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Cretan (classical) mazes and maze myths


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Dames of ancient days have led their children through the mirthful maze. The Traveller by Oliver Goldsmith (1730?-1774)

Walls of Cretan maze Walls of Square Cretan maze
The Cretan maze is the oldest known maze design. It is a unicursal maze, a single path without choices or branches. There is a square form and a round form (see above). It has been known over a long period of time, and in many cultures, and it's still popular today. Here are some examples throughout history.
clay maze Etruscan vase from Tragliatella, Italy Cretan maze at Holmengraa Tohono O'odham basket maze
Scratched on the back of
clay accounting tablet
at Pylos, Greece
approx 1200BC
Etruscan vase from
Tragliatella, Italy
approx 600 BC
Cretan maze at Holmengraa, Northern Norway
1000-1600 AD
Basket maze of the Tohono O'odham, from Arizona
1900-now
coin mazecoin maze
Coins from Crete
300BC-100BC
The usual modern name for this design is Classical, but it predates Classical Greece and Rome. I prefer the name Cretan. The design occurs on Cretan coins. Crete was the location of the Labyrinth, the maze where the Minotaur lived. This was during the time of the Minoan rule in Crete. These coins actually date from after the time the Greeks conquered Crete (about 1250BC), so they are not Minoan, but they are still Cretan. Mazes of this type throughout Europe show the Minotaur in the centre (see myths), so it was obviously thought to be the original Cretan labyrinth. However, it couldn't be! This maze is unicursal, and you can't get lost in it.

The oldest dateable version of this maze is the clay tablet shown above, which is approximately 1200BC. There are petroglyphs (carvings into stone) in Galicia, Spain, which probably date from around 2000 BCE, but there is no way to date them with any scientific accuracy. There are other stone carvings elswhere, but dating is always difficult and some claims are definitely questionable. There are English turf mazes of this design, but these, too, are hard to date, and likely to be late copies of the design.

The photo on the right is the labyrinth petroglyph at Mogor, Galicia, Spain. It is © Jeff Saward and his website gives more information about these mazes, as well as others - it's worth looking at!

maze petroglyph at Mogor, Galicia, Spain

Are all these different versions of this pattern derived from earlier versions? Except, presumably, for one originator! Or were the patterns in different countries spontaneously generated? There seems to be a massive geographical range, but, for example, there were trade links between India and Europe, and the Vikings got down to southern Europe, which might explain the Scandinavian designs. The Arizona mazes seem to be a peculiarity, but this could date to the Spanish influence in the area. So perhaps the design gradually spread to the different areas. It is not impossible, however, that the trick of drawing the maze (see below) was discovered by more than one person.

Looking at these examples, you may notice that most of them, especially the oldest, are designs to look at rather than large mazes that you walk through. This may explain why it was mistakenly assumed to be the original Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Once you walk through a unicursal maze, it's obvious that there are no branches, but the eye is easily fooled. This maze design is not particularly interesting to walk. There are long parts of the walk where you walk round the top, turn round, and walk all the way back.

Another point is that this maze is always drawn as the walls of the maze. This is explained by understanding how it is drawn.


How to draw the maze

There is a secret way to draw the walls of this maze. Essentially you start with a cross with four dots round it in the corners of a square. Then you join the ends of the cross to the four dots, but you mustn't cross any line you've drawn already (there are paper and pencil games like this). When following the instructions below, don't draw the lines too close together.
Cretan maze - Stage 1 Cretan maze - Stage 1 Cretan maze - Stage 1 Cretan maze - Stage 1 Cretan maze - Stage 1
1. Draw a cross and four dots. 2. Draw a line from the top of the cross, round the top-right dot, to the top-left dot. 3. Draw a line from the top-right dot, between the lines, round the top-left dot, and then back round the top to the right of the cross. 4. Draw a line from the left of the cross, round what you have drawn so far, round the bottom-right dot, then back round the other way to the bottom-right dot. 5. Draw a line from the bottom-right dot, between the lines until you've gone round the bottom-left dot, and then back round the top until you reach the bottom of the cross.
How to draw (moving) This is a moving version to illustrate what I mean. You can see the initial cross and where the dots were in the oldest versions of the maze, so this is how they must have done it, and the logic of it may explain how it arose in different places. I feel that this method must have delighted people throughout history!

