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by Archaeology Newsroom

The labyrinth. A brief reference to the evolution of its symbolic content in time

In the archaic period the appellation “labyrinth” was given to any monumental, stone building with a complex plan. The term originally refers to the mythical edifice built by Daedalus in Knossos to house the Minotaurus by command of King Minos.

The etymological origin of the word is related to the Carian root “λάβρυς”, meaning a double axe and was established in the area of Eastern Mediterranean long before the descent of the Greek tribes.

Among the oldest examples of a labyrinthine building in the Mediterranean countries is the Egyptian tomb of the sixth dynasty, 2300 BC, close to Lake Moerida, that has been described both by Herodotus and Strabo, while funerary monuments in the form of a labyrinth must have been erected by the Etruscans as is also mentioned by Pliny.

The first linear representation of a labyrinth in Greece dates from 1300 BC and shows the plan of a religious building dedicated to Ariadne, while other prehistoric, labyrinthoid, incised representations in caves have been located in England (1800-1400 BC), Syria (1200 BC),the Caucasus (2000 BC) and in Spain (1000 BC). The only labyrinthoid edifice found in Greece is the underground construction of the Epidaurian Tholos

built between 360 and 320 BC by Polycleitos the Younger in the vicinity of the Asclepeion.

In many districts of central India and Caucasus, as well as among the Indians of New Mexico, the plan of the labyrinth is related to beliefs referring to the stars’ motion, to fertility and to the overall image of the world.

The wide spreading of labyrinths to many geographically remote civilizations has been an issue of great interest to ethnologists, folk scientists and archaeologists for many years now. Modern scholars, such as Yung and Kerenyi, argue that the universality of the labyrinth is due to the fact that its plan is one of the most important archetypal representations that expresses experiences and questions of a metaphysical nature belonging to primeval man. The entire spectrum of symbolisms, referring mainly to fertility and renovation of nature started very early in the cultural evolution of man to be experienced through a variety of acts, all of which held the plan of the labyrinth asa constant point of reference. These acts interlaced with certain mythical facts were repeated as symbolic performances in every anniversary which had special meaning to the social group. One of the few representations of a similar performance, from the sphere of Cretan mythology, very popular throughout the Mediterranean countries, was Ariadne’s dance, which is depicted on the so-called Francois crater, dating back to 565 BC. The impact of the symbolic content of the labyrinth can be detected in Jewish and Christian spirituality. It is also found in the religious architecture of the Middle-Ages, where the labyrinth, adjusted to the Church dogma, was used to symbolize the painful and hard course of man on earth. Another application of the labyrinth, established by the end of the eleventh century and especially adopted during the Renaissance and modern period, was in the art of gardening. The mythical framework of the Cretan labyrinth – Theseus, Ariadne, Daedalus, icarus – also functions as an allegory of the liberation of man from the bonds of ignorance. Progressively, from the Late Renaissance onward the symbolic content of the labyrinth starts degenerating. In our time the labyrinth, both as plan and symbolism, is revived in the field of fine art along with many other archetypal symbols. Many artists such as Richard Long, Terry Fox, Ugo Dossi, Dennis Oppenheim and others express an artistic concern with the labyrinth by adjusting its wide symbolism to the present time.