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The History of Mazes and Labyrinths

Ancient Architectural Mazes: Pyramids and Palaces

Although the true origins of the maze probably go back to neolithic times, the earliest mazes we know of were actually parts of architectural monuments built in Egypt and on Crete (an island in the Mediterranean) about 4000 years ago.

The Minoan palace at Knossos

The Minoan Palace at Knossos (18th century BC)

The most impressive of these architectural mazes were probably part of the Egyptian Labyrinth. A vast palace complex located on the shores of a lake seven days journey up the Nile from the pyramids, the Labyrinth was built by pharaoh Amenemhet III in the 19th century BC. It consisted of thousands of rooms and twelve large maze-like courtyards, which were probably intended to keep out unwelcome visitors. Amenemhet was fascinated by mazes, and he also created a fantastic life-size maze inside his nearby pyramid to thwart tomb robbers.

According to the only two ancient historians who saw it with their own eyes, the Egyptian Labyrinth was more impressive than the Pyramids at Giza. Although archaeologists have found the site it once stood upon, nothing of this mysterious monument remains today.

Another well-known ancient architectural maze may have been found at the Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete. Built around the same time as the Egyptian Labyrinth, Knossos was a vast interconnected complex of small corridors, staircases and private courts, and once consisted of perhaps 1,300 rooms spread over three acres of land. Spiral and labyrinth designs on coins and pottery, as well as hundreds of bull-horns carved in stone and wall paintings of young men leaping over charging bulls, can be found at the site. These are intriguing clues, since according to Greek legend the Minotaur was a half-man and half bull monster, trapped within a Labyrinth, that devoured Athenian youth.

The Seven-Circuit or Cretan Labyrinth

The Labyrinth at Knossos burned to the ground in the 15th century BC, yet the idea of the labyrinth survived. Through the centuries, in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean, a common symbol began to be associated with the labyrinth and its legends. Known today as the Cretan or 7-circuit labyrinth, it consists of a single path winding back and forth to a center point in a series of seven concentric rings.

7-Circuit labyrinth

7-circuit labyrinth

The origins of this symbol are somewhat mysterious. It may have spread quickly—and lasted for so many centuries—because the secret of how to draw it (using a seed pattern construction technique) was passed on from generation to generation and civilization to civilization. More intriguingly, the shape of the 7-circuit labyrinth also mirrors the motion of the planet mercury in the sky over a long period of time. Did some ancient astronomer record this motion, and create the labyrinth symbol based upon it? We will probably never know.

The earliest known use of the 7-circuit labyrinth symbol occurs on a clay tablet from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos in Greece. A fire destroyed this palace around 1200 BC, baking the clay tablet and preserving it for archaeologists. The labyrinth was probably a scribe's doodle, because the other side of the tablet was part of the palace records, and lists a number of men who were each owed a goat!

In the following centuries the identical labyrinth, however, turned up on an Etruscan wine jug in Italy, on rock outcrops carved in Spain, on a roof tile of the Parthenon and even as graffito in an Egyptian quarry. The labyrinth also begins to be associated with another Greek legend, that of the fall of the city of Troy, around this time.

Roman Mosaic Labyrinths

Roman mosaic labyrinth

Roman mosaic labyrinth

The Romans built many beautiful mosaic labyrinths. Although Roman labyrinths look quite different from the older Cretan labyrinth design, many are actually simple extensions of the Cretan labyrinth into four square quadrants. An image of Theseus slaying the Minotaur is often seen in the central compartment.

Most Roman labyrinths were too small to have been walked, and are typically found on the floor near the entrances to houses and villas; many have small city walls (perhaps indicating the walls of Troy) drawn around them. This suggests they served a protective function, and were perhaps believed to have warded off evil influences or intruders—a common function of the labyrinth in many other cultures as well.

There are over 60 known examples of Roman mosaic labyrinths, found throughout the Roman Empire at its height—from Italy to Egypt, Syria, and England. In addition to mosaics, one curious use of the labyrinth pattern is recorded by the Roman author Pliny. He wrote that large labyrinths were inscribed on the ground and were used as a test of skill by young Roman nobles riding on horseback. This ancient Roman game may have the beginnings of the turf maze.

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The earliest mazes we know of were parts of architectural monuments built in Egypt and on the island of Crete about 4000 years ago.

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