How to walk the maze

The next diagrams show the way that you walk the maze. These are the paths that you walk on, rather than the walls.

Cretan maze paths

Throughout this website, I have drawn the path diagrams in red and the walls in blue. so the first diagram is in red. It is easy to get confused with all those lines, especially at the top.

Cretan maze coloured

This is redrawn in colours. You start on red, which turns to orange, then yellow, and so on through the rainbow. You work through the maze in a series of nested loops, from the outside towards the centre.

Cretan maze rectangle

This looks odd, but what I have done is cut from the bottom of the maze to the middle, being careful not to cut through a path. Then I uncurled the maze so it made a rectangle. Greek key I kept the colours the same, so, hopefully, you can see what's going on. This technique makes it easier to compare different maze designs. For example, if you make this shorter, without changing anything else, you end up with a Greek Key pattern.

It has been suggested that the Greek key was how the Cretan maze was first designed, but this seems rather obscure to me. This design always has its walls drawn, and in the oldest versions you can always see the original cross and dots even if the rest of the design looks a little wonky, so I'm sure that was the origin. Why should anyone want to make a Greek Key pattern into a circle? Anyway, the Greek Key trick works best with the paths of the maze. You can play the same trick with the walls design, but you get a lop-sided pattern, which is different to the design as always shown (see right). I suspect that this connection with Greek keys is just a coincidence. Mazes are always based on spirals, as you travel round circles (or squares) to get to the centre, and Greek keys are simple square spirals.

Moving Greek Key

Scaling up & down

This maze's walls have 8 circuits and the paths have 7 circuits, but once you look at how to walk through the maze, you can see that it has two levels. Then it becomes easy to expand it to three levels. I have found one maze which has these three levels, but it doesn't look anything like the usual Cretan form, so perhaps the maze designer didn't realise that it was connected. Finally, just for fun, I reduced it to one level. The diagrams show the walls (in blue) because this maze is so linked to its walls. The end photo shows a 6 level Cretan maze, made by Nigel Bispham on his local beach of Carbis Bay near St Ives. Impressive!
Small - 1 level Standard - 2 levels Large - 3 levels Multiple Cretan beach maze

There is another way of scaling up a Cretan maze. You can still have two levels, but wind the path round the points an extra time. The fist diagram shows the walls (in blue), and the second is the path travelled (in red). Since this is quite a complicated path, there is also a rainbow pattern which shows how you walk the path.

Double Double - path Double - coloured path

This pattern crops up in several places, for example on a tile in in Toussaints Abbey, Chalons-sur-Marne in France repeated four times, with the maze rotated. On the right is a pebble maze without the central cross. Cretan maze without cross

Examples of Cretan mazes

This does not pretend to be a complete list. This is a very popular design of maze!

Square Cretan mazes

  • Back of clay tablet, Pylos, Greece (1200 BC)
  • Coin, Knossos, Crete
  • Oraibi, Arizona, USA
  • Scratched on pillar, Pompeii, Italy
  • Mosaic, House of Fountains, in Conimbriga near Coimbra, Portugal

Double Cretan mazes

  • Tile in Toussaints Abbey, Chalons-sur-Marne, France (pattern is repeated 4 times, rotated)
  • Pebble maze on Great Hare Island, Solovecke, Russia

3 level Cretan maze

  • 12C Manuscript, Munich, Germany (centre overwritten with picture of Theseus)

Round Cretan mazes

  • Arcera, Spain
  • Kom Ombo, Egypt
  • Rock engraving, Camonica valley, Italy (3rd - 2nd millenium BC)
  • Etruscan wine-jar, Rome, Italy (7C BC)
  • Danish stone runic cross
  • St Agnes, Scilly Isles, UK
  • Wall carving, Rocky Valley, Cornwall, UK
  • Coin, Knossos, Crete
  • Stones on ground, Scandinavia (over 500)
  • Basket, Papago Indians, Arizona, USA
  • The Hopi Indian reservation (N. Arizona) have it as part of their spiritual system, meaning Life, death, and rebirth.
  • The Tohono O'otam and Pima tribes of Southern Arizona weave the design into their baskets. It is a tribal logo.
  • On the Nazca Plains in Peru, just one of the many drawings in the desert.
  • Trojan Game - horse practice, Rome, Italy
  • City of Jerico, 12C Manuscript, Munich, Germany
  • Soekershof - maze in South Africa

There are also English turf mazes with a Cretan maze pattern.



