IF THE WORD ‘labyrinth’ does not lead us eventually back to the very earliest human communities, it has a good try. The Greek labyrinthos appears to be a linguistic echo from Egypt and Asia Minor. It is possible that it relates to labrys, a double-edged axe, emblem of the Cretan royal family. No one is certain, since tracing the origin of the word ‘labyrinth’ is itself an etymological labyrinth.
It creeps into something like modern English as laboryntus in Chaucer’s House of Fame and has become by the early fifteenth century laberynthe, a maze. Except for specialised usages the terms ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ then become almost indistinguishable in English. Fanshawe’s seventeenth-century Horatian translations talk about clews and mazes, so we are back with the Cretan labyrinth and Ariadne’s bobbined thread, which permitted Theseus to find his way out of the maze after he had executed his monster. Such a thread was a clew, or ball of yarn, providing us with our modern word ‘clue’.
THE SENSE INITIALLY was of a structure designed to baffle and disorientate; to prevent curiosity; to hide that which must not be found, either because it was sacred or because it was shameful. It may not always be a minotaur in there (and see below), but there will be something whose immediate disclosure is either undesirable or forbidden. It could be a monster, a priest or a crocodile. The secondary sense is of any structure or series of structures which, whatever their primary purpose, have the effect of baffling us as we try to find our bearings. Instead of finding our route, we stand amazed. ‘Amazed’ caught on quickly and stayed; ‘labyrinthed’ was introduced, but never won through – it sounds too clumsy. ‘Amazement’ worked well, though in modern usage we are more likely to say ‘labyrinthine’ than ‘mazy’; three centuries back, it would have been the other way around. And then there are the mazes and labyrinths whose function is purely ludic and recreational, whether in Versailles or Hampton Court. These are structures designed for those with time on their hands, time to get lost during luxurious and lengthy afternoons.
What are the earliest known sightings? The first structure known to be entitled labyrinth was a vast building in Northern Egypt, constructed some time around 2000 BCE. Herodotus was astounded by it. It had been built at a vast expense of human labour, just above Lake Moeris, opposite Crocodipolis. There were fifteen hundred rooms on the top floor, according to Herodotus, and fifteen hundred below. The lower ones he was not permitted to visit, since they contained the tombs of kings and sacred crocodiles. A later traveller, Strabo, appears to confirm much of what the frequently unreliable Herodotus says, and describes the Egyptian labyrinth as a work equal in scope to the pyramids. There was a sacred crocodile in the lake, which was tame and came whenever called. It was fed flesh, honey and wine. Pliny too confirms that Egyptian labyrinths were the ‘most stupendous’ works ever constructed.
The Romans built a village over the site, using the labyrinth itself as a quarry for the purpose. Others, including Louis XIV’s Antiquary, came much later and noted the sad state of the ruins that remained. Flinders Petrie identified the actual site with accuracy in 1888. It appeared that it might well have been intended, like so many other grand buildings in Egypt, as a sepulchral monument, probably for King Amenemhat III, whose mummified remains, together with those of his daughter Sebekneferu, were entombed in a nearby pyramid.
BUT THE LABYRINTH which has come to us in legend and myth, and from which we take the name, is of course the Cretan one. King Minos had a son named Androgeos who went travelling in Attica, and was treacherously slain by the inhabitants of that region. Minos imposed a dire penalty. The Athenians had to send seven youths and seven maidens every nine years to Knossos. These would then be inserted, one by one, into the labyrinth, the bafflingly complex structure erected by that technological genius, Daedalus. He had built this fearsome edifice, not for pleasure or even wonder, but for incarceration. The wife of Minos, Queen Pasiphae, had copulated with a beautiful white bull and brought forth the miscegenated hybrid, the minotaur, which had a man’s body but a bull’s head, and which was characterised by fearful strength and even more fearful appetites.
