IF THE WORD ‘labyrinth’ does not lead us eventually back to the very earliest human communities, it has a good try. The Greek labyrinthos appears to be a linguistic echo from Egypt and Asia Minor. It is possible that it relates to labrys, a double-edged axe, emblem of the Cretan royal family. No one is certain, since tracing the origin of the word ‘labyrinth’ is itself an etymological labyrinth.
It creeps into something like modern English as laboryntus in Chaucer’s House of Fame and has become by the early fifteenth century laberynthe, a maze. Except for specialised usages the terms ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ then become almost indistinguishable in English. Fanshawe’s seventeenth-century Horatian translations talk about clews and mazes, so we are back with the Cretan labyrinth and Ariadne’s bobbined thread, which permitted Theseus to find his way out of the maze after he had executed his monster. Such a thread was a clew, or ball of yarn, providing us with our modern word ‘clue’.
THE SENSE INITIALLY was of a structure designed to baffle and disorientate; to prevent curiosity; to hide that which must not be found, either because it was sacred or because it was shameful. It may not always be a minotaur in there (and see below), but there will be something whose immediate disclosure is either undesirable or forbidden. It could be a monster, a priest or a crocodile. The secondary sense is of any structure or series of structures which, whatever their primary purpose, have the effect of baffling us as we try to find our bearings. Instead of finding our route, we stand amazed. ‘Amazed’ caught on quickly and stayed; ‘labyrinthed’ was introduced, but never won through – it sounds too clumsy. ‘Amazement’ worked well, though in modern usage we are more likely to say ‘labyrinthine’ than ‘mazy’; three centuries back, it would have been the other way around. And then there are the mazes and labyrinths whose function is purely ludic and recreational, whether in Versailles or Hampton Court. These are structures designed for those with time on their hands, time to get lost during luxurious and lengthy afternoons.
What are the earliest known sightings? The first structure known to be entitled labyrinth was a vast building in Northern Egypt, constructed some time around 2000 BCE. Herodotus was astounded by it. It had been built at a vast expense of human labour, just above Lake Moeris, opposite Crocodipolis. There were fifteen hundred rooms on the top floor, according to Herodotus, and fifteen hundred below. The lower ones he was not permitted to visit, since they contained the tombs of kings and sacred crocodiles. A later traveller, Strabo, appears to confirm much of what the frequently unreliable Herodotus says, and describes the Egyptian labyrinth as a work equal in scope to the pyramids. There was a sacred crocodile in the lake, which was tame and came whenever called. It was fed flesh, honey and wine. Pliny too confirms that Egyptian labyrinths were the ‘most stupendous’ works ever constructed.
The Romans built a village over the site, using the labyrinth itself as a quarry for the purpose. Others, including Louis XIV’s Antiquary, came much later and noted the sad state of the ruins that remained. Flinders Petrie identified the actual site with accuracy in 1888. It appeared that it might well have been intended, like so many other grand buildings in Egypt, as a sepulchral monument, probably for King Amenemhat III, whose mummified remains, together with those of his daughter Sebekneferu, were entombed in a nearby pyramid.
BUT THE LABYRINTH which has come to us in legend and myth, and from which we take the name, is of course the Cretan one. King Minos had a son named Androgeos who went travelling in Attica, and was treacherously slain by the inhabitants of that region. Minos imposed a dire penalty. The Athenians had to send seven youths and seven maidens every nine years to Knossos. These would then be inserted, one by one, into the labyrinth, the bafflingly complex structure erected by that technological genius, Daedalus. He had built this fearsome edifice, not for pleasure or even wonder, but for incarceration. The wife of Minos, Queen Pasiphae, had copulated with a beautiful white bull and brought forth the miscegenated hybrid, the minotaur, which had a man’s body but a bull’s head, and which was characterised by fearful strength and even more fearful appetites.
Theseus was the son of the King of Athens, Aegeus, and offered to become one of the fourteen votive offerings to the minotaur on the next marine consignment. He would then devise a means of killing the troublesome and ravenous therianthrope. Reluctantly, the King complied, insisting that Theseus should show that he was victorious on his return journey by changing the black sail on his boat to white.
On his arrival in Crete, Theseus was helped by Ariadne to kill her half-brother. She had fallen in love with this foreign prince at first glance; a goddess was imposing her curse here, as so often. The thread she supplied let him find his way out of the labyrinth after the killing. She had asked only that he take her away with him after his heroic deeds were completed. She had, after all, just arranged the assassination of her half-brother. He did take her away, but abandoned her on Naxos, the first island the sailors came to after Crete. At Delos the sailors performed a notable dance called the Crane Dance, in which they re-threaded their way through the labyrinth in ritual form. This dance was performed by the islanders for thousands of years after Theseus’s departure. There seems to have been a fair amount of revelry on board – and presumably a few jokes about the lovelorn Ariadne whom the skipper had so casually dumped – and on their approach to the mainland Theseus forgot to change the black sail to white. His father Aegeus, watching from the cliff, assumed he had lost his beloved son to the monster, and threw himself into the sea, thereby giving it the name it still holds: the Aegean.
