Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
THERE has been considerable speculation as to how the typical labyrinth form first came into existence. It became stereotyped long before the Christian era and retained its character for many centuries.
The coins of Knossos furnish us with abundant examples of it, and, from the fact that in certain of the earlier specimens the corresponding figure is a simple repeated meander, it has been supposed that the typical labyrinth design arose by elaboration of the meander. The resemblance between this form and the very wide-spread and primitive sign known as the fylfot or swastika has also attracted some attention. It is a somewhat long step, however, from a loose combination of meanders like that shown in, say, Fig. 20, to the compact conventional labyrinth of Fig. 30. The adoption of the former design may possibly have been inspired by the fresco on one of the walls of the Minoan palace, to which we have made reference in Chapter VI (Fig. 8), portions of which may have been visible among the ruins for several generations. There does not appear to be any evidence that the complex meander pattern of the fresco was an allusion on the part of the Minoans to an actual constructional labyrinth; it may quite well have been a purely ornamental conception, without any symbolical significance. Meander designs were used by the Minoans at a
much earlier date than this, one example, though of simpler charmer, having been found in the older palace, and others, either snake-like or of a squarish nature, on ivory seals unearthed at other Minoan sites (Zakro and Hagia Triada). Similar designs exist on certain Egyptian "button-seals" of an approximately contemporary period—from the VIth Dynasty onwards—and Sir Arthur Evans has expressed the opinion that these will possibly prove to constitute the source of the Labyrinth in Art. Figs. 15, 16, 17, 18 show
FIG. 19.—Early Egyptian Plaque or Amulet.
(Prof. Petrie's Collection, University College, London.)
In discussing the designs on these seals and plaques, Sir A. Evans alludes to a possible connection with two of the hieroglyphs of the period, which are of the nature of simple square meanders of a kind extensively employed in ancient ornament. One of them (mer) is the sign used for indicating irrigated land. The other (aha)
is a simplified form of a more elaborate sign representing the plan of a palace court, a figure to which one of the Minoan signs bears a close resemblance.
The Knossian coins shown in Figs. 20 are from the British Museum collection and are reproduced by the courtesy of the Keeper of the Coins and Medals Department, who supplied the writer with plaster casts for the purpose. They date, of course, from times greatly posterior to those of the Minoan civilisation, from times when the culture of Greece had long replaced that of the Mycenaeans, or whatever similar race it was that succeeded the Minoans (see Appendix IV, i.).
Figs. 20, 21, and 22 show silver coins dating from about 500 to 430 B.C. They portray on one side the Minotaur and on the other a symmetrical meander pattern which, it needs very little imagination to see, has reference to the labyrinth in which the monster was alleged to dwell.
Fig. 23 shows a silver coin of a rather later date, representing on its obverse a female head which is thought to be that of Demeter or Persephone, and on the reverse a meander-labyrinth containing a star at its centre.
Fig. 24 shows a similar obverse, but on the reverse we see a bull's head surrounded by a simple meander frame.
Fig. 25, the obverse of which is likewise adorned with a female head, gives on the reverse the design of a square labyrinth of the conventional type that thereafter predominates.
Fig. 26 shows a bronze coin having on one side the head of Apollo and on the other a labyrinth with a star.
The four coins last described date from a period between 430 and 350 B.C. The next (Fig. 27) is rather later in date and shows on its obverse the head of Hera and on the reverse a square labyrinth together with an arrow-head and thunderbolts and the Greek characters ΚΝΩΣΙΩΝ.
The bronze coin of about 220 B.C., shown in Fig. 28,
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Figs. 20 to 25. Coins of Knossos. (British Museum).
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Figs. 26 to 31. Coins of Knossos. (British Museum).
bears on its obverse the figure of Europa seated on a bull, with two dolphins below, and on the reverse a square labyrinth, the Knossian superscription being again evident.
The remaining three figures represent silver coins of the two succeeding centuries, but not later than 67 B.C.
Fig. 29 exhibits on one side the head of Pallas, and on the reverse a little square labyrinth placed beside an owl standing upon a prostrate amphora.
In Fig. 30 the obverse is occupied by the head of Apollo, the reverse by a labyrinth of circular shape, but conforming to the conventional plan.
The head on the coin shown in Fig. 31 may be intended for that of Minos or Zeus. On the reverse is a square labyrinth.
Labyrinthine designs are also found on certain Lydian, Phrygian, and Ionian coins.
It will be noticed that when once the labyrinth pattern has been definitely conventionalised it remains very constant in principle, whether its general conformation be rectangular or circular. Starting from the exterior, the "path" runs inwards a short distance, turns so as to run parallel with the outer wall until nearly a full circuit has been completed, then doubles back on itself and runs round in the opposite direction, doubles upon itself again, and so on until it finally comes to a stop in a blind end, having traversed all of the space within the outer walls without covering any part twice and without forming any branches or loops.
