The Egyptian "Labyrinth" and Classical and Renaissance Re–imaginings
More problems: the Egyptian labyrinth wasn’t really a labyrinth. It wasn’t even a maze. The structure called a "labyrinth" by Herodotus and others was in fact a mortuary temple built by Amenemhet III (who ruled from 1842 to 1797 BCE) to the south of his pyramid near Harwara (Kern:57). Now a ruin, this was once an enormous structure (305m x 244 m) and was considered one of the wonders of the world.Though it must be admitted, the phrase "wonder of the world" usually meant something akin to, "Hey! This is pretty nice! Why, it’s even nicer than the one we have at home!" Herodotus (ca. 484–430 BC) thought that is was the model for the famous Cretan labyrinth and wrote of it in his Histories:
This I have actually seen, a work beyond words. For if anyone put together the buildings of the Greeks and display of their labours, they would seem lesser in both effort and expense to this labyrinth — even though both the temple in Ephesus and the one in Samos are remarkable. Even the pyramids are beyond words, and each was equal to many and mighty works of the Greeks. Yet the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids.
In it there are twelve courts with roofs, each with facing gateways, six oriented to the north and six oriented to the south. It contains two sets of chambers, one below ground and the other aligned on top, three thousand in number — fifteen hundred in each set. I saw the upper series of chambers myself, passing through, and speak from my own observation, whereas I learned of the underground series by report. For the Egyptian authorities were utterly unwilling to show them saying they contained the burials both of the kings who had caused this labyrinth to be build, and of the secret crocodiles.
So I speak of the lower chambers from listening to others, but have myself seen the upper ones — beyond human labour. For the ways out through the roofed areas and the extremely intricate windings through the courts arose infinite wonder, passing from court to chambers and from chambers to porches (?), to other roofed areas from the porches (?), and to other courts from the chambers. For all of this the roof is of stone, like the walls, and the walls are covered with carved motives, while each court has a colonnade of white stone exactly joined. At the far end of the labyrinth stands a pyramid of forty orguiae which include the carvature of mighty figures. The way into this is cut below ground. (Macauly)
Herodotus may be referring to the crocodiles who lived in a pool near this temple and were so tame that the temple priests would feed them by hand and they (the crocs) would weep when sung to. This labyrinth is not really for entering and exploring. It is by no means meditative (like so many modern labyrinths). It is a place of sepulcher and secrets, and it perhaps such aspects, even more than its many passages and excellent architecture, are what caused Herodotus to equate it with the familiar Cretan labyrinth. In any event, here Kings and monsters share the dark and hallowed earth, a generally familiar co–habitation in the labyrinth’s history.
The account of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) stresses the skill required to build it as well as the difficultly in finding one’s way out, thus equating labyrinths with cleverness.
When the king died the government was recovered by Egyptians and they appointed a native king Mendes, whom some call Mares. Although he was responsible for no military achievements whatsoever, he did build himself what is called the Labyrinth as a tomb, an edifice which is wonderful not so much for its size as for the inimitable skill with which it was build; for once in, it is impossible to find one’s way out again without difficulty, unless one lights upon a guide who is perfectly acquainted with it.It is even said by some that Daedalus crossed over to Egypt and, in wonder at the skill shown in the building, built for Minos, King of Crete, a labyrinth like that in Egypt, in which, so the tales goes, the creature called the Minotaur was kept. Be that as it may, the Cretan Labyrinth has completely disappeared, either through the destruction wrought by some ruler or through the ravages of time; but the Egyptian Labyrinth remains absolutely perfect in its entire construction down to my time.
The writer Strabo (ca. 64 BCE — AD 19) mentions the labyrinth in three passages of his geography.
. . . the total number of nomes was equal to the number of the courts in the Labyrinth; these are fewer than 30.
In addition to these things there is the edifice of the Labyrinth, which is a building quite equal to the Pyramids and nearby the tomb of the king who built the Labyrinth. There is at the point where one first enters the channel, about 30 or 40 stades along the way, a flat trapezium–shaped site which contains both a village and a great palace made up of many palaces equal in number to that of the nomes in former times . . . Before the entrances there lie what might be called hidden chambers which are long and manyin number and have paths running through one another which twist and turn, so that no one can enter or leave any court without a guide.
. . .The reason for making the courts so many is said to be the fact that it was customary for all nomes to gather there according to rank with their own priests and priestesses, for the purpose of sacrifice, divine–offering, and judgement on the most important matters. And each of the nomes was lodged in the court appointed to it.