Grass Maze in Cambridge Botanical Gardens (UK)

Grass Maze in Cambridge Botanical Gardens
Grass Maze in Cambridge Botanical Gardens
Grass Maze in Cambridge Botanical Gardens Grass Maze in Cambridge Botanical Gardens



Temporary maze outside Saffron Walden Museum

Saffron Walden has a famous turf maze and a good garden maze. In 2011, the town held a maze festival, with various temporary mazes scattered throughout the town. The museum had this Cretan maze.

Temporary maze outside Saffron Walden Museum



Temporary maze in Mill Road, Cambridge

Temporary maze at Mill Road Fair

Mill Road is a shopping street in Cambridge. Once a year, at the beginning of December, the street is closed to traffic for a street fair. This maze was made in Petersfield, a small common at one end. It is a standard maze, made using a rope. The walls are marked out with birdseed! I helped to make it. We used plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off to hold the seed and dribble it at the knots of the rope. After dark, the maze was lit with candles. (The tree is not actually part of the maze!)

Temporary maze in Mill Road, Cambridge



Centaur's Labyrinth in Mayer Arizona

A correspondent told me the following: Having worked with small human scale labyrinths for years as part of closing for field expeditions and courses a group of Grad students and I decided to scale up the paths to work with horses. Thos evolved into the Centaur's Labyrinth that we built at a YMCA camp, Chauncey Ranch in Mayer Arizona. It is a modification on a classic seven circuit with a 40 foot round pen in the center and 4 foot paths. We use it in a wise variety of ways: for contemplative practices with horses; playing and partnering with horses; sometimes kids just run through it. It was originally just dirt and rocks (lots of rocks, gathered from local river beds) It is an act of love keeping the weeds down each year.
I think that it's a lovely idea, making a maze big enough for horses to walk .

Centaur's Labyrinth


Chakravyuha or Padmavyuha labyrinth

Chakravyuha or Padmavyuha labyrinth

The Padmavyuha or Chakravyuha refers to a military formation in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The oldest parts of this text date are about 400 BC, though the origins of the story probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BC. The thirteenth day of Mahabharat war described in the epic is remembered for the construction of Chakravyuha by Dronacharya. This formation was supposed to be nearly invincible as only Krishna and Arjuna could defeat the formation, both entering it and leaving it, and they were not present at this battle. But Arjuna's son, Abhimanyu, knew how to enter the formation, but not leave it. He died in the centre of the formation after killing many of the warriors. His father Arjuna said afterwards "Pale is the colour I behold of the faces of you all. I do not, again, see Abhimanyu. Nor doth he come to congratulate me. I heard that Drona had today formed the circular array. None amongst you, save the boy Abhimanyu, could break that array. I, however, did not teach him how to come out of that array, after having pierced it." (From The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Volume 2, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, available on Gutenberg.)

This military formation is visualised as a maze. See carving, left, from Hoysaleswara temple, Halebid, India. It is very like a Cretan maze in the outer section, but the inside is a simple spiral.

