The Dance of the Labyrinth

by Ari Berk

Bartolomeo Veneto, Man in the Labyrinth

Bartolomo Veneto, "The Man and the Labyrinth"

Labyrinths are tricky things: dark avenues and turns, lots of footwork, occasional monsters or may–poles, complex riddles to be solved, and all these to be dealt with before the long walk back out again. Even the meaning of the word is the subject of much confusion, so before entering the labyrinth, it might be best to define our terms.Even now, most people think that labyrinths and mazes are the same thing. Not quite so, though the words are often thought to be synonymous. Following the principles set out by Hermann Kern in his exception book Through the Labyrinth (to which this article is tremendously indebted) we learn that a true labyrinth is a structure or design whose path canassume numerous forms, but cannot intersect itself. No choices for the traveler. You must enter and exit in the same place. Also, your path will fold back on itself, changing direction frequently, and will fill the entire space within its boundaries, moving you temptingly past the center and then away again before leading you, eventually, to the center.Anything else is a maze. Now that we’ve established the difference, you needn’t worry too much about it. Positively all the best people (folks like Herodotus and Diodorus) have confused the two, so you’re in good company. Why, during the Renaissance, labyrinths (and often mazes as well) were called Jardin de Daedalus, and referred merely to any problem thatrequired a quest towards a unique solution. For the composer Alexander Agricola, his "secret labyrinth" represented his remarkable and unorthodox treatment of hexachordal modulation. Thus, anyone who sets a complex task for himself — any artist, architect, philosopher, or poet — enters the labyrinth each time they seek a visionary solution. In this way, many havethought that it is the problem posed, its affect on the mind that is significant, not the actual shape of the structure that represents the process of solution.


Etymology is little help for the word’s history is still in dispute. Most frequently, the definitions referred to will include "labyrinthos = house of the double headed ax (labrys) = palace of Knossos on Crete, but this has proven untenable" (Kern:25). So let us turn to literature. The first (likely) reference to the term "labyrinth" suggests that it signifies a notable (perhaps stone) structure or defined area.On a clay tablet found at Knossos is a Linear B script dating to ca. 1400 BCE which has been translated to read: "One jar of honey to all the gods, one jar of honey to the Mistress of the ‘Labyrinth’" (Kern:25). Now we are faced with more mysteries. Who is the "Mistress of the Labyrinth"? A goddess? Ariadne? Does it truly relate to a structure, or perhaps to something marked out along the ground standing in the open air, like a ritual space?Kern suggests that the most that may be said is that it refers to something of stone. Again, just as we glimpse the center, we are forced back out the margins. But among the stones is a good place to look for labyrinths, indeed, carved labyrinths are not uncommon among petroglyphs across the world.

Neolithic Labyrinth

Petroglyphs and other Signs

Early evidence of labyrinths can be found as carved pictographs throughout Spain, in Ireland, near Tintagel in England, Syria, Romania, Egypt, Pompeii, Turkey, and Morocco. In Cornwall and northwest Spain some speculate they were associated with Bronze Age tin mining (Kern:67). In such places, they may have stood as a statement regarding the miners’ view of themselves relative to the land. As miners, they descended into the womb of the earth, thus the labyrinth might have symbolized the path of their journey, and their hopes for a successful return. But on this interpretation, the stones themselves will neither confirm nor deny.

This idea is perhaps strengthened by a carved labyrinth in Sardinia adorning the roof of an underground chamber tomb dating to the second half of the third millennium BCE (Kern:67). Like most labyrinth petroglyphs, it is of the Cretan seven–circuit type. There is speculation about the date of the carving, though Kern thinks the tomb and carved labyrinth are from the same period. Such tombs are used repeatedly, so it may be possible that the petroglyph may have been carved later as a re–emphasis of the significance of the site. Either way, it is reminiscent of the carved spirals seen on such ancient tombs of Newgrange in Ireland(where the sun enters and leaves the tombs at the time of the winter solstice) and may invoke similar metaphors regarding descent and emergence, though the labyrinth symbolizes not the path of the sun, but that of the spirits of the dead who likewise journeyed for a time in the Underworld before returning to the sunlit lands.

Man in the Maze, Pima Basketry

Labyrinths are found in the American Southwest appearing in the stories and basketry of Pima and the Tohono o’Odham people. Among the Tohono o’Odham, the labyrinth is called "The Man in the Maze," its depiction on baskets refering to the story of I’toi, or Elder Brother who remembered and held true to his beliefs while a flood destroyed the rest of the people. He was placed at the top of Babquivari Peak, which is the sacred mountain of the Tohono o’Odham, and thus was spared. The Man in the Maze represents the many turns and changes people experience throughout their lives. At the center of the maze is death (which we may avoid by turning this way and that), but eventually,if the nature of the path is accepted, death is peacefully acknowledged and harmony is restored.