Theseus was the son of the King of Athens, Aegeus, and offered to become one of the fourteen votive offerings to the minotaur on the next marine consignment. He would then devise a means of killing the troublesome and ravenous therianthrope. Reluctantly, the King complied, insisting that Theseus should show that he was victorious on his return journey by changing the black sail on his boat to white.
On his arrival in Crete, Theseus was helped by Ariadne to kill her half-brother. She had fallen in love with this foreign prince at first glance; a goddess was imposing her curse here, as so often. The thread she supplied let him find his way out of the labyrinth after the killing. She had asked only that he take her away with him after his heroic deeds were completed. She had, after all, just arranged the assassination of her half-brother. He did take her away, but abandoned her on Naxos, the first island the sailors came to after Crete. At Delos the sailors performed a notable dance called the Crane Dance, in which they re-threaded their way through the labyrinth in ritual form. This dance was performed by the islanders for thousands of years after Theseus’s departure. There seems to have been a fair amount of revelry on board – and presumably a few jokes about the lovelorn Ariadne whom the skipper had so casually dumped – and on their approach to the mainland Theseus forgot to change the black sail to white. His father Aegeus, watching from the cliff, assumed he had lost his beloved son to the monster, and threw himself into the sea, thereby giving it the name it still holds: the Aegean.
This is the legend. From the beginning there were alternative accounts. Philochorus insisted the labyrinth was no more than a run-of-the-mill dungeon. The youths were kept there until they could be awarded to victors in the sports held in honour of Minos’s murdered son. The minotaur was neither more nor less than a fanatical and brutal military officer, who happened to bear the name Tauros. So he was, then, Minos’s Tauros; thus do we elide our way towards a minotaur. Plutarch quotes a work of Aristotle which has not survived: in that the youths were not slaughtered but instead employed as slaves, a routine transaction for those days. Plutarch points out that Minos was a noble ruler, famed for his justice, who in no way deserved the calumnies Greek tradition had inflicted upon him. But rationality was condemned to the margin and the footnote: there was after all a better story to be told. In the Darwinian scheme of narratives, it is the strongest tales that survive their telling.
And this particular tale has continued to be told. The labyrinth, like Bluebeard’s chamber, is of just as much interest whether it arose from some vestiges of historical occurrence, or expresses instead a psychological necessity to tell and re-tell such narratives. What the imagination chooses and retains is not necessarily that which is vouchsafed by history, and yet we continue to hunt down whatever history might offer us as collateral in the form of archaeology, as if still determined to prove the legend true. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort explored the cavern at Gortyna, long thought to be the original labyrinth. Some said it was merely a quarry used to build the local settlements, but Tournefort thought it too inaccessible for such a purpose. It was certainly an easy place to get lost in, and the locals finally sealed off most of the passages, for fear of losing their children in there. Tournefort’s book about his travels and his excavations, A Voyage into the Levant, was translated by John Ozell and published in London in 1718. It contains this vivid account of the labyrinthine experience to be had there: ‘If a man strikes into any other Path, after he has gone a good way, he is so bewildered among a thousand Twistings, Twinings, Sinuosities, Crinkle-Crankles and Turn-again Lanes, that he could scarce ever get out again without the utmost danger of being lost.’
STILL, KNOSSOS ITSELF remained to be explored; ruined walls made of enormous blocks of gypsum, which still bore elaborate engraved marks. Arthur Evans (not yet Sir) finally got there in 1900, and started to excavate. He found what he believed was a large palace, and the objects discovered within it were of such significance that Evans decided they were the products of an ancient civilization of sufficient import that it deserved a name of its own. That name, Evans ruled, was ‘Minoan’. Here he found pictographic inscriptions, which he concluded had existed prior to the Phoenician, and therefore offered an alternative system of foundations for our written language. He also found a large area for dancing, an orchestra in the original sense, which is to say a place for the chorus of dancers. Images showing bull-leaping were numerous. This seems to have been a highly dangerous sport which consisted of a young man catching the horn of a charging bull and leaping over him. Evans speculates that this lethal activity might well have involved training up young captives (rather like gladiators) to provide a sport that might have had a ritual significance too.
