A mythical structure, a place of unreason, the unconscious and secrets; the labyrinth has come to represent all that is dark, complex and difficult to escape. But, are we misunderstood?

The words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ are used interchangeably, but it is the labyrinth which is in fact the more innocent of the two – the summer garden, multi-branching, multi-cursal maze is where we are more likely to get lost. In contrast, the labyrinth is unicursal; it has one entrance and one path leading to its centre. It should, in theory, be easy to navigate. Why then has the labyrinth become so loaded with complexity and had such an enduring effect on art and literature and how is the labyrinth being interpreted in the world today?

Spiral Petroglyphs found at Valcamonica, Italy. Photo: Giovanni D'allOrto

Spiral Petroglyphs found at Valcamonica, Italy. Photo: Giovanni D’allOrto

To answer, we must go back. Spiralling forms, similar in shape to what we commonly know as a labyrinth, appear in rock art as early as the Neolithic period and the seven-circled ‘classical’ form appears across Europe from as early 2000BCE.  In Val Camonica, Italy, carved alongside deer and other animals, the shapes are surrounded by warriors, indicating the importance they hold for the hunt or battle in which the figures are engaged.  Even in these early examples we can clearly see that they have been created by transforming a square into a circle, a process that is impossible to ignore for its significance not only mathematically but also to the ancient cosmological mind.  If we interpret the circle as a symbol of the heavens and the square as a symbol of the earth, it may be suggested that the squaring of the circle represents a unity of both (Kern, 2002 p.23).  When defined as diagrams of the rotating, unifying movements of the heavens, this higher, celestial connection has endured despite the ominous reputation often held by labyrinths.  One of the most recent examples of this connection was found in the exhibition The Mirror of Judgement, 2011 at The Serpentine Gallery, London, where artist Michelangelo Pistoletto directed the viewer through the twists of a paper labyrinth to be confronted by several mirrors, manipulating perceptions of space on a journey of spiritual reflection.

Cretan Labyrinth

Cretan Labyrinth

Then there are the myths. Despite never having been seen by any classical authors nor discovered by archaeologists since; the Cretan labyrinth in the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur is undoubtedly the archetype and its symbolism the most potent.  Although, one of the first mentions of Ariadne in Homer’s Iliad refers to a dancefloor rather than a structure: ‘Therein furthermore the famed god of the two strong arms cunningly wrought a dancing floor like unto that which in wide Cnosus Daedelus fashioned of old for fair-tressed Ariadne.’ (Homer, The Iliad, 18.590) This element of choreography within the structure of a labyrinth has continued through the ages as noted by Hermann Kern in his invaluable resource Through the Labyrinth: “The most important feature of the labyrinth are not the lines that form the walls, but the negative space of the path formed by those lines, which determines the pattern of movement.” (Kern, 2002 p.23)   Even today devotees visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartes, France, continue to use the labyrinth on the floor as a symbolic pilgrimage.  Parodying the bends and trials endured on their life-path they silently walk the lines of the labyrinth with their heads bowed in prayer.  Writer and authority on labyrinths John Martineau tells us:  “Mazes and labyrinths describe in the most efficient visual and experiential manner the nature of journey and destination – with all the twists, turns and similar yet changing motifs such a topic involves. Whether a square earthly journey or a heavenly circular one, and with blind alleys or none (simply a path to follow), each particular design captures a mind-set and a certain soul’s journey. This is why they continue to fascinate and inform, as blueprints for our own consciousness of the stories in which we are living parts.”

Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartes, France. Photo: © Jeff Seward

Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartes, France. Photo: © Jeff Seward

2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, Kunsthistoriche Museum, Vienna.

2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, Kunsthistoriche Museum, Vienna.

But the labyrinth can also be ornamental. The Roman fashion for Greek literature, art and myth led to a trend for mosaic labyrinths and mazes to appear as decorative features in Roman architecture and so the labyrinth slowly became integrated into popular culture. The majority of the mosaics are of the seven-circled Cretan form and depict the battle between Theseus and the Minotaur, but many others show the maze or labyrinth as a walled city.  In Roman thought the connection between the labyrinth and the city was that of a worldview of the earth, we perceive this manifested in the quartering of circular labyrinths into the four points of the compass, creating a cross.   This may have paved the way for the transformation of the labyrinth’s pagan origins into a vehicle for Christian values and its introduction into the design of churches and cathedrals. Labyrinths in the renaissance shifted away from the moralistic symbolism of medieval depictions and towards a more humanist scholarly pastime. It was from this time onwards that labyrinths and mazes became a prominent feature in landscape architecture with any spiritual or metaphysical ideology being weakened into obscurity and replaced by the more playful purpose they have retained.

Longleat Maze, Wiltshire, UK. Designed by Randoll Coate. Photo: Niki Odolphie

Longleat Maze, Wiltshire, UK. Designed by Randoll Coate. Photo: Niki Odolphie

The character of a labyrinth is deeply paradoxical; its construction is at once circuitous and linear, simple and convoluted, a long path in a closed area, terrestrial and sublime.  The view from within its coils is restricted and confusing but from above it demonstrates symmetrical artistry.   It is this element that lends the concept of a labyrinth so well to psychological imagery – the mind entangled in suffering has to be traversed by facing one’s own Minotaur to gain emotional freedom.  They trace our innate survival instinct and attraction to the unknown, reflecting the transformative process of psychological awakening.  Writer, lecturer and labyrinth expert, Jeff Seward, discusses the effect of labyrinths on our consciousness:  To walk a labyrinth is to make a journey towards the goal, whether literally or metaphorically. The twists and turns invite playfulness as well as soulfulness, delight and curiosity as well as contemplation.’     He goes on to argue:  ‘Perhaps it is this interaction with mystery, with what cannot be understood and explained, yet is contained within the circuitous paths of a simple design marked on the ground, that so appeals to our modern imaginations.’

It is strange then, to think that this powerful symbol of complexity, employing ancient mathematics and sacred geometry, has been largely overlooked by design practioners. Were it not for master maze-makers Randoll Coate and Adrian Fisher taking influence from early unicursal labyrinths in some of their works, combining traditional allegory with their own innovative design, it would seem that only in the realm of visual arts has the labyrinth taken on a physicality which genuinely mirrors the depth of its meaning.   We need a return to the labyrinth – the dark sister of the maze – and a continued interrogation into its non-linear and multifaceted role in ancient and contemporary culture.

Hermann Kern Through The Labyrinth english edition, Prestel, 2002
John Martineau Mazes and Labyrinths in Great Britain, Wooden Books, 2002
Jeff Seward Magical Paths: Labyrinth & Mazes in the 21st Century, Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008

Originally published on TiP.

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