Design of Chakravyuha or Padmavyuha labyrinth

Other Cretan-style mazes

Strawberry Fair maze - walls

Strawberry Fair maze

This maze is simpler than the conventional Cretan maze. I saw it at Strawberry Fair 2000 in Cambridge (UK), made with sawdust on grass. The maze looks a little like a tree. You don't walk through to the centre and then have to retrace your footsteps. There's a long way to the centre and a very short way out again (or vice versa). The blue lines are the walls and the red lines where you walk.
Strawberry Fair maze - paths

Strawberry Fair maze - walls

Another Strawberry Fair maze

The maker of ths maze told me that it is based on the Hopi maze rather than the Classical or Cretan maze. This maze is simpler than the conventional Hopi maze. I saw it at Strawberry Fair 2014 in Cambridge (UK), made with pieces of satinspar on grass - very attractive. The maker of the maze said that she got lost making it! The blue lines are the walls and the red lines where you walk.
Strawberry Fair maze - paths

Crich - walls

Crich maze

This maze is similar to the Strawberry Fair maze, but simpler. Again, it has a long path in and a short path out (or vice versa). The blue lines are the walls and the red lines where you walk.
It is in the Crich Tramway Village, home of the National Tramway Museum, in Derbyshire. Apparently the Crich labyrinth is based on a traditional German design with interlocking spirals, known as the Wunderkreis or 'Wonder Ring'. The walls are made with blocks of local limestone and there are two stained glass panels at the start representing the local rocks, and the vegetation of the Derwent valley. A tall spiral marks the end. There is a beautiful view over the Amber Valley.
Crich - paths

Crich maze Crich maze


Glastobury Tor

This is Glastobury Tor from the air, courtesy of Google maps. It is a hill sticking up from a flat plain, so visible from all around. Some people consider that the ridges round the Tor are a Cretan maze, but that is just wishful thinking, I'm afraid. I think that one theory is that they are terraces used for farming, as the land round used to flood regularly. Never mind, it is an extraordinary place.
Glastobury Tor

Maze myths

There are stories about mazes in many different cultures. Sometimes these are attached to particular maze designs, but sometimes the designs get attached to the stories, like the Cretan design above. Since this is the oldest design and so wide-spread, I have put the myths on this page, although they are not all necessarily connected to it.

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth

Minotaur

The Minotaur was a monster, half man, half bull, who ate men. He was born to the wife of King Minos of Crete. Minos told Daedalus, the inventor, to build a house that was so complicated that the Minotaur would never escape from it, so Daedalus built the Labyrinth. King Minos had a vast empire, and as a tribute he had people sent to to feed to the Minotaur. They were driven into the Labyrinth, and wandered around, lost, until the Minotaur found them.

Part of King Minos' empire was Athens, in Greece. The son of the king of Athens was Theseus, a hero. He was so angry that Athenian people were being killed in this way that he volunteered to go. In Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love with Theseus, and told him how to find his way through the Labyrinth. She gave him a thread, with one end tied to the door of the Labyrinth. Theseus could unwind the thread as he tried to find the Minotaur. When he wish to return, he could follow the thread back again, rewinding it as he went. Ariadne also gave Theseus a sword. He went in, found the Minortaur and killed him. Then he returned, and fled from Crete with Ariadne and the rest of the Athenians.

People connected this story with the Cretan maze. However the original Labyrinth, if it ever existed, was not a unicursal maze. Theseus needed a thread to help him retrieve his path after he had killed the Minotaur, so the Labyrinth must have been a branching maze. This myth was not only the original Labyrinth (the name of the Minotaur's prison), it also explains the derivation of the word clue. A clue helps you solve a mystery, and it is derived from the word for thread. Theseus needed the thread to solve the maze.

There is some historical foundation for this myth, surprisingly enough. There was a Cretan empire in the Mediterranean which included mainland Greece. It is called Minoan, after King Minos. There is a magnificent palace at Knossos. The archaeologists couldn't find a Minotaur, but they did find the palace itself very confusing, with many rooms, some at different levels, so it was easy to get lost. Perhaps ancient Greeks visiting Knossos told those at home about their experience, and this gradually changed into the story of the Labyrinth. And the Minotaur? Well, the Minoans loved bulls, and there is a fresco on the wall of the palace, showing an extraordinary display of acrobats jumping over a bull. This must have been incredibly dangerous, and no doubt people did get killed by the bull. Minotaur

Other descriptions of ancient mazes

There are many other stories about ancient labyrinyths, but unfortunately no designs have survived, or if they have, they are either the Cretan design (and the stories always emphasise getting lost, so that's wrong) or more modern designs such as Chartres. Herodotus (born about 484BC) describes visiting a Labyrinth in Egypt, above Lake Moeris, and nearly opposite Crocodilopolis. He seems to be describing a very complicated building with inter-connected rooms, rather than a maze as we think of it today. His Account of Egypt is here. Here is his description of the labyrinth.

