In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth (Greek λαβύρινθος labyrinthos) was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a fateful thread, literally the "clew", or "clue", to wind his way back again.
The term labyrinth is often used interchangeably with maze, but modern scholars of the subject use a stricter definition. For them, a maze is a tour puzzle in the form of a complex branching passage with choices of path and direction; while a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single Eulerian path to the center. A labyrinth has an unambiguous through-route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.
This unicursal design was widespread in artistic depictions of the Minotaur's Labyrinth, even though both logic and literary descriptions of it make it clear that the Minotaur was trapped in a multicursal maze.
A labyrinth can be represented both symbolically and physically. Symbolically, it is represented in art or designs on pottery, as body art, etched on walls of caves, etc. Physical representations are common throughout the world and are generally constructed on the ground so they may be walked along from entry point to center and back again. They have historically been used in both group ritual and for private meditation.
Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek (Pelasgian) origin absorbed by Classical Greek and is perhaps related to the Lydian labrys ("double-edged axe", a symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace on Crete and meant "palace of the double-axe"), with -inthos meaning "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).
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.
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 BCE, coins from Knossos were still struck with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple seven-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth.
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:
During the time of Sir William Smith, the remains of the "Labyrinthus" (as he calls it) were discovered "11 1/2 miles from the pyramid of Hawara, in the province of Faioum." As professor Smith states in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1870), the Labyrinthus was likely modified and added upon "at various times. The names of more than one king have been found there, the oldest" name being that of Amenemhat III. "It is unnecessary to imagine more than that it was monumental, and a monument of more than one king of Egypt."
In 1898, the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities described the structure as "the largest of all the temples of Egypt, the so-called Labyrinth, of which, however, only the foundation stones have been preserved.
A prehistoric petroglyph on a riverbank in Goa shows the same pattern and has been dated to circa 2500 BCE. Other examples have been found among cave art in northern India and on a dolmen shrine in the Nilgiri Mountains, but are difficult to date accurately. Early labyrinths in India all follow the Classical pattern; some have been described as plans of forts or cities Labyrinths appear in Indian manuscripts and Tantric texts from the 17th century onward. They are often called "Chakravyuha" in reference to an impregnable battle formation described in the ancient Mahabharata epic.'''
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, Reims and Amiens in northern France and the Duomo di Siena in Tuscany. These labyrinths were supposed to have originated in a symbolical allusion to the Holy City, and certain prayers and devotions doubtlessly accompanied the perambulation of their intricate mazes. It is this version of the design that is thought to be the inspiration for the many secular turf mazes in the UK, such as survive at Wing, Rutland, Hilton, Cambridgeshire, Alkborough (North Lincolnshire), 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 often have names which translate as "Troy Town". 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 its 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.
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; Tapton Park, Chesterfield; the Labyrinth in Shed 16 in the Old Port of Montreal and Trinity Square in Toronto.
Countless computer games depict mazes and labyrinths.
The myth of the labyrinth has in recent times found incarnation in a stage play by Ilinka Crvenkovska which explores notions of a man's ability to control his own fate. Theseus in an act of suicide is killed by the Minotaur, who is himself killed by the horrified townspeople.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was entranced with the idea of the labyrinth, and used it extensively in his short stories. His use of it has inspired other authors' works (e.g. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves). Additionally, Roger Zelazny's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Amber, features a labyrinth, called "the Pattern", which grants those who walk it the power to move between parallel worlds. The avant-garde multi-screen film, In the Labyrinth, presents a search for meaning in a symbolic modern labyrinth.
The labyrinth is also an important subject in contemporary fine arts. Remarkable 20th-century examples include Piet Mondrian's Dam and Ocean (1915), Joan Miro's Labyrinth (1923), Pablo Picasso's Minotauromachia (1935), M. C. Escher's Relativity (1953), Friedensreich Hundertwasser's Labyrinth (1957), Jean Dubuffet's Logological Cabinet (1970), Richard Long's Connemara sculpture (1971), Joe Tilson's Earth Maze (1975), Richard Fleischner's Chain Link Maze (1978), István Orosz's Atlantis Anamorphosis (2000), and Dmitry Rakov's Labyrinth (2003).
Labyrinths can be thought of as symbolic forms of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Many people could not afford to travel to holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Later, the religious significance of labyrinths faded, and they served primarily for entertainment, though recently their spiritual aspect has seen a resurgence.
Many newly made labyrinths exist today, in churches and parks. Labyrinths are used by modern mystics to help achieve a contemplative state. Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets his mind. The result is a relaxed mental attitude, free of internal dialog. This is a form of meditation. Many people believe that meditation has health benefits as well as spiritual benefits. The Labyrinth Society provides a locator for modern labyrinths in North America and other places in the world, including Australia.