History of Labyrinths

9 circuit turf labyrinth at Hilton Cambs. Installed circa 1660

A Brief History of The Labyrinth

Most people are familiar with mazes, especially those built of hedges, such as the famous example at Hampton Court, with their complex patterns of pathways, intended to confuse the visitor. But these mazes are a relatively recent invention, first appearing around 600 years ago in the gardens of royal places and wealthy landowners in late medieval Europe. There also exists another category of mazes, more commonly called labyrinths, which have only one pathway leading from the entrance to the centre, albeit by the most tortuous of routes. These can be traced back over 4000 years and are found worldwide in a number of different forms.

The history of the labyrinth is dotted with times when their popularity has taken the concept and designs to new locations and found new uses – from the Neolithic period through to modern times. Their twisting pathways have variously been traced by eye or with a fingertip when carved, woven or painted on rocks, walls or household objects; or have been walked, run and danced, when laid upon the ground. Since the labyrinth symbol first appeared, there have been many design variations employed in its construction, but two specific forms, the so-called ‘Classical’ and ‘Medieval’ types have proved by far the most popular. Many of these labyrinths have a pleasing visual symmetry combined with a surprising length of pathway enclosed within a relatively small area. Unlike the later mazes, labyrinths have no choices along the way – the only decision is whether you enter and trust that the path will lead you to your goal.

Labyrinth or Maze?

There is often confusion as to the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. This is understandable as in some contexts and languages the names are interchangeable. In the sense of structures created for walking on or through, a labyrinth is unicursal, that is, it has one path which will lead the walker without offering choices to the goal (at the centre in most designs). It may be a flat design or have raised ‘walls’ separating the pathways. A maze is multicursal and presents choices to the walker who must solve its puzzle to find the goal and will usually have high ‘walls’ to hide the pattern and create a greater challenge.

Walking and solving a maze is challenging and fun, or can create feelings of anxiety. The experience of walking a labyrinth is often calming and restful and can be deep, profound and even life changing.

Earliest Examples

The earliest examples, precise symbols found carved on rocks and painted or scratched on pottery, date to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, although are often difficult to date precisely. The same design, found on coins from Crete from the first few centuries BC, symbolise the labyrinth at Knossos in which the Minotaur was imprisoned. Popular throughout the Roman Empire as a protective and decorative symbol on the mosaic floors of civic buildings and villas, they were also constructed outdoors at this time as a playground for children and as a test of skill for soldiers on horseback.

During the medieval period the labyrinth symbol developed into a more intricate form, reflecting the complexities of faith, life and philosophy in the medieval mind. Occurring first in manuscripts, it was subsequently laid in coloured marble and tiles on the floors of cathedrals and churches, most famously at Chartres Cathedral, where the labyrinth constructed in the early 13th century survives to this day, and indeed, has become an object of pilgrimage for modern visitors.

Mentioned by Shakespeare

In Britain and Germany, from the late medieval period onwards, they were created by cutting the designs into the turf of town commons, village greens and rural hilltops. Mentioned by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” and employed as a dancing ground for rustic festivities, they were once widespread, but only eight historic examples survive in England and three in Germany. Elsewhere in Europe walkable labyrinths formed of rocks on remote islands in Scandinavia are associated with superstitious practices of the fishing communities that built them, likewise during the medieval period. Other examples alongside prehistoric burial grounds in Southern Sweden and Arctic Russia hint at an earlier use in the region, for purposes that remain mysterious.

Equally puzzling are the labyrinths found carved and painted on cave and temple walls in India and on tribal objects from Sumatra and Java – how and when the labyrinth reached these remote areas remains difficult to fully explain. Likewise the occurrence of the symbol amongst rock art in the American Southwest - was this an independent discovery of the design, or a European introduction?

World spread

Colonial influences took labyrinths and mazes to all corners of the world by the 19th century, at which time many of the modern forms of mazes, aimed specifically at family entertainment, were developed. During the late 20th century the story took another dramatic turn. First mazes, with ever more innovative designs and complex technological developments, became an integral part of visitor attractions and the leisure industry. Then labyrinths, rediscovered by a new generation appreciative of their historic connections and spiritual possibilities, found a new acceptance, and at the current time are more popular than they have ever been throughout their tortuous history. Estimates vary, but perhaps 10,000 labyrinths have been constructed worldwide in the last 25 years, in a remarkable variety of locations.

With their ageless forms and complex, swirling pathways that always lead eventually to the goal labyrinths invite playful interaction, as well as soulful contemplation. It is thischarm that so appeals to modern visitors. The lure of the labyrinth has ensnared humankind for thousands of years, and this fascination shows every sign of continuation.
Jeff Saward