"From right to left, and to and fro,
Caught in a labyrinth, you go,
And turn, and turn, and turn again,
To solve the myst'ry, but in vain.
Stand still, and breathe, and take from me
A clew, that soon shall set you free!
Not Ariadne, if you met her,
Herself could serve you with a better.
You enter'd easily—find where—
And make with ease your exit there!"
~ The Maze, William Cowper (1731-1800)
Although both maze and labyrinth depict a complex and confusing series of pathways, the two are different. A maze is a complex, branching puzzle that includes choices of path and direction, while a labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center. Ancient labyrinths which date back to the 5th century BCE were designed to be serene and introspective. While in the 16th century, European royalty began building elaborate hedge mazes on their property both to entertain, as well as to provide private places for secret meetings. Inspired by the real-life hedge maze at the Hampton Court Palace, Clark University graduate student Willard Small, constructed the first rat maze in 1901 to study how rodents learn and navigate. 🐀
Although both mazes and labyrinths depict a complex and confusing series of pathways, the two are actually different. In modern terminology, a maze is a complex, branching (multicursal) puzzle that includes choices of path and direction, while a labyrinth is unicursal, i.e., has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center.
In Greek mythology, the labyrinth was an elaborate palatial structure designed and built by the legendary Daedalus and his son Icarus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who devoured humans for sustenance. The minotaur was the unnatural offspring of King Minos' wife and the Cretan Bull, a punishment contrived against Minos by the sea god Poseidon. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he could barely escape it after he built it (even though logic and literary descriptions make it clear that the Minotaur was trapped in a complex branching maze). Seven Athenian youths and seven maidens, drawn by lots, were sent every seventh or ninth year to be devoured by the Minotaur. Theseus, one of the great heroes of mythology, volunteered to slay the monster.
The princess of Knossos , Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread so he could find his way through the Labyrinth and kill the monster Minotaur. Theseus slew the Minotaur led the other Athenians back out of the labyrinth.
After the killing, Ariadne departed Crete together with Theseus to escape her angry father. However, along the way Theseus deserted her.
Regardless, enjoy this unusual "a-mazing" purple tartan by Carol A.L. Martin.
There are several sites near Knossos that have been proposed as inspiring this ancient myth of the labyrinth. Click here for a recent article on the origins of the legendary Cretan labyrinth maze.
Celtic mazes are straight-line spiral patterns that have been drawn all over the world since prehistoric times. The patterns originate in early Celtic developments in stone and metal-work, and later in medieval Insular art. Celtic labyrinths are found among carvings at Camonica Valley in the Italian Alps, occupied by the Celts early in the first millennium, most older than the one in Knossos.
For labyrinth day, click the labyrinth made of lavender above (and find a labyrinth near you, using the Labyrinth Locator provided by the Labyrinth Society). And for some of the most spectacular garden labyrinths and mazes, click here.