And so we could have arrived, by a sequence of crinkle-crankles, at the origin of the story of the Cretan labyrinth, and the sacrificial death of the young, particularly since some centuries elapsed between the destruction of these buildings and the first written accounts of the legend. Evans himself concluded that a mighty earthquake had ruined Knossos around 1600 BCE; modern archaeology tends to disagree.
He did find one other thing that gave him pause. Thirty feet down from the palace floor there was an artificial cave, with three big steps leading into it. It gave the impression of being the rough dwelling of some formidable beast.
LABYRINTHS APPEAR ON Egyptian seals and amulets. And around 500 BCE there are Knossian silver coins, some of which bear an image of the minotaur on one side and on the other a symmetrical meander pattern, a labyrinth. One shows the minotaur dancing on the obverse; on the reverse is a swastika labyrinth. The minotaur, the labyrinth and Theseus and his weapon, then become recurrent motifs in western art. They appear as a graffito at Pompeii, and mosaics in Caerleon, Salzburg and Cormerod in Switzerland. Each image registers a complicated structure which at its heart houses the minotaur. Theseus is duly making his way there, or has already arrived, and is clubbing the monster to death. The motif begins to appear in pottery: Greek kylices show Theseus and his many exploits, including the killing of the minotaur. Smaller versions appear on ancient gems. There is a series of drawings called the Florentine Picture Chronicle, ascribed to Baccio Baldini. In one of them, all aspects of the minotaur story are seen simultaneously. The collection was once owned by John Ruskin, and is now in the collection of the British Museum.
The labyrinth wends its way into Christian churches. The basilica of Reparatus in Algeria appears to date from the fourth century CE. It has a north-western pavement eight feet in diameter which is a square labyrinth. At its heart is not a minotaur, but a composite of letters made out of the words SANCTA ECCLESIA, which can be spelt out in almost any direction. Many more such pavements were built during the twelfth century. There is a labyrinth one hundred and fifty yards long (if you walk it through) at Chartres. The French words for the labyrinth were sometimes daedale or meandre, but sometimes Chemin de Jérusalem, which shows how the ancient iconography could be translated into Christian teleology.
The centre was often known as ciel. In Rheims, Chartres and Amiens the figure inhabiting the centre is neither the minotaur nor Theseus, but apparently the architect. Thus does Daedalus reclaim his centrality in this particular story. The name Chemin de Jérusalem may give credence to the notion that such labyrinths in churches may have been miniature pilgrimage routes, ritualistic enactments in microcosm of the macrocosmic pilgrimages that went on outside. In which case they would be the equivalent of the Crane Dance performed at Delos by Theseus and his merry crew. It is possible the labyrinth on the church pavement had to be traversed on your knees. Since it has been calculated that the average church labyrinth would take two hours to traverse in this manner, it is possible that it is meant to represent an enfolded via dolorosa – Chateaubriand calculated in his Itineraraire de Paris à Jérusalem that it took him two hours to walk from Pilate’s house to Calvary. On the other hand, the figure of the architect at the centre of some of these labyrinths might signify that it was an elaborate mason’s mark, acknowledging Daedalus as the greatest of all masonic masters in the secrets of the craft.
AND SO THE labyrinth continues to flourish, as a turf maze or that topiary variety known as a hedge maze. The Christian vision is wary: in the Middle Ages labyrinths are often seen through Christian eyes as emblematic of hell. Virgil, a great source for medieval Christian writers, has a labyrinth inscribed over one of the entrances to the Underworld in the Aeneid. For the alchemists, the labyrinth represents the dangerous journey that the adept must make through the opus alchymicum. Such a labyrinth is not negotiable without a clue or clew.