Obviously there is no "puzzle" about this kind of labyrinth; one has simply to follow the one path, either to penetrate to the inner goal or to escape thence to the exterior.
A labyrinth of precisely this type was discovered traced on the surface of a crimson-painted pillar in the peristyle of the building known as the House of Lucretius, in the excavated portion of Pompeii (Fig. 32). It
was evidently scratched with a nail or stylus by some idler of 2000 years ago (Pompeii was overwhelmed by Vesuvius in A.D. 79) and is accompanied by the words "LABYRINTHUS. HIC HABITAT MINOTAURUS," possibly in waggish reference to the owner or occupier of the premises.
Another house has, in consequence of its mosaic and pictorial references to the Cretan Labyrinth, received the name of the Casa del Labirinto or House of the Labyrinth. One mosaic discovered therein depicts Theseus
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FIG. 32.—Graffito at Pompeii. (Museo Borbonico.)
and the Minotaur struggling on the ground, watched by a group of affrighted maidens.
The Romans excelled in the art of designing and executing mosaic pavements, abundant remains of which have been preserved. These were of various kinds. There was the pavimentum sectile, composed of pieces of marble of various sizes, shapes, and colours arranged in uniform sets, so as to form when put together an ornamental pattern; the pavimentum tessellatum, in which the pieces of marble, though variously coloured, were all of the same size and shape, generally small squares; the pavimentum vermiculatum, composed of very small pieces of coloured
marble of irregular shape so arranged as to portray objects in their natural shapes and colours; and finally the pavimentum scalpturatum, in which the design was engraved or inlaid. Opus alexandrinum is a variant of sectile.
Several Roman pavements embodying labyrinthine devices, and in some cases commemorating the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur, or other exploits of
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FIG. 33.—Mosaic at Salzburg. (Kreuzer.)
the hero, have come to light from time to time, not only on the continent of Europe but also in England; they are usually executed in opus alexandrinum.
Fig. 33 shows in outline a beautiful specimen, 18 ft. long and 15 ft. broad, discovered at Salzburg, in Austria. It bears the device of a labyrinth, with, at the centre, a representation of Theseus about to give the fatal blow to the Minotaur.
On the left side we see Theseus and Ariadne joining hands over the altar. In the upper panel Theseus appears
to be putting Ariadne ashore, and to the right we see the disconsolate maiden deserted by her lover, presumably on the Isle of Naxos.
A labyrinth of the type shown also occurs on a Roman mosaic which was unearthed in the churchyard at Caerleon-on-Usk. It was in a poor state of preservation, but sufficient remains to show that the labyrinth, of a design similar to that of the Salzburg specimen, is surrounded by scrolls proceeding from two vases (Fig. 34).
A very fine specimen of this type of labyrinth was discovered in 1904 beneath a ploughed field at Harpham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Another, of which details are not to hand, is said to have been found in Northamptonshire.
In 1790 a pavement, about eighteen feet by twelve, was unearthed at Aix, near Marseilles. It portrayed the combat between Theseus and the Minotaur, within a framed square, the remainder of the mosaic consisting of a complicated interlaced meander representing the labyrinth.
In Fig. 35 is reproduced from A. de Caumont's "Abécédaire d’Archéologie" a rough sketch of the Roman baths at Verdes (Loir-et-Cher), showing a pavement with a labyrinth mosaic.
A pavement found in 1830 at Cormerod, in the Canton of Friburg, Switzerland, is shown in Fig. 36. A few years afterwards another was brought to light in the neighbouring Canton of Vaud, from beneath the ruins of the ancient town of Orbe.
A splendid mosaic labyrinth of Roman times was found some forty or fifty years ago on a family tomb in the ancient necropolis of Susa, Tunis (Hadrumetum). It was afterwards destroyed by looters, but a careful drawing of it was fortunately made on its first discovery (Fig. 37). The whole mosaic measured about seventeen feet by ten, and contained a very finely executed labyrinth of four paths, like the Harpham and Caerleon examples
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Fig. 34. Mosaic at Caerleon, Mon. (O Morgan, in Proc. Mon. and Caerleon Ant. Ass’n, 1866)
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Fig. 36. Mosaic at Cormerod, Switzerland. (Mitt. Ant: Ges. Zurich, XVI.)
mentioned above, the central space being occupied by the Minotaur, who is shown in an attitude of defeat.
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Fig. 35.—Roman Baths at Verdes, Loir-et-Cher, showing Labyrinth Mosaic. (From De Caumont's Abécédaire.)
[paragraph continues] Sailing towards the labyrinth was a boat containing figures which presumably represented Theseus and his
companions. The design was accompanied by the words "HIC INCLUSUS VITAM PERDIT."
