In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth (Greek λαβύρινθος labyrinthos, possibly the building complex at Knossos) was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a mythical creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a skein of thread, literally the "clew", or "clue", so he could find his way out again.
In colloquial English, labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two: maze refers to a complex branching (multicursal) puzzle with choices of path and direction; while a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.
Although early Cretan coins occasionally exhibit multicursal patterns, the unicursal seven-course "Classical" design became associated with the Labyrinth on coins as early as 430 BC, and became widely used to represent the Labyrinth – even though both logic and literary descriptions make it clear that the Minotaur was trapped in a complex branching maze. Even as the designs became more elaborate, visual depictions of the Labyrinth from Roman times until the Renaissance are almost invariably unicursal. Branching mazes were reintroduced only when garden mazes became popular in the Renaissance.
Labyrinths appeared as designs on pottery or basketry, as body art, and etched on walls of caves or churches. The Romans built many primarily decorative labyrinth designs on walls and floors in tile or mosaic. Many labyrinths set in floors or on the ground are large enough that the path to the center and back can be walked. They have historically been used both in group ritual and for private meditation.
Pliny's Natural History mentions four ancient labyrinths: the Cretan labyrinth, an Egyptian labyrinth, a Lemnian labyrinth and an Italian labyrinth.
Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek (Minoan) origin absorbed by Classical Greek and is perhaps related to the Lydian labrys ("double-edged axe", a symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace on Crete and meant "palace of the double-axe"), with -inthos meaning "place" (as in Corinth). A lot of these symbols were found in the Minoan palace and they usually accompanied female goddesses. It was probably the symbol of the arche (Mater-arche:matriarchy). This theory is confirmed by the worship of Zeus Labraundos (Ζεύς Λαβρυάνδις) in Caria of Anatolia, where also existed a sacred site named Labraunda. Zeus is depicted holding a double-edged axe. In classical Greece the priests at Delphi were called Labryades (Λαβρυάδες ) - the men of the double axe. The complex palace of Knossos in Crete is usually implicated, though the actual dancing-ground, depicted in frescoed patterns at Knossos, has not been found. Something was being shown to visitors as a labyrinth at Knossos in the 1st century AD (Philostratos, De vita Apollonii Tyanei iv.34). A palace of similar complicated structure was discovered at Beycesultan in Anatolia, on the headwaters of Meander river.
The word labyrinthos (Mycenaean daburinthos ) may possibly show the same equivocation between initial d- and l- as is found in the variation of the early Hittite royal name Tabarna / Labarna (where written t- may represent phonetic d-). If so, the equivocation would be similar to the Vedic sandhi representation of intervocalic retroflex -ḍ- as -ḷ-. It is possible that daburinthos may be cognate with the name of Mt. Tābôr,but this is not generally accepted.
Greek mythology did not recall, however, that in Crete there was a Lady or mistress who presided over the Labyrinth, although the goddess of mysteries of Arcadian cults was called Despoine (miss). A tablet inscribed in Linear B found at Knossos records a gift "to all the gods honey; to the mistress of the labyrinth honey." All the gods together receive as much honey as the Mistress of the Labyrinth alone. The Mycenean Greek word is potnia. "She must have been a Great Goddess," Kerényi observes. It is possible that the Cretan labyrinth and the Lady were connected with a cult which was transmitted later to the Eleusinian mysteries.
The labyrinth is the referent in the familiar Greek patterns of the endlessly running meander, to give the "Greek key" its common modern name. In the 3rd century BC, coins from Knossos were still struck with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple seven-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth.
The term labyrinth came to be applied to any unicursal maze, whether of a particular circular shape or rendered as square. At the center, a decisive turn brought one out again. In Plato's dialogue Euthydemus, Socrates describes the labyrinthine line of a logical argument:
"Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first." ... Thus the present-day notion of a labyrinth as a place where one can lose [his] way must be set aside. It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but, provided [the traverser] is not devoured at the midpoint, it leads surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning.
Knossos has been supposed since Classical times to be the site of the labyrinth. When the Bronze Age site at Knossos was excavated by explorer Arthur Evans, he found various bull motifs, including an image of a man leaping over the horns of a bull, as well as depictions of a labrys carved into the walls. On the strength of a passage in The Illiad, it has been suggested that the palace was the site of a dancing-ground made for Ariadne by the craftsman Daedalus, where young men and women, of the age of those sent to Crete as prey for the Minotaur, would dance together. By extension, in popular legend the palace is associated with the myth of the Minotaur.
In the 2000s, archaeologists explored other potential sites of the labyrinth. Oxford University geographer Nicholas Howarth believes that 'Evans’s hypothesis that the palace of Knossos is also the Labyrinth must be treated skeptically. Howarth and his team conducted a search of an underground complex known as the Skotino cave but concluded that it was formed naturally. Another contender is a series of underground tunnels at Gortyn, accessed by a narrow crack but expanding into interlinking caverns. Unlike the Skotino cave, these caverns have smooth walls and columns, and appear to have been at least partially man-made. This site corresponds to an unusual labyrinth symbol on a 16th century map of Crete contained in a book of maps in the library of Christ Church, Oxford. A map of the caves themselves was produced by the French in 1821. The site was also used by German soldiers to store ammunition during the Second World War. Howarth's investigation was shown on a documentary produced for the National Geographic Channel.
Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). In their cross-cultural study of signs and symbols, Patterns that Connect, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter present various forms of the labyrinth and suggest various possible meanings, including not only a sacred path to the home of a sacred ancestor, but also, perhaps, a representation of the ancestor him/herself: "...many [New World] Indians who make the labyrinth regard it as a sacred symbol, a beneficial ancestor, a deity. In this they may be preserving its original meaning: the ultimate ancestor, here evoked by two continuous lines joining its twelve primary joints.".
Labyrinths can be thought of as symbolic forms of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Many people could not afford to travel to holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Later, the religious significance of labyrinths faded, and they served primarily for entertainment, though recently their spiritual aspect has seen a resurgence.
Many newly made labyrinths exist today, in churches and parks. Labyrinths are used by modern mystics to help achieve a contemplative state. Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind. The Labyrinth Society provides a locator for modern labyrinths all over the world.