From "The Dance of the Labyrinth" by mythologist & novelist Ari Berk:
"Labyrinths are tricky things: dark avenues and turns, lots of footwork, occasional monsters or may-poles, complex riddles to be solved, and all these to be dealt with before the long walk back out again. Even the meaning of the word is the subject of much confusion, so before entering the labyrinth, it might be best to define our terms. Even now, most people think that labyrinths and mazes are the same thing. Not quite so, though the words are often thought to be synonymous. Following the principles set out by Hermann Kern in his exception book Through the Labyrinth...we learn that a true labyrinth is a structure or design whose path can assume numerous forms, but cannot intersect itself. No choices for the traveler. You must enter and exit in the same place. Also, your path will fold back on itself, changing direction frequently, and will fill the entire space within its boundaries, moving you temptingly past the center and then away again before leading you, eventually, to the center. Anything else is a maze. Now that we've established the difference, you needn't worry too much about it. Positively all the best people (folks like Herodotus and Diodorus) have confused the two, so you're in good company. Why, during the Renaissance, labyrinths (and often mazes as well) were called Jardin de Daedalus, and referred merely to any problem that required a quest towards a unique solution. For the composer Alexander Agricola, his 'secret labyrinth; represented his remarkable and unorthodox treatment of hexachordal modulation. Thus, anyone who sets a complex task for himself -- any artist, architect, philosopher, or poet -- enters the labyrinth each time they seek a visionary solution. In this way, many have thought that it is the problem posed, its affect on the mind that is significant, not the actual shape of the structure that represents the process of solution.
"Etymology is little help for the word's history is still in dispute," Ari continues. "Most frequently, the definitions referred to will include 'labyrinthos = house of the double headed ax (labrys) = palace of Knossos on Crete, but this has proven untenable' (Kern:25). So let us turn to literature. The first (likely) reference to the term 'labyrinth' suggests that it signifies a notable (perhaps stone) structure or defined area. On a clay tablet found at Knossos is a Linear B script dating to ca. 1400 BCE which has been translated to read: 'One jar of honey to all the gods, one jar of honey to the Mistress of the Labyrinth' (Kern:25). Now we are faced with more mysteries. Who is the 'Mistress of the Labyrinth'? A goddess? Ariadne? Does it truly relate to a structure, or perhaps to something marked out along the ground standing in the open air, like a ritual space? Kern suggests that the most that may be said is that it refers to something of stone. Again, just as we glimpse the center, we are forced back out the margins. But among the stones is a good place to look for labyrinths, indeed, carved labyrinths are not uncommon among petroglyphs across the world.
"Early evidence of labyrinths can be found as carved pictographs throughout Spain, in Ireland, near Tintagel in England, Syria, Romania, Egypt, Pompeii, Turkey, and Morocco. In Cornwall and northwest Spain some speculate they were associated with Bronze Age tin mining (Kern:67). In such places, they may have stood as a statement regarding the miners' view of themselves relative to the land. As miners, they descended into the womb of the earth, thus the labyrinth might have symbolized the path of their journey, and their hopes for a successful return. But on this interpretation, the stones themselves will neither confirm nor deny.
"This idea is perhaps strengthened by a carved labyrinth in Sardinia adorning the roof of an underground chamber tomb dating to the second half of the third millennium BCE. Like most labyrinth petroglyphs, it is of the Cretan seven-circuit type. There is speculation about the date of the carving, though Kern thinks the tomb and carved labyrinth are from the same period. Such tombs are used repeatedly, so it may be possible that the petroglyph may have been carved later as a re-emphasis of the significance of the site. Either way, it is reminiscent of the carved spirals seen on such ancient tombs of Newgrange in Ireland (where the sun enters and leaves the tombs at the time of the winter solstice) and may invoke similar metaphors regarding descent and emergence, though the labyrinth symbolizes not the path of the sun, but that of the spirits of the dead who likewise journeyed for a time in the Underworld before returning to the sunlit lands."