Being set free after the reign of the priest of Hephaistos, the Egyptians, since they could not live any time without a king, set up over them twelve kings, having divided all Egypt into twelve parts. These made intermarriages with one another and reigned, making agreement that they would not put down one another by force, nor seek to get an advantage over one another, but would live in perfect friendship: and the reason why they made these agreements, guarding them very strongly from violation, was this, namely that an oracle had been given to them at first when they began to exercise their rule, that he of them who should pour a libation with a bronze cup in the temple of Hephaistos, should be king of all Egypt (for they used to assemble together in all the temples). Moreover they resolved to join all together and leave a memorial of themselves; and having so resolved they caused to be made a labyrinth, situated a little above the lake of Moiris and nearly opposite to that which is called the City of Crocodiles. This I saw myself, and I found it greater than words can say. For if one should put together and reckon up all the buildings and all the great works produced by Hellenes, they would prove to be inferior in labour and expense to this labyrinth, though it is true that both the temple at Ephesos and that at Samos are works worthy of note. The pyramids also were greater than words can say, and each one of them is equal to many works of the Hellenes, great as they may be; but the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids. It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, joining on one to another, and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred. The upper set of chambers we ourselves saw, going through them, and we tell of them having looked upon them with our own eyes; but the chambers under ground we heard about only; for the Egyptians who had charge of them were not willing on any account to show them, saying that here were the sepulchres of the kings who had first built this labyrinth and of the sacred crocodiles. Accordingly we speak of the chambers below by what we received from hearsay, while those above we saw ourselves and found them to be works of more than human greatness. For the passages through the chambers, and the goings this way and that way through the courts, which were admirably adorned, afforded endless matter for marvel, as we went through from a court to the chambers beyond it, and from the chambers to colonnades, and from the colonnades to other rooms, and then from the chambers again to other courts. Over the whole of these is a roof made of stone like the walls; and the walls are covered with figures carved upon them, each court being surrounded with pillars of white stone fitted together most perfectly; and at the end of the labyrinth, by the corner of it, there is a pyramid of forty fathoms, upon which large figures are carved, and to this there is a way made under ground.

Pliny (died A.D. 79) mentions a labyrinth by Smilis of Aegina on the island of Lemnos, and says that it was renowned for the beauty of its 150 columns and that remains of it existed in his time. He also mentions one at Samos, said to have been built by Theodorus, and says that "all of these buildings are covered with arched roofs of polished stone." Pliny also quotes from Varro (116-27 B.C.) a detailed description of a very extraordinary tomb at Clusium (the modern Chiusi), said to be that of the great Etruscan general Lars Porsena. This is the only Etruscan tomb described by the ancient writers, and is mentioned by Pliny solely because it was alleged to contain a subterranean labyrinth. Pliny seems rather doubtful about the accuracy of this account!

Mazes as cities

There are several references to cities as names of mazes. The English turf mazes were often called Troy town, and Troy is connected with Scandinavian mazes as well. Mazes can also be called after Jericho or Jerusalem. It's tempting to think that anyone not used to a large city will find its streets to be completely bewildering and maze-like. It's interesting that two of the names are associated with cities that are famous principally for being destroyed, so perhaps the maze is connected with the different levels of defences of a fortified city. Joshua circled Jericho seven times each time blowing a trumpet before it was destroyed, and the Cretan maze has seven circuits of its paths.

Virgil (70-19BC) describes the Troy game in the fifth book of the Aeneid. Iulus, the son of Aeneas taking part with his companions in a sport called the Ludus Trojae or Lusus Trojae (Game of Troy). According to the Roman tradition it was introduced into Italy by Aeneas. The game consisted of a sort of processional parade or dance, in which some of the participants appear to have been mounted on horseback. Virgil draws a comparison between the complicated movements of the game and the convolutions of the Cretan Labyrinth.

