LABYRINTH

A priori, you will tell me, no apparent link between the subject of this research blog and the labyrinths. And yet!

Many people think that the word “labyrinth” comes from the Latin labyrinthus, which roughly means a group of buildings from which it’s difficult to get out. However, it’s necessary (you will understand why in due course), to trace the etymological origin of this word back to the Greek labrys, which is the term used to designate a very specific double axe, each side of which represents summer and winter.

© Axel Eres

But let’s leave etymology now to look at more concrete things. Labyrinth motifs appeared as early as prehistoric times and are in one form or another common recurrences at the beginning of many civilizations (can you see me coming?). The oldest known representation of a labyrinth dates from the Paleolithic and is found in a tomb, carved on mammoth ivory. But since then, it’s a veritable outpouring of labyrinths on the world. The Celts of Brittany built labyrinthine galleries to delimit their sacred places, ancient China used incense labyrinths so as not to get lost when night fell (labyrinths so as not to get lost… interesting, no?), they are represented in various civilizations on coins in Antiquity (from the 15th century B.C. until about the 1st century in Greece), etc.

However, I grant you that when we talk about labyrinths, we first think of Greek mythology and the labyrinth of Daedalus. So, let’s go ahead and do a little bit of Ancient Greece. Daedalus is known to have designed a labyrinth of incredible complexity, so that the minotaur could be enclosed in it. Of this labyrinth, which some archaeologists suspect to have existed in a certain form in Crete, only three people would have managed to get out of it. It’s about Daedalus first, locked up in the labyrinth to be sure that the secret of its manufacture is never revealed, Icarus, his son, and Theseus. Icarus and Daedalus manage to escape through the air thanks to wax wings. Theseus, for his part, is able to do so thanks to Ariane’s stratagem, using a thread to find his way back.

Where it becomes really interesting is that upon his return, Theseus, once in Delos, will invent a complex dance full of circular and interwoven movements. This dance for the ancient Greeks, is supposed to represent the detours of the labyrinth. It’s called the dance of the cranes and archaeologists suspect that it was an archaic dance that would have succeeded in being transmitted until then, whose theme would be the change of seasons … (labrys, is it starting to make sense?). Moreover, in the Iliad, Homer evokes the Cretan labyrinth as being above all a space devoted to dance (and if you’re still in doubt about the importance of dance, go ahead and read the article that deals specifically with dance.). And it would even seem that dancing in a labyrinth would allow the dancer to attain immortality if he performs it correctly.

© Brandon McCluskey

Today, we often think of labyrinths, either as physical places like the Daedalus labyrinth, or as a qualification of an abstract element. In any case, the labyrinth designates something where it’s easy to get lost. The notion has since made many adepts, since even Umberto Eco will have fun defining the different kinds of mazes possible and imaginable (unicursal, mannerist, rhizome, etc. If you feel like it, we may come back to Umberto Eco and mazes in particular). We find this motif in many pictorial representations, especially in classical Italian painting of the 15th century, but also in symbolic painting, sometimes even in fractal art.

But once again we’re going to take a quick step back in time. Among the ancient civilizations that had a great interest in the motif of the labyrinth were the ancient Egyptians. Herodotus evokes among the wonders of the world a titanic Egyptian labyrinth. This labyrinth was designed to teach Egyptian citizens the names of kings as they wandered through the labyrinth. And while there’re many other labyrinths dating from ancient Egypt, it’s noteworthy that here the labyrinth has gone beyond its sacred vocation to take on a political, even commemorative, role. But for them, the labyrinth was not limited to that, it’s also very much linked to death and immortality.

To really understand what the labyrinth (and labyrinths) meant to early civilizations and early modern society is as complex as venturing into one of them. The labyrinth represents at the same time Man, lost in himself, and lost in the Universe. It represents bewilderment, of course, but also the quest towards its center, and thus towards a form of equilibrium. Since the theoretical exit of a labyrinth is in its center, but then again, one must turn back…

Mandalas have already been mentioned in the article on Ephemeral Art, but don’t you think that when you look at them more closely, they look like labyrinths after all? They are in fact a sacred circle, representations still linked to the divine, to death and immortality. The labyrinth also sometimes represents the world of the living as opposed to the world of the dead, or the journey of the dead to the afterlife, or the journey of the living before starting their existence. Among the ancient Scandinavians (who were greatly inspired by this motif in their daily life), labyrinths were also used for dances, but also for traditional games, especially during festivals celebrating the deities.

© Eres Attias

It’s therefore found in many societies, not only those mentioned here, but also among the Mesopotamian, the Hopi, the Navajo, the Maya, etc., as well as in other parts of the world. The list would be infinitely too long and would look like a catalog of ancient societies, quite simply. In all these societies, we find the idea that the labyrinth is related to dance, to the duality of living and dead, to the sacred, to knowledge (of oneself and/or of the Universe), to artistic creation (dance again, but also graphic, architectural representations, etc.) and also in a certain way to the political-social organization of these societies.

Around the 6th century, some churches began to include 2D labyrinths on their floors (they then stopped for several centuries when this was rightly considered too pagan, but that’s another story). These labyrinths to be walked through had several uses, first they served as a “devil’s trap”, but then they served as penance for sinners who wanted to redeem their sins. Finally, they became low-budget alternatives for those who could not afford to go on pilgrimage. And so the labyrinths dedicated to meditation, recollection and reflection in general made their great return. In spite of their apparent futility, the vegetable labyrinths in the gardens of the 16th century still had a powerful symbolic value. The center of the labyrinth is the knowledge, the sacred.

What is certain is that systematically, the labyrinth allows one to evolve, it has a true initiatory dimension. And this, whether one remains trapped inside or whether one manages to find the center and then, of course, to come out of it, because one has to come out of it…


For once, I’m not going to leave you like this, but I’m going to suggest a little exercise. Since antiquity, one of the most frequent forms of labyrinths, are the so-called digital labyrinths. They are very small mazes, intended to be followed, not by walking, but simply with the tip of your finger. That’s why I invite you to create your own digital maze. You can do it in three dimensions or in two dimensions, with a bic pen and a paper, or you can draw it in the sand, make it as simple and elementary as possible or extraordinarily complex, free to you. If however you accept this challenge, I would be delighted to see your creations that you can send here by put a link in the comments. I hope that you will find as much pleasure in building your own digital maze as you have in walking through it. And who knows, maybe you will find, in its center, the secret of immortality?

See you soon and congratulations for finding your way through this labyrinthine article!

Little Bibliography (mostly french) :
- Jean-Pierre Bayard, Symbolique du labyrinthe.
- Umberto Eco, La ligne et le labyrinthe : les structures de la pensée latine, dans Civilisation latine.
- Umberto Eco, De l'arbre au labyrinthe.
- Brigitte Guitton et Philippe Guitton, Les Voies de l'immortalité dans la Grèce antique.
- Hérodote, Histories.
- Plutarque, Life of Theseus.
- Paolo Santarcangeli, Il libro dei labirinti. 

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