Among the Pima (who are Piman speakers like the Tohono o’Odham), is the story of
"Se–eh–ha’s House." Se–eh–ha lived in the Greasy Mountains where he built a new home for himself. Never before had a house like this been built with so many winding passages. This place, he thought, would confound his enemies should they pursue him. When it was finished, he made a home for himself in the labyrinth’s center. From the top of his new ki (house) he saw his enemies approaching in a cloud of dust from the East. Hew quickly retreated back into the center of his home. When his enemies arrived they were awed, for they had never seen anything like the building before withit mouth standing wide open like the jaws of a monster. The enemies entered and soon were gasping for air, stumbling over each other in the dark. Soon, every one of them had perished. Se–eh–ha was victorious. It is also said that the ruins of the labyrinth still exist and may be found in the South Mountains, near Phoenix, Arizona (Shaw: 15-16).

As we’ve seen, the image of the labyrinth can be used to suggest the difficult stages of life and their philosophical solutions either through acceptance or problem solving. Even the physical image of a labyrinth was though to hold power. In India, numerous amulets, drawings and manuscript paintings depict Cretan–type labyrinths as apotropaic charms and spells which can assist with particular physical ailments. In manuscripts from northwestern India, tantric drawings of labyrinths are used as charms to ease the labor and birthing process, thus emphasizing the labyrinth’s wide–spread symbolic association with transition and birth/rebirth.In a related use, they could function as protective threshold magic. They would be formed from white powder on the ground, a meter from the door of the house (Kern:289). Such labyrinths protect the house from evil spirits by invoking the labyrinth as symbolic fortress. The drawing is not protected and is soon worn away, but the power of the image does not reside in the image itself, but in the act of forming it on the earth, in the physical act of using the body to trace it out. The image is a reminder, a place–holder, for the magic inherent in the action.

An Etruscan oenochoe, or pitcher dating to about 620 BCE depicts a group a male warriors exiting a labyrinth in dance. The word "Truia" is written on the labyrinth, meaning, "arena," or "dance surface." Kern also mentions numerous references to labyrinth dances in ancient accounts. Though speculative, this may be the oldest, definition of the labyrinth, a place where the body could, along with other bodies, enact a ritual that followed a patterned path laid out upon the surface of the earth, or later, on tiles or mosaic floors.This is supported in antiquity by Plutarch’s references to Theseus’s dance on Delos (also called Naxos) as being labyrinthine, as well as the Game of Troy, the "Lusus Troiae," mentioned at length by Virgil which seems to have been enacted to commemorate both the founding (i.e. birth) of a city and burial ceremonies (Kern:31). Both accord well with the labyrinth’s frequent use as a metaphor for death and rebirth.

Corinthian Oecus

Corinthian Oceus, "The House of the Labyrinth," Mosaic Floor

In addition to references to a sacred dance, and/or a dance space, one of the most interesting and oldest labyrinthine images comes from Babylonia (early second millennium BCE) and appears to connect the labyrinth to the forest, an association that would become popular again later in medieval Europe. This image is a mask of Humbaba, the guardian of the mazelike Cedar Forest, and is formed from one continuous piece of clay, reminding one instantly of a brain because of its coilings. The hero Gilgamesh (with his companion, Enkidu) had to face the demon Humbaba.

"They stood looking at the forest.
They saw the cedar’s height;
They saw the forest gate.
Where Humbaba walked, a path was made.
The alleys were straight, the road good . . ." (Gardner and Maier:133)

Gilgamesh has vision–dreams within the forest and the battle with the demon is sparingly referred on a broken tablet’s inscription.

" . . .road . . .
 . . .second time . . .
 . . .threw down . . .
They cut off the head of Humbaba."
(Gardner and Maier; 144)

Gilgamesh then returns to Uruk, where after purifcation he attracts Ishtar’s romantic attentions. Then the goddess offers to be his lover, he refuses, citing a list of her former lovers as an excuse. Though Gilgamesh (unlike Theseus) does not return with the monster’s head, the plot is familiar: Hero enters the wilderness or labyrinth where he faces a monster who brings out the hero’s most heroic (and often violent) aspects. Changed, the Hero then earns the love of the goddess, whom he then insults (or abandons), getting instead her curse. He returns to the outer world (usually a city) cold and famous.What is it about the meeting of monsters that brings out the worst in heros? One wonders: After the monster at the heart of the labyrinth is slain, what is born? Death and rebirth seem to lie at the heart of the labyrinth’s mysteries, but whose death and whose rebirth isn’t always easy to discern.