Labyrinths Around the World: Differences in Historical Labyrinths

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Earliest recovered labyrinth, incised on a clay tablet from Pylos

Labyrinths and mazes can be seen all around the world today but their origins begin in our prehistory, about 2500 BC.

A labyrinth is similar to a maze, however, it only has one single path leading to the center and doesn’t have any forks or dead ends like a maze. The labyrinths throughout history were used as designs on pottery, basketry and body art as well as being carved into the floors and walls of caves and churches. They have many different patterns but the most common are the Chartres and the Classic-7 designs.

Prehistoric Labyrinths

The earliest labyrinth ever found was in the form of a petroglyph found on a river bank in Goa (west-central India), although other examples were found throughout India from about the same time. Most of these were cave art except for a labyrinth carved into a dolmen shrine in the Nilgiri Mountains. They have been considered as being plans for cities, but the most common use was as a trap for evil spirits or a path for ritual dances.

The Cretan Labyrinth

Built by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, the Cretan labyrinth (or so the myth goes) was used to trap the Minotaur, a mythical creature that was half man and half bull. But the labyrinth at Knossos (despite any archaeological evidence that it ever existed) is more than just a myth, it is an important part of the identities of both Knossos and Crete, where it has appeared in artwork, architectural embellishments and on coins since ancient times. It was a seven course classical design and therefore this pattern is often called a Cretan labyrinth.

The Egyptian Labyrinth

Greek historian Herodutus described a labyrinth in Egypt that was a highly ambitious building complex near a place he called the City of Crocodiles. The remains of this labyrinth were found a few miles from the pyramid of Hawara in the 19th century. It was most likely built as a monument although it bears the names of more than one king, probably because it was expanded several times.

The Labyrinths of Pliny the Elder

In his book Natural History (77 AD), Pliny the Elder lists not only the Cretan and Egyptian labyrinths but also ones in Lemnos and Italy. The Lemnian labyrinth was reportedly built by Similis, Rhoikos and Theodoros and according to Pliny was supported by 150 columns. He also suggests that there was still traces of it in his time. The Italian labyrinth was a part of Etruscan general Lars Porsena’s tomb that contained an underground maze.

Native American Labyrinths

The Tohono O’odham labyrinth first appeared in Native American culture around the same time that the Greek labyrinth became popular. The main differences between this and other labyrinths are the radial design and the fact that the enterance is at the top. The other main difference is that the Tohoro O’odham labyrinth design features I’itoi, the Man in the Maze.

Medieval European Labyrinths

During the 12th and 13th centuries, labyrinths were laid in the pavement of many gothic cathedrals including in Chartres, Reims, Amiens and in the Duomo di Siena in Tuscany. These labyrinths symbolized a religious path, with one enterance indicating birth and one center representing God. Walking a labyrinth in medieval times, along with prayer, was equivalent to making a pilgrimage and was made available to those who could not afford to travel to the Holy Land.

Modern Labyrinths

In recent years there has been a return to labyrinths with many new ones being built all over the world such as in Grace Cathedral in San Fransisco, Tapton Park in Chesterfield, Old Swedes Church in Wilmington and Trinity Square in Toronto. Much like in medieval times, modern labyrinths are used in a religious context, although its turned into more of a meditation. There are even several organizations that can be used to find labyrinths such as The Labyrinth Society and the Labyrinth Coalition.