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The History of Mazes - Part 1

Labyrinths and mazes have delighted audiences for thousands and thousands of years. As with any creative venture, there are endless possibilities, limited only by the imagination of the maze designer. From underground tunnels and secret passages, to hedges and garden pathways, to cornfields and straw bales, mazes have appeared all over the world in a variety of settings.

But where did mazes come from? How did the people of ancient history decide to create a complex and confusing mass of pathways for the purpose of entertainment? What’s the difference between a maze and a labyrinth, anyway?

There will always be some dispute about the origin of the words, and for most of history, the terms “maze” and “labyrinth” were interchangeable. Only recently has an attempt been made to distinguish between the two. In modern terms, a labyrinth is understood to be a single, winding pathway that leads directly to the center of the design and back out again (this is called unicursal). A maze is a complex series of paths that have many dead-ends and choices veering off the path to the exit (this is called multicursal). It’s difficult to get lost in a labyrinth, but easy to get lost in a maze.

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lab1 Labyrinth Designs

Labyrinth Designs

Labyrinth designs have been found on coins and artifacts dating back as far as 1300 BC, in addition to many literary references since that time. There is of course the Greek myth of the labyrinth that Daedalus built to imprison the Minotaur (later slain by Theseus, whose lover Ariadne gave him the secret of the labyrinth). The Romans made mosaic mazes on ceilings and floors. Church mazes in medieval Europe were used as miniature pilgrimages for wandering souls.

lab2 Labyrinths of Luck

Labyrinths of Luck

A Scandinavian story tells of fishermen who built winding labyrinths out of pebbles on the beach, and walked them before setting out to sea, in order to drive away the evil spirits and bring good luck. Some tribes in the south western United States speak to a design known as the House of I’itoi, in reference to a god who brings people from the underworld. It’s quite a marvel that so many independent references all harken back to a similar idea: twisting pathways that create a distinct shape, whether it’s the one-way path of a labyrinth or the many choices of a maze.

Cretan Maze

Maze5 001 Cretan Maze

The Cretan maze design has wide arcs that move from side to side, providing a meandering path that is considered very relaxing and meditative. It is the oldest labyrinth design, dating back to fifth century BC, and perhaps was first used as a symbol. The seven-circuit classical labyrinth is easily drawn, which is “surely one reason for its universality” (McCullough 18).

Maze6 Mosaic Labyrinths

Mosaic Labyrinths

Roman mosaic labyrinths began to appear around the second century, BC. They were still unicursal, with one way to reach the center and no choices along the way, but the designs were square and divided into four identical sections. Generally speaking, the Roman labyrinths were only visual works of art, and were not large enough to follow on foot. They were used as an interior decoration and not as a meditative journey.

Maze7 A Spiritual Journey

A Spiritual Journey

The Chartres Cathedral, a French masterpiece, was completed in 1220, AD and presented a new take on an old idea: a labyrinth laid in stone, with the formal purpose of a holy pilgrimage. “The classic Cretan labyrinth had been thoroughly redrawn and converted to Christianity… labyrinths were formally—and expensively—installed as holy paths to be walked and perhaps even danced upon. No longer were they simply sacred icons, artful decorations or clever tricks” (McCullough 62). Most medieval mazes in this style were created in a place of worship, making the sharp distinction between them and the ancient mazes of Rome. Church members could make the pilgrimage of the labyrinth, as a metaphorical representation of their spiritual journey.

Click here to read part 2!

Sources:

Brazzeal, David. "Walking the Labyrinth at Chartres" Wordpress.com, 14 June 2011. Web. 19 Dec. 2014.

Edkins, Jo. "History of Mazes and Labyrinths" History of Mazes and Labyrinths. 2008. Web. 19 Dec. 2014 .

McCullough, David W. The Unending Mystery: A Journey through Labyrinths and Mazes. New York: Pantheon, 2004. Print.