Interesting in Strabo’s account is the reference to the use of the site by priests of the nomes (administrative districts) as a place of offering to the interred remains of the dead rulers of Egypt. In this way, the "labyrinth" becomes a device of memory and loss of cleverness and confusion, a place that represents and expresses one quality while simultaneously evoking its opposite. He also states that the labyrinth contains "palaces" equal in number to nomes in former times. So it is also a simulacra of the kingdom itself, adorned with "districts," a mirror of the land of the living. If the labyrinth (either in fact or in the interpretation of its visitors) could represent the topography of Egypt, perhaps it may have stood for other things as well, other landscapes, other metaphorical paths or journeys, such as the one the soul takes after death.
A passage from Pliny’s (AD 23-79) Natural History gives a fuller description of the labyrinths’ adornments. Pliny also mentions architectural deceptions that force the walker to retrace his steps. He also seems to imply that the current locals who live in the lands adjacent to the labyrinth despise it. Why? What does it remind them of? Was it some aspect of the place’s history? That it was funereal? Or merely the pall that lies over all ruins? Or perhaps it was the knowledge that beneath one’s feet there still stood the statues of monsters staring staring blindly on through time and darkness.
Let us speak also of labyrinths, quite the most extraordinary works on which men have spent their money, but not, as may be thought, figments of the imagination. There still exists even now in Egypt in the Heracleopolite Nome the one which was built first, according to tradition 3,600 years ago by king Petesuchis or Tithois, though Herodotus ascribes the whole work to Twelve Kings and Psammetichus, the latest of them. Various reasons are given for building it. Demoteles claims that it was the palace of Moteris, Lyceas the tomb of Moeris, but the majority of writers take the view that it was build as a temple to the Sun, and this is generally accepted. At any rate, that Daedalus used this as the model for the Labyrinth which he built in Crete is beyond doubt,but it is equally clear that he imitated only 100th part of it which contains twisting paths and passages which advance and retreat — all impossible to negotiate. The reason for this is not that within a small compass it involves one in mile upon of walking, as we see in tessellated floors or the displays given by boys on the Campus, but that frequently doors are buried in it to beguile the visitor into going forward and then force him to return into the same winding paths. This was the second to be built after the Egyptian Labyrinth, the third being in Lemnos and the fourth in Italy, all roofed with vaults of polished stone, though the Egyptian specimen, to my considerable astonishment, has its entrance and columns made of Parian marble, while the rest is of Aswan granite,such masses being put together as time itself cannot dissolve even with the help of the Heracleopolitans; for they have regarded the building with extraordinary hatred.
. . .Men are already weary with travelling when they reach that bewildering maze of paths; indeed, there are also lofty upper rooms reached by ramps and porticoes from which one descends on stairways which have 90 steps each; inside are columns of imperial porphyry, images of the gods, statues of kings and representations of monsters. Certain of the halls are arranged in such way that as one throws open the door there arises within a fearful noise of thunder; moreover one passes through most of them in darkness.
The last classical author I’ll mention, Pomponius Mela (1st century AD), is more hopeful than the rest, for despite the labyrinth’s confusing "meandering" one may still make his back, a vital part of the process.
The building of . . . the Labyrinth, includes within the circuit of one unbroken wall 1000 houses and 12 palaces, and is built of marble as well as being roofed with the same material. It has one descending way into it, and contains within almost innumerable paths, which have many convolutions twisting hither and thither. These paths, however, cause great perplexity both because of their continual winding and because of their porticoes which often reverse their direction, continually running through one circle after another and continually turning and retracing their steps as far as they have gone forwards with the result that the Labyrinth is fraught with confusion by reason of its perpetual meandering, though it is possible to extricate oneself.