The maze-like etymology meanders. In Ruskin’s time the origin of the word was thought to be laura, a passage, a mine or often a cell set aside for monks and hermits. In Fors Clavigera Ruskin provides this intriguing definition: ‘coil-of-rope-walk.’ That ties in neatly with contiguous corridors and Ariadne’s thread, and Ruskin must have mused upon it as he gazed upon the Florentine Picture Chronicle which he then owned. Max Mayer suggested labrys, the double-headed axe, as the origin. And there, it would appear, we rest for the present.
CHAUCER GIVES US the story itself in his ‘Legend of Ariadne’:
This wepen shal the gayler, on that tyde,
Ful privily within the prison hyde;
And, for the hous is krinkeled to and fro,
And hath so queinte weyes for to go –
For hit is shapen as the mase is wroghte –
Thereto have I a remedie in my thought,
That, by a clewe of twine, as he hath goon,
The same way he may returne anoon,
Folwing always the thread, as he hath come.
Here we have the association of labyrinth and maze, we have the clew of twine or thread that will yield us in time the word ‘clue’, and we have the marvellous word we encountered before: ‘crinkle’. The crinkle or crinkle-crankle or crinkum-crankum all denote a structure of sinuosities, twists and baffling turns.
More frequently we have labyrinth used as metaphor for a place of great danger and confusion. So Suffolk in Henry VI Part One, after entreating Margaret of Anjou to consider taking the King’s hand, tells himself off for desiring the royal dainty for himself:
Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth:
There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.
The word ‘maze’ is more frequently threatening in Shakespeare than it will become later. A Latin comedy called Labyrinthus was performed at Cambridge before King James I. Pepys in 1684 saw a theatrical production entitled The Labyrinth, and declared it ‘the poorest play’ he’d ever seen. That one appears to have disappeared into the black hole fate had prepared for it.
IN MORE RECENT times we have Joyce’s Dedalus, seeking to escape the labyrinth of nationhood and religion, so that he can soar instead in the region of art. And there is the best of Michael Ayrton’s work, sculptures featuring his minotaurs. They are usually positioned inside a rudimentary labyrinth. The minotaur (that embodiment of our rage and power and lack of understanding) stares out at the geometrized labyrinth, but knows that he himself can never be geometrized. He is, quite literally, incalculable. Picasso’s minotaurs span fifty years of his prodigious output, and are surely meant to be read as self-portraits. Desire, rage and tragedy interlink here like cross-hatchings on a metal plate. Kafka’s castle in his eponymous novel is the labyrinth rendered into modernity; as his trial is the labyrinth rendered virtual as a system of baffling and punitive legality.
It is impossible to read any of these texts now without acknowledging the figure of Freud, the suspicious hermeneut, whose antiseptic eye lurks behind them all. He showed how an ancient text could be read as an allegory of the psyche when he re-read Oedipus with such radical revisionism in 1899. He could surely have concentrated instead on the labyrinth, had he so chosen. Let us say that the labyrinth is created with extraordinary ingenuity by Daedalus so that the past might be buried; the past where the shameful events once occurred. And yet the past still needs feeding with present life; hence the tribute every nine years – seven youths and seven maidens. The minotaur’s appetites like those of the unconscious tend towards bisexuality and androgyny. The labyrinth is the site of a crime instituted by desire. It was Pasiphae who loved the bull. Minos in his grief had the labyrinth built by Daedalus to hide from the light of day the fearsome creature who had come out of the king’s wife’s loins. So the labyrinth is a monument to love, built at one remove; the superego is erasing the traces the libido has left. We push the things of light into the darkness. In Freud’s terms it is the region of the unconscious where the repressed is forced down. It comes out into the light of day in the form of a return of the repressed, not all the time, but intermittently. Maybe once every nine years.
There is an intriguing doubling of this narrative in the various folk tale accounts of Bluebeard. Bluebeard’s chamber is also the place where the past is hidden, where the crimes are put away, but which must still be fed by bodies from the present. Bluebeard needs a new bride from time to time, to join the old ones he has already slaughtered in his chamber. And yet desire, which would always like to start anew without memory or guilt – to do it right this time, and cleanly – implicates the present in the past and vice-versa. The new bride must be given the keys to the chamber, and there she will find the image of herself, the murder of that desire she presently represents. She too is a living totem of sexuality and death, just as the previous brides were before their execution. Thus does the repressed crime irrupt into the present; thus does desire discover once more its inescapable criminality.
