The Dance of the Labyrinth (Continued)

Trojeborg, Sweden

Troy Towns

One of the most enduring physical forms of the labyrinth is the Troy Town. These are formed from stones, lain out upon the ground, always in the form of a Cretan labyrinth. Because they are made of stones and there are usually no related monuments, they are very difficult to date. Found primarily in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Baltic coast, extant places name and church frescoes suggest their previous presence in Denmark, but none now exist there.The traditions associated with them exist now primarily in folklore. Some believe — due to their frequent placement near the coastlines — that they are related to fishing magic, and would have the effect of bringing in more fish, but whether fishermen had to walk or dance the labyrinth to bring this about is not known. (Kern:267).

Italian "Labirinto"

Also called Völundarhús, or Wayland’s House, the labyrinth in an Icelandic text dating to the fifteenth century relates to a sort of hunting magic bound in up in a curiously corrupted retelling of the story of Theseus. In the tale, Egeas (Theseus is mistaken for his father Aegeus) went to the court of King Soldan ("Sultan"?) to court his daughter. The king tells Egeas that to win his daughter he must kill the "Honocentaurus,"a creature that may not be vanquished by any mortal skill. Well, Egeas goes in secret to the king’s clever daughter who agrees to help him. She instructs him on building a trap in the forest where such creatures are known to roam. First Egeas must remove all the monster’s customary prey. Then he must get the meat from a wild boar and coat it well with honey  . . .to sweeten the trap. When the monster ran into the structure after the bait, Egeas wouldthen run through the traps "twists and turns" finally leaping onto the central wall of the innermost chamber where he could then kill it. The king’s daughter drew for Egeas a picture of the trap, "which is called Völundarhús" and off goes Egeas to do the deed. Seven days later (after much bellowing) the beast is found dead in the trap (Kern:268). Most interesting here is the idea of cleverness denoted by Dadealus in earlier stories isnow transferred to Wayland (called "Lord of the Elves" in the Poetic Edda), who was himself a master of craft. In England, a Neolithic tomb bears Wayland’s/Volund’s name, perhaps an indication that tombs are places not merely of sepulcher, but of challenge as well, places where one must engage in some form of travel, difficulty or adventure before achieving some desired goal. Thus both spiritual quests and physical trials may inhere within the labyrinth’s spirals avenue.

Though part of a marvelous and complex resurgence in labyrinth walking (and beyond the scope of the brief introduction), some medieval and modern churches bear labyrinths upon their floors. These are pilgrim paths and whatever is found in their center’s is between the traveler and their god. What more needs to be said? If you would know more, get thee to Chartres.

"Serpentine Garden Mazes," in Practical Geometry Applied to the
Useful Arts of Building, Surveying, and Gardens
, by Batty Langely, 1726

Literary and Cinematic Labyrinths

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, upon Prospero’s island — a place where monsters are met, lessons learned, quarrels mended, and weddings arranged — both Gonzalo and Alonso refers to the island and their experiences upon it as maze–like.

Gonzalo: By ‘r lakin, I can go no further, sir.
              My old bones aches. Here’s a maze trod indeed
              Through forthrights and meananders! By your patience,
              I needs must rest me. (act 3, scene 3.)

And later,

Alonso: This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,
              And there is in this business more than nature
              Was ever conduct of. Some oracle
              Must rectify our knowledge. (act 5, scene 1)

With wonderful insight, Alonso seems to imply that the natural world of the island is a maze, but it is also nature improved upon, and we come to see that a clever person (Prospero in this case) may better the natural condition of the world (and his own nature as well) by art tempered with forgiveness. No doubt building from such tantalizing language, Peter Greenaway, in his visual masterpiece Prospero’s Books, arranges for the meeting of Ferdinand (son of the King of Naples) and Miranda (Prospero’s daughter) to first lay eyes upon each other in a cornfield whose stalks mark out the lines of a maze.As both liminal space where the male suitor is rendered suitable, and the garden of lovers’ adventures, Greenaway invokes many Classical and Renaissance notions associated with labyrinths. These may reference back to the story of Theseus and Ariadne whose marriage dance (before the unfortunate abandonment) may have traced out the form of a labyrinth on the earth, as well as configuring the male lover/suitor as monstrous prior to the civilizing affects of the formal marriage ceremony. Like Theseus and the Minotaur, Caliban and Ferdinand’s lives seem to mirror and oppose each other.Both desire Miranda, but while Ferdinand ascends from the wilds of the island (not to mention the wilds of the rapacious states of Naples and Milan) into the reputable estate of marriage, Caliban repudiates the civilizing hand of Prospero and becomes increasingly more animalistic, ultimately inheriting the island that will serve him as a prison. Beyond Greenaway’s cornfield rises a gathering of pyramids, related perhaps to another of the labyrinth’s many aspects: the Classical insistence that labyrinths are found in Egypt, though these were not labyrinths but tombs. So labyrinths become associated with the way people imagine foreign people andplaces by invoking the fantastic when no common explanation is acceptable. Thus, we invoke labyrinths anywhere we are faced with the incredible or the problematic.

"Labyrinth" Movie Poster

Perhaps most memorable of all cinematic labyrinths is the goblin labyrinth in the film of the same name. With creatures and environments sprung from the mad vision of Brian Froud, the labyrinth is haunted by a thousand wizened creatures, some gifted with wisdom, some with superb comic timing, others merely with uncontrollable flatulence. A curious twist on labyrinth tales, in this film a young woman must journey into the labyrinth to find her baby brother (played in an Oscar–worthy performance by Toby Froud) who has been stolen by the goblin king, played by David Bowie.As it turns out, the baby is not the only thing she must retrieve from the maze, and so after many harrowing adventures, she returns home, brother in arms, having learned 1) that maturity is not such a bad thing, and that 2) it is very naughty to chase after rock stars, even if they can do nifty juggling tricks with their crystal balls.

Numerous modern writers have taken a turn on the labyrinth’s path. In her Mythopoeic Award–winning novel The Innamorati, Midori Snyder assembles a rich cast of characters (artists, actors, merchants, soldiers, thieves, prostitutes, and priests) in a marvelously imagined landscape inspired by Renaissance Italy. Their stories come together in the maze that lies at the heart of this enchanted tale. Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein has her main character, Molly Travers, working in San Francisco when she learns that she is descended from a 19th–century vaudeville and magic troupe.Further revelations include a relationship with an arcane Order of the Labyrinth. The King Must Die by Mary Renault is a well–informed and creative adaptation of the Theseus myth that includes Minoan Bull Leaping. In The Maze by Monica Hughes, a young girl is given a curious box adorned with a maze that leads to otherworldly adventures. Though not technically a labyrinth, no one who’s read Stephen King’s The Shining is likely to forget the maze where the monster is the one who gets lost.

Most deft of the writers to enter the labyrinth in the last hundred years is certainly Jorge Luis Borges who wrote several short tales about labyrinths, most intriguiging among them is the hieroglyphic mystery "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth," and the related tale "The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths." While not mentioning labyrinths explicitly, many of Borges’s other stories contain labrynthine imagery or associations. These include "The Circular Ruins," and "The Library of Babel."