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Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, [1922], at

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(ii) The Caverns of Gortyna

ACCORDING to the Romano-Greek writer Apollodorus, 1 whose "Bibliotheke" consisted of a history of the world from the fall of Troy onwards, Daedalus built the Labyrinth at Knossos for King Minos on the lines of the Egyptian Labyrinth, but of only one-hundredth part of the magnitude of the latter. This statement, which was repeated by various other ancient writers such as Pliny and Diodorus, caused many subsequent inquirers to look for evidence in Crete of a building similar to, though smaller than, that described by Herodotus and Strabo.

Nothing corresponding to such a description appeared to exist, but at Gortyna, on the south side of Crete, there was a remarkable series of winding passages, opening on the side of Mount Ida. Some authors of antiquity, such as the Roman poets Catullus and Claudian, held the opinion that this cavern, or one of the many other caves or quarries in Crete, was the real Labyrinth, and this view has been largely entertained in recent times, right up to the beginning of the present century.

The first modern traveller of note to explore the cavern was the French botanist, G. P. de Tournefort,

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who spent three years, from 1700 to 1702, travelling about Asia Minor and the Levant.

Tournefort's book, as well as being a mine of information on various subjects, makes delightful reading, whether in the original French or in John Ozell's English translation of 1718, from which we quote.

"This famous place," he says, referring to the Labyrinth, which he visited on July 1, 1700, "is a subterranean Passage in manner of a Street, which by a thousand Intricacies and Windings, as it were by mere Chance, and without the least Regularity, pervades the whole Cavity or Inside of a little Hill at the foot of Mount Ida, southwards, three miles from Gortyna. The Entrance into this Labyrinth is by a natural Opening, seven or eight Paces broad, but so low that even a middle-siz’d Man can't pass through without stooping.

"The Flooring of this Entrance is very rugged and unequal; the Ceiling flat and even, terminated by divers Beds of Stone, laid horizontally one upon another.

"The first thing you come at is a kind of Cavern exceeding rustick, and gently sloping: in this there is nothing extraordinary, but as you move forward the place is perfectly surprizing; nothing but Turnings and crooked By-ways. The principal Alley, which is less perplexing than the rest, in length about 1200 Paces, leads to the further end of the Labyrinth, and concludes in two large beautiful Apartments, where Strangers rest themselves with pleasure. Tho’ this Alley divides itself, at its Extremity, into two or three Branches, yet the dangerous part of the Labyrinth is not there, but rather at its Entrance, about some thirty paces from the Cavern on the left hand. If a Man strikes into any other Path, after he has gone a good way, he is so bewildered among a thousand Twistings, Twinings, Sinuosities, Crinkle-Crankles and Turn-again Lanes, that he could scarce ever get out again without the utmost danger of being lost."

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He refers to various inscriptions in charcoal, mostly names of former visitors, and notes various dates ranging from 1444 to 1699. "We too," he says, "wrote the Year of the Lord 1700 in three different places, with a black stone." "After a thorow Examination of the Structure of this Labyrinth we all concurred in Opinion, that it could never have been what Belonius and some other of the Moderns have fancy’d; namely, an antient Quarry, out of which were dug the Stones that built the Towns of Gortyna and Gnossus. Is it likely that they would go for Stone above a thousand paces deep, into a place so full of odd Turnings? . . . Again, how could they draw these Stones through a place so pinch’d in, that we were forc’d to crawl our way out for above a hundred paces together? Besides, the Mountain is so craggy and full of Precipices that we had all the difficulty in the World to ride up it. . . . It is likewise observable, that the Stone of this Labyrinth has neither a good Hue nor a competent Hardness; it is downright dingy, and resembling that of the Mountains near which Gortyna stands.

". . . It is therefore much more probable, that the Labyrinth is a natural Cavity, which in times past some body out of curiosity took a fancy to try what they could make of, by widening most of those Passages that were too much straitened. . . . Doubtless some Shepherds having discovered these subterraneous Conduits, gave occasion to more considerable People to turn it into this marvellous Maze to serve for an Asylum in the Civil Wars or to skreen themselves from the Fury of a Tyrannical Government: at present it is only a Retreat for Bats and the like."

Tournefort stayed for a while with an ignorant priest, "who would have persuaded us in his balderdash Italian that there was an ancient Prophecy wrote on the Walls of the Labyrinth importing that the Czar of Muscovy was very soon to be Master of the Ottoman Empire and deliver the Greeks from the Slavery of the Turks." He

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adds: "Whatever Scrawlings are made upon the Walls of the Labyrinth by Travellers, these Simpletons swallow down for Prophecies." He mentions also a labyrinth at Candia, but says it must not be confused with the Labyrinth of tradition, "which, from antique Medals, appears to have been in the town of Gnossus."