Of course, for the fullest reference to a labyrinth in the classical world, we must turn from Egypt to the familiar tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. So well known is this story, I’ll only touch briefly on its most salient points: A young man, Theseus, sets out to find his father and learns that this is none other than Aegeus, king Athens. Brief joy ensues. But alas, the Athenians must, every nine years, send seven males and seven females to Crete to be sacrificed. Why you ask? The usual. The king of Crete, Minos by name, asks the sea god, Poseidon, for a sign to confirm his kingship of Crete. Poseidon sends an especially nice white bull which emerges almost instantly from the sea. In fact, the bull is so fine, that Minos decides to keep for himself instead of sacrificing it to Poseidon. Bad idea. Poseidon, with enormous irony, causes Minos’s queen, Pasiphae, to become infatuated withthe idea of — ahem — mating with the sea–bull. This tricky bit of animal husbandry is made possible by Daedalus, who just happened to be residing/hiding in Crete after "accidentally" killing his nephew. Daedalus constructs an elaborate cow suit that allows the queen and the sea–bull to consummate their special friendship. The result: the Minotaur, a monster half–man and half–bull. A royal scandal. So the first family of Crete decided to hide away their shameful son. Daedalus again comes to the rescue and builds the labyrinth to house the Minotaur. The practice is instituted of making sacrifices to the monster using the youth of Athens. Enter Theseus. He arrives on Crete where immediately Ariadne (daughter of king Minos and Queen Pasiphae, half–sister to the Minotaur) falls in love with him.She decides to help Theseus and gifts him with two essential objects, a weapon (axe, dagger, sword, depending on the version of the myth) and a ball of twine with which to find his way back out again. He makes his way to the center of the labyrinth and kills the Minotaur. Using Ariadne’s thread, (perhaps a metaphor for womens’ wisdom, far too infrequently called upon by men in our own dark times), he finds his way back. He then sails off with Ariadne stopping on a small island or two long enough to perform the Crane dance (a reenactment of Theseus’s adventure through the labyrinth) and abandon Ariadne. Under her curse, he sails back to Athens where he forgets his father’s request to fly the white sail if all is well. Well, when Aegeus sees the black sail, he assumes the mission was a failure and his son is dead, so he throws himself from the cliffs into the sea, thus giving the Aegean sea its name. Theseus assumes the throne of Athens. Brief joy ensues.
So Theseus finds his fate by traveling through the labyrinth, but at what cost? Father dead. Wife abandoned (worry not, Bacchus came along and made her into a constellation). What was it that Theseus really gained? Certainly he ended the unpleasant practice of human sacrifice, which is, I suspect, a very ancient motif embedded in this story. And he inherits a kingdom. But it is Theseus’s relationship with the Minotaur that is, I believe, crucial. The paths of their lives mirror each other, finally crossing in the center of the labyrinth where they meet as opposites with some remarkable similarities. Each is the unacknowledged son of a king — the Minotaur ends up imprisoned in the labyrinth, Theseus begins his journey unknown to his father. One is hidden away, the other’s life becomes increasingly visible and public. They are both political figures, their actions shaping the fates of and defining two opposing kingdoms.Had Theseus stayed with Ariadne, he would have inherited the kingdom the Minotaur would have gotten at the death of Minos of Crete. Inheritance seems to be a central issue in this tale. Of course, it’s not only about inheriting a kingdom, it’s about inheriting a fate, finding the hidden nature that’s been with you all along. At the center of the labyrinth, down there, in the dark, something in you is revealed and confirmed. In Theseus, the Minotaur meets who he might have been: a young lord of promise, beloved of his father. In the Minotaur, Theseus meets who he is to become: a killer, and breaker of oaths and his father’s heart. In the classical world, the labyrinth is the hiding place, the dream–prison of monsters, but also a site of contagious metamorphosis where we are drawn into the monster’s sphere, assuming their aspects before retracing our steps back into the waking world.
Emphasizing the brief dalliance of Theseus and Ariadne, from fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, labyrinths and mazes become synonymous with the lover’s dance and the garden of delights becoming places of temptations and vices. Of course, such visions of lovers entering garden labyrinths where other lovers are already at play are not necessarily entirely metaphorical. They may also be reasonable representations of the kinds of activities people sought in the private corners of their estate, hidden away from prying eyes behind the hedges. But here is hope for the young, as well. In the labyrinth’s turning avenues, youths eventually come to seek out the pastimes of maturity. In the "Hedge Maze," an engraving by Hieronymus Wierix (1553?-1619) the lanes of the labyrinth are filled with musicians, strolling couples, lonely wanderers, a maypole, and even a duel.All activities engaged in by "men of the ‘labyrinthine’ age of immaturity between 16 and 32 . . ." (Kern:233). These rascals are finally led by the angels to Prundentia (prudence) who resides within the Palace of Fine Arts where she stands ready, like a high school guidance counselor (with a book and various sextants, compasses and globes about her), to translate them into their new lives as adults with viable trade skills.
At this time labyrinths are also used as to signify for The World and the trajectory of the path of life ending at the center, which can be variously represented as heaven or hell, depending on the nature or inclination of the traveler. Labyrinths are also used to depict cities, again, with their various pastimes and vices, and with a single path, Ariadne’s thread, symbolic of the simple road of those who, embracing God, do not partake of the worldly delights of the town. In such depictions, the walker of the labyrinth (of the world) is seen as a pilgrim and an ascetic who is transformed or rewarded not by what he finds at the center, but by the inevitable and certain path leading towards it.