AND SO FINALLY we come to Borges, whose name is linked for ever with the word ‘labyrinths’, but who never actually assembled a book with that name on its cover. Books did appear with that title, in a number of languages, but they were edited by others. Even more curiously, when Labyrinths was put together – not by him – the two pieces he’d written that actually contained the word ‘labyrinth’ in their titles were left out. Now that could perhaps be thought of, from the editorial point of view, as labyrinthine. Borges was however greatly preoccupied with the theme; or perhaps we should say themes. Let us start from the assumption – a fair one – that the labyrinth is manifold. Blake insisted that he must either make his own system or be imprisoned in another man’s. Yeats reckoned that ‘a man is lost amidst the labyrinth he has made/In art or politics’, though it is hard to see why he needed to restrict the self-made labyrinth to those two realms.
For Borges reality was a labyrinth, and knowledge certainly was; the Tower of Babel had been refashioned as a library. All of Borges’ ruminations on the library emphasize its infinite possibilities. Knowledge pursued through books is emblematic not of the finite but of the infinite. Human beings create labyrinths every time they build a city.
Science came to regard nature as a labyrinth, which is to say, as a structure whose meaning is not self-disclosing. At the time of the doctrine of signatures, it was still possible to believe that nature’s identity was inscribed in a series of correspondences, designed to communicate identity and use to the intelligent reader of signs. But we live in the age of the standard model, and it took a great deal of questioning of observable nature to arrive at such modern physics. It is little more than a century since we first discovered that the atom was not indivisible; it is precisely a century since we found it had a nucleus. Learning the structure of the inside of matter, how it was made and when, has been one of the most titanic struggles of the human mind. It was such a mighty struggle because nature did not present itself to the human eye as transparent meaning: it is labyrinthine.
In The Great Instauration Francis Bacon is explicit:
But the universe to the eye of the human understanding is framed like a labyrinth, presenting as it does on every side so many ambiguities of way, such deceitful resemblances of objects and signs, natures so irregular in their lines and so knotted and entangled…
And a little later Bacon makes the allusion as explicit as it can be: ‘Our steps must be guided by a clue.’ To put the matter bluntly, if God wanted us to understand this book of nature, then he also wanted us to undergo a great deal of hard study first, and to spend a great deal of time about it. Whenever revealed religion has argued with the findings of science, it has always had to apologize for its anathemas at a later date. Religion has tended to rubberise its own dogma to accommodate science, never the other way about.
THE FIRST IMAGES we traced in the caves of the Upper Palaeolithic were created below ground in labyrinthine stone corridors. What precisely we were doing down there, and whether or not we were in a shamanic trance at the time, continue to be questions that greatly preoccupy modern anthropologists and ethnologists. What is beyond dispute is that some of these images feature therianthropes, creatures which are part human and part animal. The head is most frequently the animal part of these figures, and it tends to feature horns: like the minotaur.
If a single image could form the filament between the complex neurological mappings inside our brains and the vast complexities of the cosmos and the quantum states, it would be the labyrinth.
Of course, if it really is a labyrinth we are exploring here, then there is still a question which might turn out to be of some relevance. When we get to the heart of this vast baffling structure, will we actually be meeting a minotaur, preparing its maw for yet another welcome feast, or will it be the figure of Daedalus, architect of this mighty maze, with his masonic code book open on his lap? Or could it turn out to be that most formidable motor of our astronomic constellations, a black hole? In which case, we will be about to pass through a darkness as intense as that of any shaman.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His new book of short stories, Burning Bibles, is published by the Edgar Allan Press in May. He lives in North Wales.
Odd volumes: This essay has made considerable use of Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History & Development by W. H. Matthews.