Dr. Richard Pococke, to whose description of the Egyptian Labyrinth we referred in Chapter III, paid a visit to Gortyna about forty years after Tournefort. He says that the "labyrinth" was shown to him, but that it was evidently nothing more than the quarry out of which the town was built. He points out that the real Labyrinth was at Knossos and that nothing was left of it in Pliny's time.

Another French traveller, C. E. Savary, visited the spot about 1788. He came to the conclusion that this was the Labyrinth of the Minotaur, but regarded it as something distinct from that built by Daedalus at Knossos.

A very interesting account of the Gortyna cavern is that contained in the Journal of C. R. Cockerell, R.A., 1 who travelled in Southern Europe and the Levant during the years 1810 to 1817. He and his party entered the "labyrinth" by an inconspicuous hole in the rock in a steep part of the hill (Mount Ida) and found themselves in an intricately winding passage. They had taken the precaution to bring with them a great length of string wound upon two sticks, and it was fortunate that they did so, for "the windings," says Cockerell, "bewildered us at once, and, my compass being broken, I was quite ignorant as to where I was. The clearly intentional intricacy and apparently endless number of galleries impressed me with a sense of horror and fascination I cannot describe. At every ten steps one was arrested, and had to turn to right or left, sometimes to choose one of

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three or four roads. What if one should lose the clue!" He relates how a poor lunatic had insisted on accompanying them all the way from Candia and following them into the cavern. This man, together with a boy who had a lantern, wandered off and caused the rest of the party—except some Turks, who philosophically remarked that God takes care of madmen—to feel much alarm on their account. They were, however, discovered again an hour later, the boy half dead with fright.

Chambers opened off from the passages, and contained much evidence of former visitors, in the shape of names scratched on the walls, such as "Spinola," "Hawkins, 1794," "Fiott," and many of a Jewish character. All of the passage ends were infested with bats, which rose in thousands when one of the party fired a pistol. Lichens grew here and there, and in one place arose a spring. There were signs of metallic substances in the rock, but not sufficient, thought Cockerell, to warrant the supposition that the place was a mine. The stone was sandy, stratified and easily cut, and the air was dry. The surface of the rock appeared to have been prepared with a chisel.

The passage was 8 or 10 feet wide, and from 4 to 10 feet high; in many places it had fallen in. Cockerell concluded that the excavation was probably made in the days of Minos as a storehouse for corn and valuables. He mentions that he was informed by natives that the cavern extended right through the mountain and was three miles in length; also that a sow once wandered in and emerged some years later with a litter of pigs!

About fifty years after Cockerell's visit, the cavern was explored by Capt. T. A. B. Spratt, R.N., who, in his "Travels and Researches in Crete" (1865), tells us that the Cretans "have long since walled and stopped up its inner and unknown extremes, so as not to be lost in its inner intricacies." He discusses the probable location of the traditional Labyrinth and concludes that probably

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the latter is to be found in some similar cavern in the neighbourhood of Knossos. He mentions that there is, in fact, an excavation in the side of the ridge overlooking Knossos which the natives state to be the entrance to extensive catacombs, but that it is choked up by the falling in of its sides.

He reproduces a sketch by Sieber of the Gortyna Cavern (Fig. 7); this, he says, took the artist three days to make. Capt. Spratt, by the way, points out that the meander pattern, which is so common a feature of Greek ornament, and is associated by some writers with the origin of the labyrinth idea, may very well have been derived from the square-spiral trenches which are commonly constructed by Eastern gardeners for irrigational purposes. (See also Chapter VIII.)

Whatever the original purpose and function of the Gortyna Cavern may have been, it was certainly a "labyrinth" in the extended sense, and no doubt the classic writers themselves would have had no hesitation in admitting the use of that word to describe it, but, as we shall see, discoveries of recent years have considerably diminished its claim to be considered as the original Labyrinth of the Minotaur.


Fig. 7. Cavern of Gortyna. (<i>Sieber</i>)
Click to enlarge

Fig. 7. Cavern of Gortyna. (Sieber)



23:1 Often erroneously alluded to as "the Athenian Grammarian."

26:1 Edited and published by his son, S. P. Cockerell, in 1903.

Next: Chapter VI. The Cretan Labyrinth (continued)