Another well-preserved mosaic of this character was
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FIG. 37.—Mosaic at Susa, Tunis. (C.R. Acad. Inscriptions, Paris.)
discovered in 1884 at Brindisi, and placed in the municipal museum of that town. It measures 17 ft. by 10 ft. 6 in., and shows within a square labyrinth Theseus in the act of clubbing the Minotaur, who has fallen on his
knees. Around the labyrinth are various perches with birds thereon, perhaps in allusion to the automatic birds reputed to have been made by Daedalus (cf. Fig. 36).
We shall examine other mosaic and pavement labyrinths when we come to consider the question of the use of this symbol by the Church.
Apart from the designs on Knossian coins, Greek art does not appear to have left us any definite representations of the labyrinths, although with the Romans, who acquired the idea at a later date, it was a favourite motif.
We cannot, however, ignore the suggestion that has been made that certain structures discovered in the ruins of Tiryns and Epidaurus, two cities in that part of ancient Greece known as the Argolid, are architectural labyrinths, used for ritual purposes. The foundations of the tholos, or rotunda, of the sanctuary of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, which was excavated by P. Kabbadias, Director of the Greek Archaeological Society, in the ’eighties, do certainly suggest something of the kind. They consist of concentric circular walls, the three innermost being connected by a radial wall, separated by narrow spaces which intercommunicate by an opening or doorway in each wall, forming in plan a figure somewhat in the style of the "Pigs in Clover" toy mentioned in a later chapter. When the peculiar nature of the upper part of the building is considered, however, it seems very reasonable to suppose that these walls, with their passages, were designed only with a view to the requirements of the superstructure which they had to support.
As for the slightly similar concentric foundations unearthed by German excavators at Tiryns in 1912, the analogy is too imperfect to afford reliable grounds for the statement in question.
Greek ceramic art, on the other hand, furnishes us with very many allusions to the Theseus-Minotaur myth, and also with a profusion of frets and meanders, which are thought in some cases to be symbolical of the labyrinth.
Consider, for instance, the "kylix" or bowl in the British Museum which is shown in Fig. 38. (A similar bowl is preserved in Harrow School Museum.) On it are represented most of the exploits of the hero up to his Knossian adventure. All who are familiar with the legend will recognise at a glance Periphetes the Club-bearer, Sinis the Pine-bender, the Wild Sow of Krommyon, Kerkyon the Wrestler, Procrustes of the Standard Bed, and other gentlefolk that Theseus successively encountered and appropriately dealt with on his initial journey to Athens. In the centre of the bowl is shown the adventure of the Labyrinth, the hero being seen in the act of despatching the monster at the very door of his lair. The meander on the door-post has been thought to symbolise the Labyrinth, but there is more reason to suppose that it is purely decorative.
The Minotaur exploit is also shown on the smaller bowl shown in Fig. 39.
In the previous chapter we have already referred to an Etruscan vase found at Tragliatella. This was very roughly decorated with incised figures, representing amongst other things a circular labyrinth of the traditional type and some horsemen who are thought to be engaged either in the attack on Troy or in the game known as the Lusus Trojae or Game of Troy. That there can be no doubt about the artist's identification of the labyrinth in some way with the celebrated city in question is clear from the word Truia scratched within it (Fig. 133).
Representations of the labyrinth were sometimes en-graved on ancient gems, a fine specimen of which is figured in P. A. Maffei's "Gemme Antiche" (Fig. 40), published in 1707. The Minotaur in this case is shown as a centaur. A similar representation appears on a sixteenth-century bronze plaquette of Italian workmanship exhibited in the Plaquette Room at the British Museum (Fig. 41. See plate, p. 60).
Before leaving the subject of the Labyrinth in ancient
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Figs. 38, 39. Greek Kylices shewing Exploits of Theseus. (British Museum)
art we must take notice of a reference in an ancient manuscript which tends to show that the symbol figured on the robes of Roman Emperors. This manuscript was discovered by A. F. Ozanam in the Laurentian Library at Florence. It is entitled "Graphia Aurea Urbis Romae" and contains, under the heading "De diarodino imperatoris," the following passage:
Habeat et in diarodino laberinthum fabrefactum ex auro et margaritis, in quo sit Minotaurus, digitum ad os tenens ex
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FIG. 40.—Labyrinth engraved on an ancient gem. (Maffei.)
smaragdo factus, quia sicut non valet quis laberinthum scrutare, ita non debet consilium dominatoris propalare.
"Let there be represented on it (the Emperor's robe) a labyrinth of gold and pearls, in which is the Minotaur, made of emerald, holding his finger to his mouth, thus signifying that, just as none may know the secret of the labyrinth, so none may reveal the monarch's counsels."
It has been pointed out by Mr. A. B. Cook that in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge is a painting by Bartolommeo Veneto (1502-1530) representing an unknown man who wears on his breast a labyrinth resembling that described above.