This is the legend. From the beginning there were alternative accounts. Philochorus insisted the labyrinth was no more than a run-of-the-mill dungeon. The youths were kept there until they could be awarded to victors in the sports held in honour of Minos’s murdered son. The minotaur was neither more nor less than a fanatical and brutal military officer, who happened to bear the name Tauros. So he was, then, Minos’s Tauros; thus do we elide our way towards a minotaur. Plutarch quotes a work of Aristotle which has not survived: in that the youths were not slaughtered but instead employed as slaves, a routine transaction for those days. Plutarch points out that Minos was a noble ruler, famed for his justice, who in no way deserved the calumnies Greek tradition had inflicted upon him. But rationality was condemned to the margin and the footnote: there was after all a better story to be told. In the Darwinian scheme of narratives, it is the strongest tales that survive their telling.
And this particular tale has continued to be told. The labyrinth, like Bluebeard’s chamber, is of just as much interest whether it arose from some vestiges of historical occurrence, or expresses instead a psychological necessity to tell and re-tell such narratives. What the imagination chooses and retains is not necessarily that which is vouchsafed by history, and yet we continue to hunt down whatever history might offer us as collateral in the form of archaeology, as if still determined to prove the legend true. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort explored the cavern at Gortyna, long thought to be the original labyrinth. Some said it was merely a quarry used to build the local settlements, but Tournefort thought it too inaccessible for such a purpose. It was certainly an easy place to get lost in, and the locals finally sealed off most of the passages, for fear of losing their children in there. Tournefort’s book about his travels and his excavations, A Voyage into the Levant, was translated by John Ozell and published in London in 1718. It contains this vivid account of the labyrinthine experience to be had there: ‘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.’
STILL, KNOSSOS ITSELF remained to be explored; ruined walls made of enormous blocks of gypsum, which still bore elaborate engraved marks. Arthur Evans (not yet Sir) finally got there in 1900, and started to excavate. He found what he believed was a large palace, and the objects discovered within it were of such significance that Evans decided they were the products of an ancient civilization of sufficient import that it deserved a name of its own. That name, Evans ruled, was ‘Minoan’. Here he found pictographic inscriptions, which he concluded had existed prior to the Phoenician, and therefore offered an alternative system of foundations for our written language. He also found a large area for dancing, an orchestra in the original sense, which is to say a place for the chorus of dancers. Images showing bull-leaping were numerous. This seems to have been a highly dangerous sport which consisted of a young man catching the horn of a charging bull and leaping over him. Evans speculates that this lethal activity might well have involved training up young captives (rather like gladiators) to provide a sport that might have had a ritual significance too.
And so we could have arrived, by a sequence of crinkle-crankles, at the origin of the story of the Cretan labyrinth, and the sacrificial death of the young, particularly since some centuries elapsed between the destruction of these buildings and the first written accounts of the legend. Evans himself concluded that a mighty earthquake had ruined Knossos around 1600 BCE; modern archaeology tends to disagree.
He did find one other thing that gave him pause. Thirty feet down from the palace floor there was an artificial cave, with three big steps leading into it. It gave the impression of being the rough dwelling of some formidable beast.
LABYRINTHS APPEAR ON Egyptian seals and amulets. And around 500 BCE there are Knossian silver coins, some of which bear an image of the minotaur on one side and on the other a symmetrical meander pattern, a labyrinth. One shows the minotaur dancing on the obverse; on the reverse is a swastika labyrinth. The minotaur, the labyrinth and Theseus and his weapon, then become recurrent motifs in western art. They appear as a graffito at Pompeii, and mosaics in Caerleon, Salzburg and Cormerod in Switzerland. Each image registers a complicated structure which at its heart houses the minotaur. Theseus is duly making his way there, or has already arrived, and is clubbing the monster to death. The motif begins to appear in pottery: Greek kylices show Theseus and his many exploits, including the killing of the minotaur. Smaller versions appear on ancient gems. There is a series of drawings called the Florentine Picture Chronicle, ascribed to Baccio Baldini. In one of them, all aspects of the minotaur story are seen simultaneously. The collection was once owned by John Ruskin, and is now in the collection of the British Museum.
Labyrinth: Knossos and History
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