the maze, in which one may become lost.

The myth of the labyrinth has in recent times transformed into a stage play by Ilinka Crvenkovska in which exploring notions of a man's ability to control his own fate, Theseus in an act of suicide is killed by the Minotaur only to be killed himself by the horrified towns people.

The story has also since evolved into The Labyrinth ( by Maja Hill - an interactive story using 3D computer graphics.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was entranced with the idea of the labyrinth, and used it extensively throughout his short stories. His modern literary use of the labyrinth has inspired a great many other authors in their own works (e.g. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves).

Cultural Meanings

Cultural meaning and interpretation of the labyrinth as a symbol is quite interesting. Shortly put, prehistoric labyrinths serve either as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. During Medieval times the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to the God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). Starting from the Renaissance labyrinths lose their central point: the person in the labyrinth is its center, a reflection of humanistic teachings. At last, nowadays the labyrinths moved into higher layers of reality, the Internet with its hypertext feature being a good example (the symbol of labyrinth merges with a symbol of book). Mazes often play a major role in modern computer games, e.g. the Lara Croft series.

See also

External links

Further reading

de:Labyrinth es:Laberinto eo:Labirinto fr:Labyrinthe it:Labirinto (architettura) he:לבירינת nl:Labyrint ja:迷宮 pl:Labirynt ru:Лабиринт sv:Labyrint


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