01 October 2010
I think most of us know the story of the Minotaur.
The Minotaur was the offspring of Pasiphae (the wife of King Minos of Crete) and the Cretan Bull. Aphrodite gave Minos a perfect bull so that he could sacrifice it to her, but he decided to keep it instead. To punish him, the goddess made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull. Insert bestiality here and the Minotaur was born, the offspring of a human and a monster.
Minos had the monstrous child placed at the center of a labyrinth constructed by Daedelus and life went on until Minos's(1) son was killed by the Athenians in battle. Minos won the war and to punish the Athenians, he commanded that they send their seven best young men and seven loveliest young women to be sacrificed to the beast. They were released in the labyrinth and consumed by the Minotaur.
After a few of these sacrifices, the hero Theseus decided that enough was enough. He went to Crete where Minos's daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him. She gave him the key to the labyrinth and a ball of string to help him find his way back. Theseus slew the Minotaur, led the Athenian youths out of the maze, and escaped Crete with them and Ariadne. (At this point, Theseus ceases to be heroic because he abandons Ariadne on the isle of Naxos. Jerk. She curses him to forget which color sails to raise on his way home and when his dad sees the black sails, he assumes Theseus is dead and throws himself off a cliff. Good start, bad ending.)
Anyway...back to the labyrinth. While the maze of the Minotaur is a myth, there is substantial archaeological evidence to suggest that there truly was a labyrinth at the Minoan palace of Knossos. The palace actually WAS the labyrinth!(2) The building was arranged so that it was virtually impossible for someone unfamiliar with the layout to navigate it. That doesn't really explain the whole bull-man thing, but it lends the ring of truth to the idea of the maze.
There are mazes from Ancient Egypt, as well. The labyrinth at Hawara (3) that was, according to Herodotus, "...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...."(4)
This labyrinth was originally constructed as a mortuary hall and built over several generations. The oldest name recorded at the temple was that of Amenemhat III, who also built the "Black Pyramid." The burial temples of the pharaohs were never forthright and even the contemporary archaeologist "Dr Zahi Hawass has said that when he first entered this pyramid he had a rope tied around his ankle to ensure he didn’t get lost inside."(5)
While the labyrinth at Knossos is certainly one of the most famous, it's not the only ancient labyrinth left for us by our ancestors. From the Bronze Age, there are petroglyphs of what's now known as the Classical or 7-circuit maze in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
There are labyrinths from the Bronze Ages - even some the Neolithic Age - that can be found throughout Europe. The vast majority of them reflect the same Classical form, which suggests that the symbolism of the labyrinth was in some way universal. However, it's impossible to know for certain. Labyrinths found in the Valle Camonica in Italy are usually found with scenes of battle and soldiers, where similar patterns in Galicia are surrounded by wild animals - a symbol of the hunt, perhaps.
Labyrinths aren't specific to the continents across the Atlantic, however. The Tohono O'odham, a Native American tribe in Arizona have a symbol they call "The Man in the Maze."(6) Petroglyphs of the maze, which features a man standing in the opening of the labyrinth, have been found at the Casa Grande Ruins.
But the real mystery is in the meaning of the labyrinth. As I mentioned, the Stone Age labyrinths seem to symbolize something...but what? Their meaning is unclear.
The Cretan labyrinth might have been merely the result of creative architecture, but was mythologized into a scenario of terror and death.
What, then, do those early symbols have in common with the labyrinths and mazes of the Middle Ages? And how do they connect to the modern-day resurgence of labyrinths as paths to inner peace?
The connection is entirely uncertain. People of many faiths today walk labyrinthine patterns to help clear their minds. It's said that following the path to the center of a labyrinth will help untangle problems as you meditate.
Whatever the symbolism, current or past, they provide an artistic framework for the famous "What if?" How can a labyrinth inspire you?
An excellent resource on labyrinths can be found at Labyrinthos.net.
(1)Minos's is correct according to Strunk & White's Elements of Style. The Chicago Manual of Style can go jump in a lake.
(4)Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Book II, pp. 160–61.