The church mazes were supposed to be used as substitute pilgrimages. Medieval people thought it was good for their souls if they travelled to holy places. The Holy Land was obviously the best, but that was very far, and often dangerous. So there were pilgrimages to other places as well, such as Rome, Santiago in Spain or Canterbury in England. There was a scale of value, so a number of visits to an easy place was worth the same as one to a harder place. It has been suggested that walking a local church maze a number of times also qualified. So travelling to the middle was a miniature version of travelling to Jerusalem.

A medieval maze story

In 1350, Higden, monk of Chester wrote "Rosamund was the fayre daughter of Walter, Lord Clifford, concubine of Henry II, and poisoned by Queen Eleanor, AD 1177. Henry made for her a house of wonderful working, so that no man or woman might come to her. This house was named Labyrinthus, and was wrought like upon a knot in a garden called a maze. But the queen came to her by a clue of a thredde, and so dealt with her that she lived not long after." There is no reference to this particular maze earlier.

Protection

The Chinese believed that demons could only travel in straight lines, so perhaps mazes are designed to baffle evil spirits. There is a story that the Scandinavian fishermen spent time ashore building pebble paths on the beach. Then they travelled through the maze so bad luck wouldn't follow them. Anyone sailing on the sea needs all the good luck they can get.

Arizona mazes

This design is known as the House of I'itoi or Siuku Ki, used in the baskets of the Tohono O'otam and Pima tribes of Southern Arizona. I'itoi brought people to this earth from the underworld. He lives in the maze so people can't find him. But the maze also represents the ordinary person travelling through life. So the little man is either I'itoi, or us. House of Iitoi
Hopi maze coloured The Hopi have a circular Cretan unicursal maze design called the Sun Father. However, they also have another similar maze design called the Mother and Child (Tápu'at) which is square. This is not a unicursal maze, and does not have a centre. It is not really a branching maze, but it does offer a choice right at the start. Do you take the left entrance or the right one? The left entrance leads you round the edge of the maze, ending in a dead-end, shown by a dot. This represents the mother. The right entrance leads you round the centre, again leading to a dead-end. This is the child.

Fertility myths

It is perhaps inevitable that any groups of myths involve fertility myths sooner or later! In fact, there seems to be surprisingly little on this for mazes. There is a story about the Saffron Walden turf maze, on the town common. It is said that a young woman stood in the centre of the maze, and the young men raced to reach her. Now this is nonsense! The maze paths are very narrow and it would be impossible to pass anyone. There are two ways that you could make it work. The first is that a man chased a woman through the maze. If she was given a few seconds start, then it would make an exciting race. The other possibility is that the woman was in the centre, and the men started off at every few seconds. Then each man concentrated in catching the man in front. When he did, he touched him (or possibly shoved him!) and made him give up. I still think that there can only have been a pair of men, or perhaps three, since the further back you were, the less likely you were to get to the front. Of course, complicated leagues could have been set up, so it would end up rather like the famous Bumps rowing races at near-by Cambridge. No proof, alas! There are more games and history connected with the Saffon Walden maze here. Saffron Walden maze

Female symbolI think that the round form of the Cretan maze has a certain similarity with the female symbol of a circle on top of a cross. Some of the oldest designs use the square form. Would this suggest a symbol of birth, or possibly re-birth? Certainly there is often a connection between the Labyrinth and death. Those went in to meet the Minotaur expected to die, but Theseus returned.

Certainly many people have felt that a maze is a good symbol for life itself. A branching maze presents you with choices every so often. You can take a wrong turn, or there may be two paths which join up again, all of which mirror life itself. A unicursal maze also can represent life. We are born, we all die, and in between we travel the path of life which twists and turns, often in a bewildering way. We cannot see ahead, and the past is gone. When we reach the centre of our maze of life, we die.

Pleasant pattern

Finally, I think that I must point out that possibly one reason for these mazes, possibly the main reason, was that the design is an attractive and intriguing pattern. Some people get over-excited about the 'meaning' of mazes, when a very important meaning is that they are fun!