"Even the physical image of a labyrinth was though to hold power," Ari notes a little later in the essay. "In India, numerous amulets, drawings and manuscript paintings depict Cretan-type labyrinths as apotropaic charms and spells which can assist with particular physical ailments. In manuscripts from northwestern India, tantric drawings of labyrinths are used as charms to ease the labor and birthing process, thus emphasizing the labyrinth's wide-spread symbolic association with transition and birth/rebirth. In a related use, they could function as protective threshold magic. They would be formed from white powder on the ground, a meter from the door of the house (Kern:289). Such labyrinths protect the house from evil spirits by invoking the labyrinth as symbolic fortress. The drawing is not protected and is soon worn away, but the power of the image does not reside in the image itself, but in the act of forming it on the earth, in the physical act of using the body to trace it out. The image is a reminder, a place-holder, for the magic inherent in the action."
"One of the most enduring physical forms of the labyrinth is the Troy Town. These are formed from stones, lain out upon the ground, always in the form of a Cretan labyrinth. Because they are made of stones and there are usually no related monuments, they are very difficult to date. Found primarily in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Baltic coast, extant places name and church frescoes suggest their previous presence in Denmark, but none now exist there. The traditions associated with them exist now primarily in folklore. Some believe -- due to their frequent placement near the coastlines -- that they are related to fishing magic, and would have the effect of bringing in more fish, but whether fishermen had to walk or dance the labyrinth to bring this about is not known."
Some medieval (and modern) churches incorporate labyrinth patterns in their design for the purpose of meditative or devotional walking. One of the best known is the beautiful labyrinth at the heart of Chartres Cathedral in France. "These are pilgrim paths," says Ari, "and whatever is found in their center is between the traveler and their god. What more needs to be said? If you would know more, get thee to Chartres."
When it comes to modern labyrinths and mazes, perhaps the most magical of them all is in Labyrinth, the classic fantasy film by Jim Henson and my Chagford neighbor Brian Froud:
"Labyrinth is haunted by a thousand wizened creatures," writes Ari, "some gifted with wisdom, some with superb comic timing, others merely with uncontrollable flatulence. A curious twist on labyrinth tales, in this film a young woman must journey into the labyrinth to find her baby brother (played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Toby Froud) who has been stolen by the goblin king (played by David Bowie). As it turns out, the baby is not the only thing she must retrieve from the maze, and so after many harrowing adventures, she returns home, brother in arms, having learned 1) that maturity is not such a bad thing, and that 2) it is very naughty to chase after rock stars, even if they can do nifty juggling tricks with their crystal balls.
"Numerous modern writers have taken a turn on the labyrinth's path. In her Mythopoeic Award-winning novel The Innamorati, Midori Snyder assembles a rich cast of characters (artists, actors, merchants, soldiers, thieves, prostitutes, and priests) in a marvelously imagined landscape inspired by Renaissance Italy. Their stories come together in the maze that lies at the heart of this enchanted tale. Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein has her main character, Molly Travers, working in San Francisco when she learns that she is descended from a 19th-century vaudeville and magic troupe. Further revelations include a relationship with an arcane Order of the Labyrinth. The King Must Die by Mary Renault is a well-informed and creative adaptation of the Theseus myth that includes Minoan Bull Leaping. In The Maze by Monica Hughes, a young girl is given a curious box adorned with a maze that leads to otherworldly adventures. "
I second Ari's book recommendations and would add: Patricia McKillip's Od Magic, a deeply magical novel with a labyrinth at its heart; Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, with its underground maze in the Earthsea archipelago; and the wizardly maze in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
To learn more more about mazes and labyrinths, I suggest reading Ari's essay in full. You'll find it here.
Words: The text above comes from "The Dance of the Labyrinth" by Ari Berk (published in Realms of Fantasy & The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004). Pictures: Art & photography identification and credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the author and artists.