Labyrinth

ˈlæbɪrɪnθ

Labyrinth: 1) A structure consisting of a number of intercommunicating passages arranged in bewildering complexity, through which it is difficult or impossible to find one’s way without guidance. 2) A structure consisting of a single passageway winding compactly through a tortuous route between an entrance and a central point.

Maggie's Centre, Dundee, with labyrinth
Click to enlarge

When Minos reached Cretan soil he paid his dues to Jove, with the sacrifice of a hundred bulls, and hung up his war trophies to adorn the palace. The scandal concerning his family grew, and the queen’s unnatural adultery was evident from the birth of a strange hybrid monster. Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways. Dædalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Mæander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea: so Dædalus made the endless pathways of the maze, and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that.

Ovid Metamorphoses Book VIII (A.S. Kline translation)

The connection between the legendary labyrinth of the Minotaur and our local Maggie’s Centre, in the picture above, is perhaps not immediately evident. But all will become clear.

The labyrinth in which the Minotaur was confined, constructed by the architect Dædalus on the instruction of King Minos of Crete, was clearly imagined to be an exceedingly complicated maze of some kind—in the words of my first definition above, “consisting of a number of intercommunicating passages arranged in bewildering complexity”. So complex, in fact, that Ovid describes how the designer himself was hard-pressed to find his way out.

But during the Hellenic Age in Crete (long after the fall of the Bronze Age civilization associated with Minos and Dædalus), a representation of the labyrinth started to turn up on Cretan coinage; and it was quite obviously not a maze. It looked like this:

Classical Labyrinth

There’s no difficulty or confusion about finding your way in or out of a structure like this, because there is only one continuous route from its entrance to the single dead-end at the centre. So it corresponds to the second, more technical definition of labyrinth given above. In the jargon, the branching maze in which the Minotaur was confined is multicursal (“multiple paths”), whereas the labyrinth pattern on the coinage is unicursal (“single path”).

The multicursal maze went on to become an entertainment, as a feature of grand ornamental gardens during the 17th century—complex branching pathways bounded by hedges, intended to confuse and divert. The oldest surviving example in the UK is Hampton Court Maze, which looks like this:

Hampton Court Maze

These hedge mazes are nowadays often called “puzzle mazes”, but in their heyday were sometimes referred to as wildernesses. That seems like an odd word to use for something so manicured, but it derives from the old verb wilder, “to cause to lose one’s way” (as you might do in a wild or unknown place). And of course to bewilder is to put someone in such a state. In a striking parallel, our noun maze derives from the obsolete verb maze, meaning “to confuse, to drive mad”, and to amaze is to put someone in a state of confused astonishment.

In complete contrast to the alleged entertainment value of mazes, the unicursal labyrinth turned into an object of Christian devotion, laid out in stone on the floors of the great gothic cathedrals, such as the one at Chartres. Their exact purpose is unclear, but walking the winding route of the labyrinth seems to have been part of a ceremony or penitence, or perhaps a substitute for pilgrimage. Similar devotional labyrinths were also laid out in the open air using turf—they’re often referred to as mizmazes, and a few mediaeval examples still exist, like the one at Breamore, in Hampshire.

These mediaeval labyrinths had a more complex pattern than the classical version—instead of travelling in long arcs back and forth, the mediaeval labyrinth-walker encounters more frequent turning points. Here’s the pattern used at Chartres, which is very common elsewhere too.

Which brings us back to the local Maggie’s Centre. The centre itself is designed by Frank Gehry, who has given us many astonishing and beautiful buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. And the sculpted landscape in front of it was designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd. As you can see in my photograph, it contains a copy, in cobblestones set in turf, of the Chartres labyrinth—a modern mizmaze, in fact.

If you want to draw a classical labyrinth for yourself, you need to start with a “seed”—a cross, four right-angles and four dots. The black figure in the diagram below is the seed. Start by connecting the top of the cross to the top of one of the right angles (red line below), then the top of a right angle to the dot nested in the opposite right angle (orange path). The sequence thereafter should be clear, working your way through each successive pair of anchor points, joining them by wider and wider loops, indicated by the successive colours of the rainbow below.

Drawing a classical labyrinth

The result is the classical labyrinth I presented earlier, which is a seven-circuit, right-handed labyrinth—there are seven loops around the dead-end centre, and the first turn after the entrance is to the right. The left-hand version is simply the mirror image of this one. You can add more circuits by nesting four more right angles into your seed, interposed between each dot and each existing right angle—that adds four more circuits. And you can keep adding multiples of four in this way for as long as your time, patience and drawing materials last.


Labyrinth is a bit of an etymological loner, coming to us pretty much straight from the Greek, and forming a little cluster of words in English directly related to its meaning. Of its adjectival forms, only labyrinthine (“like a labyrinth”) has survived in common use, leaving labyrinthal, labyrinthial, labyrinthian, labyrinthic and labyrinthical in the dustbin of disuse. Labyrinthiform is still in technical use, designating anatomical structures that form convoluted tunnels.

The loops and curls forming the hearing and balance organs of our inner ear sit in a cavity within the temporal bone of the skull, called the bony labyrinth. The delicate winding and branching tubes themselves are collectively called the membranous labyrinth. The derivation of the name should be obvious from the diagram below:

Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of these organs, which causes disabling dizziness and unpleasant tinnitus.

The legendary King Minos, who commissioned the original labyrinth, has given us two words. The first is Minotaur (“Minos bull”), the name of the half-human creature confined within the Cretan labyrinth. This seems a little unfair on poor Minos, since the Minotaur was the product of his wife Pasiphaë’s lust for a bull. (Though admittedly she had been cursed, and it may have been Minos who offended the gods and caused the curse. So it goes.) The second word Minos has given us is Minoan, the designation for the Bronze-Age civilization that flourished on Crete between 2000 and 1500 BCE. It was named in Minos’ honour by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the palace at Knossos in 1900.

Dædalus, the architect of the labyrinth (who had also reprehensibly aided Pasiphaë in her assignation with the infamous bull) has a slightly larger footprint in the English language than his king. We know him best by the Latinized version of his name—the original Greek was Daidalos, “the cunning one”. which is why a skilled artificer was once referred to as a Dædal. And something skilfully fashioned could be described with the adjectives dædal, Dædaleous or Dædalian. To dædalize is to make things unnecessarily complicated, and something pan-dædalian has been wrought by curious and intricate workmanship.

Finally a logodædalus or logodædalist is a person who is cunning with words; an example of such cunning is called logodædaly. I hope this post has given you material for some logodædaly of your own.

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