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A Brief History of the Labyrinth

Aerial view of a hedge maze
ardiwebs/Shutterstock

From movies to board games and corn mazes to The Shining, labyrinths are as prevalent in today’s culture as they ever were, but why? What are labyrinths, and what purpose do they serve?

First, Are Labyrinths and Mazes the Same Thing?

You’ll often hear labyrinth and maze use synonymously, because, on the outside, they look very similar. But mazes and labyrinths are a bit different.

Labyrinths are a singular path, though it will have many twists and turns. It’s referred to as being unicursal, which means it’s a curved surface with a single path. This makes labyrinths far different than mazes.

Where labyrinths are a relaxing stroll to a central destination, mazes are a confusing collection of wrong ways and dead ends that force you to make decisions on how to get back out the other end. Corn mazes are popular during the fall and around Halloween, and can be created as labyrinths (and are in some places), but are usually designed as tricky mazes to make it, so you have to search for your way out.

In an aerial view of a maze, you can easily see all of the dead ends and paths that lead back to where you already were.

https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/aerial-corn-maze-manitoba-canada-1107897887

Labyrinths aren’t always overgrown hedges; they can also be made with small stones. Since they aren’t a game like a maze, it doesn’t matter if you can visibly see the entire path.

Labyrinths have an interesting place in mythology but are also a relaxing stroll without wrong-ways.

Labyrinths and Greek Mythology

The labyrinthos dates back to Greek mythology, and maybe even farther. In Greek tales, the labyrinth was created as a place to keep the minotaur (the half-man, half-bull creature of mythology). As the myth goes, the minotaur was a ferocious creature that ate people, so the labyrinth was constructed to keep the half-bull man trapped.

Here is the story of the minotaur and the erection of the Labyrinth of Crete. The story may be disturbing to some and is NSFW.

While many websites explain labyrinths as being different than mazes, you’ll see in this story that they may be the same. Ariadne talks to the Daedelous about how to ensure Theseus can make it back out of the labyrinth, and he gives her a ball of string. If labyrinths are meant to have one way in and one way out, why would Theseus need such a tool?

Pre-Greek Labyrinths

Before the story of the labyrinth in Crete, there were other labyrinthine designs, dating the structural design back to 3500 BCE (the Minoan period in Crete, when the minotaur story was born, is from round 2600 to 1100 BCE). The first existence of a labyrinthine design, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, was in Brittany, which was the Gavrinis monument. At this monument, there are labyrinth-like carvings.

You can view some of the carvings in this video:

Then, still before the Minoan period, the Newgrange tomb was constructed in Ireland. It also has a labyrinthine design. Again, you’ll find carved motif’s inside the strange and wonderful tomb. You can see some of them, and learn more about Newgrange in this video:

Labyrinths and Spirituality

These days, labyrinths are more about fun or retrospection and spirituality. You won’t find any minotaurs within, and you don’t need a ball of string or breadcrumbs to help you find your way back out.

As long as your experience within the labyrinth is nothing like the one on The Shining, you should be able to find it a relaxing experience that allows you to reflect inwardly while enjoying nature. This article has some interesting tidbits on how to get the most out of your labyrinth walk.

Labyrinths are used in rituals by people for all different spiritual backgrounds. Walking through the labyrinth could be thought of as your journey through life, with the twists and turns. With this in mind, many labyrinth walkers will look for signs on their walk that will let them know about their path in life.

Much like coloring mandalas is relaxing, so too can it be said of drawing a labyrinth. You can also create one in your backyard with stones. Use it as a way to spend more time in nature or to bond with friends.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »