Labyrinth History

The first known Labyrinth was a huge palace in the North of Egypt which was built about 2,000 B.C. The lower area contained tombs of their kings and of the sacred crocodiles.

A Labyrinth symbol on the ceiling of the Polyphemus Cave in Bonagia, Sicily dates back to 3,000 B.C.

The Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur dates back to the Minoan period on Crete, about 2,000 B.C. It describes a Labyrinth designed for the hideous, half man, half-beast called the Minotaur. Some feel that the Palace of Knossos, on Crete, was a Labyrinth. Others think that the caves of Gortnia were a Labyrinth.

Pylos, Greece, 1200 BCE, Mycenaean
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site click here.

Egyptian "button-seals" with Labyrinth designs are thought to date back to 3,000 B.C.

Coins, found at Knossos, dating back to about 500 - 430 B.C. depict Labyrinth patterns.

A Labyrinth pattern was found traced in the pillar of a house in the excavation of Pompeii. It must have been created before 79 A.D. The Casa del Labrinto, discovered in Pompeii, contained mosaic and pictorial references to the Cretan Labyrinth.

The Romans created mosaic pavements depicting Labyrinths. One featuring Theseus and the Minotaur has been found in Salzburg, Austria. Others have been discovered in Caerleon-on Usk; Yorkshire; near Marseilles; Verdes; Freiburg and Canton of Aud., Switzerland; Sousa, Tunis and Brindisi.

Pamphylia, Side, Turkey, mid 2nd C. CE ceiling of a public building
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site
click here.

Greek structures in Pterions and Epidarus are architectural Labyrinths.

Some Greek ceramic art depicts Theseus and the Minotaur as well as Labyrinthian patterns.

Labyrinths have been found in a basilica in Orleansville, Algeria dating from the 4 th century.

Most church Labyrinths date back to the 12 th century. The ones found in Italian churches are usually smaller than the ones found in French churches.

Wall Labyrinths have been found at Lucca Cathedral and San Michele Maggiore at Pavia. They featured Theseus and the Minotaur at the centre. The pathway was traced by the index finger.

Labyrinths at San Savino at Piacenza and the Cathedral of Cremona also featured the Minotaur.

Many of the French church Labyrinths were destroyed during the Revolution. There are Labyrinths in the churches of Sta. Maria-in-Aquiro, and Sta. Maria-di-Trastavera, Rome; and at Bayeux Cathedral. The most well known church Labyrinth is in Chartres Cathedral.

Pavement tiles with Labyrinths were found at the Abbey of Toussaints, Chalons-sur-Marne; and the Abbeye de Pont L'Abbe.

There were Labyrinths at Rheims Cathedral; Sens Cathedral; Auxerre Cathedral; the Abbey of St. Bertin and the Cathedral of Poitiers.

Church Labyrinths may have been introduced as a symbol of the perplexities and intricacies along the Christian path. Another theory is that they represent the entangled nature of sin or of the deviation from the Christian path. They may have been used to represent the path from the house of Pilate to Calvary. These may have been followed by penitents on their knees. The service of the church makes no reference to the use of Labyrinths in the service. Some may have been used as miniature pilgrimages. Christian emblems do not occur in the known examples of Labyrinths.

Amiens Cathedral, France, 1288, destroyed 1825, restored 1894
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site click here.

Evidence of church Labyrinths does not appear across the English Channel. However, the Labyrinth theme is apparent in Turf Labyrinth Mazes [garden mazes] in England, Stockholm, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and Finland.

As early as 1383, Dr. E. von Baer reported outdoor, stone Labyrinths were found in Finland, and Lappland. Sometimes small stones were used to outline the pattern. In some, the stones were about the size of a child's head. And in one case the stones were so heavy that it would take several strong men to lift them.

In 1877, Dr. J.R. Aspelin reported ancient remains in Sweden and Finland of outdoor, stone Labyrinths which he felt originated in the bronze age. Corresponding figures were also found in Iceland and Finland. They were generally the Classical or Greek pattern. It is felt that they were used as games and there is some speculation that fishermen and sailors walked them to invoke protection and insure a good catch.

Dritvik, Iceland
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site
click here.

The Classical Labyrinth pattern appears on the Danish woodcuts of Olaf Worm in the seventeenth century.

Labyrinth themes occur in North America in Pima Indian games. Square and circular Labyrinths have been found on Hopi mesa stones. There is a Labyrinthine pictograph in Mesa Verde National Park. The image appears in Pima and Papago baskets.

Australian Aborigines featured Labyrinths in their stories.

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English Labyrinth Gardens


Hilton, England, 1660
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site click here.

Some of the patterns used in English Labyrinth Gardens date back to pagan times. The Labyrinth landscape was evident with the Celts. They used Labyrinths as military training areas and for nocturnal protection.

There is little evidence of the typical church Labyrinths north of the English channel. However the English introduced their own unique Labyrinths in the form of the Labyrinth turf or walking gardens sometimes called mazes.

During the fifteenth century Labyrinth Gardens became popular on castle grounds and in public areas. Labyrinths became widespread in England and became a symbol of protection.

Henry II had a Labyrinth constructed at Woodstock Castle.

There were garden Labyrinths at Arley Hall, Somerleyton Hall, Belton House.

The Sneinton Labyrinth in Nottignhamshire was known as Robin Hood's Run and was destroyed in 1797.

The Labyrinth at Hilton in Huntingdonshire was created in 1666 and still exists.

The Labyrinth at Hampton Gardens was constructed in 1690.

Labyrinth Gardens at Saffron Waldon, Sussex and at Sneighton have become neglected over the years.

The British introduced Labyrinth gardens to the English colonies in North America. There is still an English Labyrinth Garden at the former British governor's estate at Williamsburg.

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Native American Labyrinths

Pima Maricopa Reservation, Scottsdale, Arizona [Pima, Maricopa]
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site click here.

A Labyrinth pattern was used by the Hopi as a symbolism of the Earth Mother. They used Labyrinth games to initiate children into world-creation narratives, in ritual ceremonies and religious apprenticeships. Square and circular Labyrinths have been found on Hopi mesa stones.

Native Americans used Labyrinths as religious games. "They instructed people in the designs that the spirits would require them to recognize at the moment of Great Passage." The Labyrinth in Culture _ Society , Jacques Attali; p. 93

The Pimas of Arizona challenged each other with Labyrinths drawn in the dust. They also used Labyrinths as an apprenticeship for metaphysical Labyrinths.

There is a Labyrinthine pictograph in Mesa Verde National Park.

The "Man in the Maze" design depicts a Labyrinth pattern similar to the Greek pattern and is still used in Pima and Papago baskets to this day.

Native American "Man in the Maze" designs
Photo courtesy Jeff Saward. To view his site click here.

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