The true labyrinth has no false pathways or dead ends to confuse those who follow its winding course. Puzzle mazes in gardens, as children's toys or in theme parks are all multicursal - many paths - to entice and fool the visitor. Instead, it consists of a single meandering pathway which leads inexorably from the entrance to the centre.
Throughout the world there exists a symbol - a series of concentric lines, carefully connected. This symbol and its family of derivatives has been traced back over 3500 years; it occurs in different cultures, at different points in time, in places as diverse as Peru, Arizona, Iceland, Scandinavia, Crete, Egypt, India and Sumatra. The lines of contact between these widely spaced bursts of labyrinth consciousness are difficult to trace, its origins remain mysterious.
The mediums employed for its use have been many and varied: a simple symbol in a mythology, carved on wood or a rockface, woven into the design on a blanket or basket, laid out on the ground with water-worn stones in the desert or on shorelines, in coloured stone or tiles on the floors of villas, churches and cathedrals, or cut into the living turf on a village green - to name a few from the many varieties recorded. Sometimes the design is altered or developed, but more often the symbol of the labyrinth is employed with no significant variation. For the labyrinth symbol is as simple to construct as it appears complex to navigate.
The labyrinth has often been employed as a symbol for the omphalos, the sacred centre or city: Roman mosaic labyrinths surrounded by fortified walls, protecting the centre of the labyrinth and the cities of the Roman Empire; symbolising the pathway leading to the top of Baboquivari, a sacred mountain in Arizona; as a painted threshold design in India, known as kolam, the fort Throughout Europe the ancient labyrinths are known as Troy Town, City of Troy or Walls of Troy, the legendary city of the ancient Pagan world, or as Jerusalem in a later Christian context.
In medieval Europe the labyrinth was used as a symbol of Christian faith, the one true path to eternal salvation. In many cultures the labyrinth has been used as a ceremonial pathway and as a dancing ground. The twisting, tortuous paths are often seen as guarding the central goal from direct penetration, for here the souls of the dead ancestors were sometimes thought to reside, barred from escaping and causing trouble in everyday life, but contactable once the labyrinths coils had been traversed.
Likewise young women would stand here as suitors would chase through the windings to seek out a potential bride. As many stories are told as mythologies exist, but whether in spiritual or secular use, the labyrinth seems to symbolise the path to be followed, however long and complex, to reach the goal, the object of the quest, at the centre...
In the Americas, the labyrinth is found etched into the sands of the NazcaPlain in Peru, in use among the Caduveo people of Brazil and scratched on boulders and rockfaces in Northern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. Among the Hopi it is known as Tápu'at (Mother and Child), and is depicted in two forms.
One variety symbolizes the Sun Father, the giver of life; the lines and pathways represent the road of life to be followed and the four points where the lines end represent the cardinal points. The other form has a subtle reconnection of the lines to produce one labyrinth within another, the Mother Earth symbol depicting the unborn child within the womb of its mother and cradled in her arms after birth. The labyrinth is also seen as a plan of the concentric boundaries of their traditional lands which have secret shrines hidden at key points around their circuits.
The Tohono O'otam and Pima tribes of Southern Arizona weave baskets from dried leaves, stems and roots of desert plants, and the labyrinth appears on these as a design known as the House of Iitoi or Siuku Ki; its significance is explained in the myth of Iitoi, the ancestral founder of the tribes whose spirit resides at the top of a mountain.
From time to time Iitoi's spirit, in the form of a small man, would sneak into the villages and cause trouble. Making good his escape, Iitoi so confused the people with all the deceiving turns on the track returning to his home. Thus on the path to the centre of the labyrinth one can see Iitoi and trace the mysterious and bewildering journey leading back to the peak of Baboquivari, a sacred centre of the tribal lands.
In Europe the labyrinth symbol is widespread and varied in its forms. Prehistoric labyrinths are found carved on rockfaces at Pontevedra, Spain and at Val Camonica in northern Italy. Attributed to the late Bronze Age, an example from Nanque, northern Italy has a pair of eyes pecked at its centre to produce a face staring out from the labyrinths centre.
A number of labyrinth carvings, on boulders and occasionally in tombs or other sacred buildings, have been found throughout Europe, but accurate dating is difficult. The Rocky Valley labyrinths in Cornwall, England, are often described as Bronze Age, but probably date to the 18th century AD!
The earliest examples for which an accurate date can be ascribed are to be found around the shores of the Mediterranean. A labyrinth-inscribed clay tablet from Pylos, Greece is over 3200 years old; a similar date applies to labyrinths on pottery fragments from Syria. The depiction of the labyrinth on a wine jar from Tragliatella dates to the 7th century BC; it shows armed soldiers on horseback running from a labyrinth with the word Truia (Troy) inscribed in the outermost circuit.
The famous labyrinth decorated coins from Knossos, Crete, date from the last three centuries before Christ. Their designs are thought to allude to the legendary Labyrinth at Knossos in which the Minotaur was imprisoned. The Labyrinth itself, a Minoan palace/temple complex, was destroyed several times during its long history, but was finally abandoned c.1380 BC. Interestingly, no examples of the labyrinth symbol have survived from the site.
