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Medieval Studies

Labyrinths: Their Origins & Development



The labyrinth is perhaps one of the oldest, and certainly one of the most mysterious symbols known to mankind.  It has been looked upon as an object of fear and hope. It has been perceived as a representation of hell and redemption, and it has even been used to symbolize far off lands and cities.  Labyrinths are unique in that they are a geometric shape which does not occur naturally, and as a result they point to the creative genius of humanity.

Concentrating primarily on the labyrinths of the western world, these symbols were originally connected to the ancient Greek legend concerning King Minos of Crete, who had an inescapable labyrinth built to house the ferocious half-man, half-bull Minotaur.  It was said that this creature was the offspring of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, and was the result of her disturbing affair with a bull.

After the Minotaur was placed within the labyrinth, once every nine years, King Minos would send a number of Athenian virgins and young men into it where they would then be devoured by this bastard-son.  However, as fate would have it, a young Athenian noble named Theseus would eventually defeat both the Minotaur and the labyrinth by winning the heart of the princess Ariadne.  She bestowed Theseus with a ball of pitch and a “clew of golden yarn” which, the hero used to navigate the labyrinth by tying one end near the entrance of the labyrinth and then unrolling it until reaching the center.  It was here that Theseus would battle and kill the Minotaur, and after his victory, he followed the strand back to the entrance and escaped.

 While this legend is a fascinating story, there is little evidence to suggest that such a labyrinth ever existed on the island of Crete. Whether imaginary or real, the labyrinth in the Hellenic world was a negative symbol, associated with fear and an overwhelming sense of evil. [2]  Interestingly, there have been no discoveries of pavement labyrinths or even mosaic labyrinths being used in temples or at other holy sites.  It would not be until Christianity adopted the labyrinth that it would take on a more cosmic and religious significance.

[1] Source: Jean Villette, Labyrinthe de la Cathedrale de Chartres.” From Monde Medieval et Societe Chartraine (Paris, Picard, 1997), 132.  Accessed from http://www.france-secret.com/chartres_art1.htm.

[2] Craig Wright, The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001). 9-10.


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