The History and Psychology of Labyrinths

© Neel Burton

In Greek myth, King Minos, to consolidate his position on the Cretan throne, asked the god Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of divine favour. But instead of sacrificing the superb bull as he ought to have done, he decided to keep it for his stud farm. Poseidon punished Minos by making his wife Pasiphaë lust for the white bull.

Pasiphaë pleaded with the master craftsman Daedalus to build her a hollow cow in which to hide out with the bull. Daedalus’ cow seemed so true to life that the bull mounted it, and some time later Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. 

Pasiphaë nursed the Minotaur as a calf, but, as he grew, he became increasingly violent and even began eating people. Fearing that his subjects would rise against him, Minos sought to contain his stepson in a series of ever stronger cages; but after he broke out of the strongest cage, he asked Daedalus to build a maze of tunnels beneath his palace. The Labyrinth, as it came to be called, was so intricate that even Daedalus, having built it, struggled to escape from it. The Labyrinth served Minos well, enabling him to intimidate and dispose of his enemies while also hiding and feeding the Minotaur—who now would eat nothing but human flesh.

Minos, Minotaur aside, was a great king. Under his rule, Crete prospered and grew into a naval power. When his eldest son Androgeus came of age, he travelled to Athens to partake in the Panathenaic Games. Somehow Androgeus died, or was killed, and Minos held Athens responsible for his loss. In reparation, and as the price for peace, he required that King Aegeus send him a tribute, every nine years, of seven of the most noble youths and seven of the most virtuous maidens of Athens. These unfortunates, drawn by lots, would be sent to Crete in a ship with black sails, paraded before the people, and cast into the Labyrinth.

When the time came for the third nine-yearly tribute to Crete, Theseus, the son and heir of King of Aegeus of Athens, volunteered to take the place of one of the fourteen unfortunates and confront the Minotaur. He sailed away in the ship with black sails, promising his ailing father that, if successful, he would return on white sails. As he was paraded through the streets of the Cretan capital, Minos’ daughter Ariadne saw him and immediately fell in love with him. He and the other Athenians were locked up in a dungeon to await morning, when they would be fed to the Minotaur.

That evening, Ariadne begged Daedalus, until he relented, to tell her the secret of the Labyrinth. Under the cover of darkness, she ran past the guards to Theseus and slipped him a sword and a clew of crimson thread. She instructed him to tie the thread at the mouth of the Labyrinth and unfurl the clew as he went along, ‘always straight, always down, and never left or right.’ Before leaving, she made him promise that, if he came out alive, he would take her with him and marry her.

As Theseus descended into the dark Labyrinth, the air became putrid and he began tripping over what must have been human remains. He could hear the thumping of the Minotaur, but could not locate him until he could also hear his breathing. He may never have seen him had it not been for the blood-tinged ivory of his eyes and horns. With his head down, the Minotaur made to gore him, but he leapt in Cretan style over his horns, rolled over, drew out his sword, and drove it up to where he imagined he had his heart. He then picked up what remained of the clew and wound it back up to find his way out of the Labyrinth… and into the waiting arms of Ariadne.

In the early twentieth century, the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans working on Crete uncovered the existence of a complex civilization whose people he called the Minoans after the mythical King Minos. Minoan Crete flourished from around 3000 to 1500 BCE and came to revolve around a series of palace complexes, the largest of which was at Knossos in the north of the island. The palace at Knossos covered an area of around six acres (or three football pitches) and contained some 1,300 rooms connected by various corridors and stairways, leading Evans to speculate that the mythical Labyrinth was none other than the palace itself. Pottery and frescoes unearthed by Evans and his team featured bulls and bull-leaping, and the most common symbol on palace walls was the labrys, or double axe—and it has been suggested, including by Evans himself, that “Labyrinth” might mean something like “Sanctuary of the Double Axe”.

Although the Labyrinth was clearly a branching, multicursal maze, it has long been represented, for example on Cretan coins, as a single-path, unicursal maze in which it is impossible to get lost. As a result, the word “labyrinth”, although essentially synonymous with “maze”, has come to connote unicursality, whereas the word “maze” has come to connote multicursality. 

In his Natural History, the naturalist Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) describes four ancient labyrinths—in Egypt, Crete, Lemnos, and Italy—all of which seem to have been enclosed multicursal complexes, confirming that this is the ancient, original meaning of the word “labyrinth”. 

In the Histories, the historian Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) claims that the Egyptian labyrinth surpassed even the pyramids in scale and ambition:

I myself have seen [the Egyptian labyrinth], and no words can tell its wonders: the sum of all that the Greeks have built and wrought would be a matter of less labour and cost than was this single labyrinth…

Far from a mere folly, the labyrinth is, like the serpent, the flood, and the trinity, something of a Jungian archetype, found in prehistoric rock drawings at, for example, Pontevedra in Galicia (Spain), Val Camonica in Lombardy (Italy), and Rocky Valley in Cornwall (England).

In medieval Europe, cathedrals sometimes contained a labyrinth traced out in the nave from contrasting paving stones. Those that have survived, such as the striking one in Chartres Cathedral, can still be walked today. Cathedral labyrinths were not simply ludic or ornamental but represented the spiritual path to God and provided a substitute for going on pilgrimage. Cathedral labyrinths were therefore unicursal, as were the first hedge mazes, which evolved from Renaissance knot gardens.

As I argue in my new book, The Meaning of Myth, mazes and labyrinths are in fact spiritual tools. Multicursal mazes such as the Cretan Labyrinth may have been built not only to guard against gold diggers but also to deter or trap evil spirits, including the Minotaur. Unicursal labyrinths on the other hand may have been traced to guide rituals or dances. The circular unicursal labyrinth symbolizes the cosmos, completeness, and unity, and, by extension, the spiritual path or journey of life. More than a simple garden, it is a removed, secluded, and liminal space that serves to calm and concentrate the mind—which is why labyrinths, often simply mown into a summer field, are increasingly to be found in therapeutic settings such as hospitals and hospices. Labyrinths, especially single-path, unicursal ones, serve not only as a thing of beauty but also and above all as an aid to meditation and mindfulness.

To walk the labyrinth is to re-enter the womb and travel inward, and to come back out is a kind of rebirth. Ariadne’s crimson thread is thus an umbilical cord that ties Theseus to the world while he undertakes the hero’s journey into the underworld and slays the monster. To escape the Labyrinth, Theseus simply followed the clew, or clue. This revised spelling of “clew”, “a ball of thread or yarn”, underwent a sense shift from around 1600 in reference to Theseus and the Minotaur, giving us the modern word “clue” and, more recently, “clueless”.