The labyrinth symbol was widely used and adapted by the Romans; its geometric form was a popular subject for depiction in mosaic pavements as over sixty known examples attest. They are found throughout the Roman empire from Britain to Yugoslavia and in north Africa. The designs used are quite different from the classical labyrinth, but in fact a simple development from it Most, however, were too small to have been walked, and would have provided contemplative exercise only, although it is recorded that the labyrinth pattern was used - marked on the ground and known as the lusus Trojae - and performed on horseback as a test of skill.
The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur was evidently well known to the Romans; scratched on a pillar of a house at Pompeii, Italy, a town destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, is a graffito of the labyrinth symbol with an inscription reading LABYRINTHUS HIC HABITAT MINOTAURUS - The labyrinth, here lives the Minotaur; probably a reference to the disposition of the then occupier of the house!
Turf labyrinths, or 'turf mazes' as they are popularly known, were once found throughout Europe. They are formed by turf ridges and shallow trenches marking a single pathway which often leads to a small mound at their centre. Most were between 30 and 60 feet (9-18 metres) in diameter and were usually circular, although square and other polygonal examples are known.
Several hundred sites, positive or postulated, have been identified, but only eleven examples survive - eight in England and three in Germany. Although mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny in his Natural History, most of those recorded probably date to the medieval period. Folklore and the scant records that survive suggests that they were a popular feature of village fairs and other festivities, particularly around Easter and Whitsuntide. Many are found on village green or commons, often near churches, but sometimes they are sited on hilltops and at other remote sites, hinting at earlier traditional practices involving the labyrinth.
Among the more interesting examples are three which have fully grown trees at their centres, akin to the world tree Yggdrasil. The turf maze in Saffron Walden, England has now lost its Ash tree, but otherwise survives in good condition; a 18th century document records that young men would meet here and challenge each other to run the maze in record time to reach the young women who would stand at the centre.
Dances and processions are recorded from the Rad (wheel) turf maze in Hannover, Germany; a mature Lime tree stands at its centre, making it one of the most impressive surviving turf mazes. Slupsk in Poland formerly possessed an enormous turf maze, 150 feet (45 metres) in diameter, the site of a complex costumed festival administered by the local shoemakers' trade guild. Dancers would tread the 'lapwing step' around its coils, an interesting parallel with the Geranos or 'crane dance' performed by Theseus and Ariadne on Delos after their escape from the Labyrinth of Knossos.
Pavement labyrinths, constructed in coloured stone or tiles and usually between 10 and 40 feet in diameter, are often to be found in the great early medieval churches and cathedrals of Northwest Europe, and more occasionally in Southern Europe and North Africa. The best known is the 13th century labyrinth in Chartres cathedral, France.
The design of this labyrinth and many of the contemporary labyrinths in Europe is a reworking of the ancient labyrinth design, in which an equal armed cross is emphasized - the Christian form of a symbol which knowingly pre-dated the Christian faith, but which retained the mathematical properties of the earlier design and in a few case still bore a representation of Theseus and the Minotaur at the central goal.
Although contemporary evidence is scant, it is reputed that these labyrinths were walked as a substitute for long pilgrimages after the enthusiasm of the Crusades had abated, it is known that some were the scene of symbolic games and dances; a game of pelota was played at Easter on the pavement labyrinth in Auxerre Cathedral.
The labyrinth design clearly symbolised the tortuous path that the good Christian followed towards redemption, and the pattern of Christ's own preordained life and inevitable fate, and in this role they would have served a contemplative purpose, an allegory of medieval Christian life. Of course, children used the labyrinths in a less reverent manner, those at Rheims and St.Omer, France, were destroyed because of noisy children playing on the labyrinth, disturbing divine office.
In Scandinavia stones were used to mark out the walls of the labyrinth; over 500 examples have been recorded. Stone labyrinths are also known from Iceland, Russia and the Baltic countries; they also occur in India, Arizona and in the British Isles. Many of the Scandinavian labyrinths are found close to the coastline, and were certainly built by fishing communities, probably during the medieval period, when labyrinths were also occasionally painted on the walls of churches in the region.
Some are found far inland, high up in the hills and mountains in association with ancient grave fields often dating to the Bronze Age. Possibly these examples were connected with Pagan practices, where the labyrinth was seen as the abode of the spirits of the ancestors. The stone labyrinth at Låssa, Uppland, Sweden, was constructed at the end of an ancient road built c.815 AD, along which it has been conjectured the dead would be pulled on carts to their burial sites in the cairns and mounds which surround the labyrinth at the south end of the road.
Although we can only guess at the rituals carried out at these ancient labyrinths in the grave fields, the uses of the coastal labyrinths are better known. Until the early 20th.century fishing folk would walk the labyrinths before putting to sea to ensure good catches and bring favourable winds - unwelcome winds would become trapped in the circuitous coils of the labyrinth.
In Finland, the Lapp hunters and shepherds would walk the labyrinths to protect themselves from wolves and wolverines and to entrap the trolls and other evil spirits, who would follow them in, but would be unable to find their own way out from the centre of the labyrinth.
Jeff Saward, Editor, Caerdroia; 1992.
© Caerdroia 2000 ~ this page last updated 08/03/99 by the webweaver
Read Jeff Saward's Labyrinth contributions in CAERDROIA - the journal of mazes and labyrinths - at www.labyrinthos.net
E-mail Mr. Saward at firstname.lastname@example.org