Chapter 6: Labyrinth Art

I. Shadowy and confused origins

Labyrinth art has shadowy origins in caves and other ancient places—the flutings of finger-painting, for example, anticipate the pathways of spirals and labyrinths—and the earliest seven-circuit classical patterns go back at least 3,500 years. In addition to the longevity of labyrinth art, the use of labyrinth patterns exhibits a creativity that is ingenious in its variety and obsessive in its use of repetition. Sir Arthur Evans, the British archeologist who excavated at Knossos starting in 1900, identifies the roots of labyrinth art in the meanders, keys, frets and other ornamental patterns on vases, textiles, clay seals, and wall paintings in Egypt, Peru, Mexico, Greece, India, China, and other ancient cultures. The fylfot, or svastika, usually associated with Hinduism, was a pattern also sacred to the Minoans, “probably astral or solar,” writes Evans. The idea that ancient artists might have studied the ocean wave and abstracted it into a curvilinear symbol, which later might have been straightened out angularly into a meander pattern, locates the source of labyrinth art in nature. It’s an appealing idea, but one that will remain conjecture until some Marty McFly rides a DeLorean back to 10,000 BCE and talks to a cave painter, or lands in 2000 BCE and interviews a Minoan artist. Conjecture is a big part of the fun of labyrinth art history—it’s no wonder that a school memorialized a teenage Evans “for only one athletic activity: ‘jumping at conclusions.’” That’s what labyrinth scholars do.

            A stunning fact, or rather assertion, confronts the student of labyrinth art. Hermann Kern, author of the definitive labyrinth text, observes that a drawing of a round maze, resembling a church labyrinth but with some wrong turns, represents the earliest illustration of a maze, from ca. 1420 CE. That’s about 2,500 years into the history of unicursal labyrinth designs appearing all over the world. But immediately the proverbial labyrinth confusions rear their familiar heads. Turn to Evans’s description of a plaque found by Prof. Flinders Petrie in Egypt depicting two male figures “seen above a true labyrinth.” This “true labyrinth,” however, presented a handful of “false turns . . . before reaching the centre.’” In other words, an ancient Egyptian labyrinth seems to have the maze-like characteristics that Kern argues did not appear before the Renaissance. Evans also discusses the Labyrinth Fresco, found in the Domestic Quarter of the Palace at Knossos, and describes the painting as “a series of mazes” which were a “more elaborate development of the key and meander patterns” that he suggests are the sources of labyrinth art. So it’s hard, if not impossible, to believe there was no maze design until the 15th century CE.

            Given such knotted confusions, it’s wise, for sanity’s sake, to forego the historian’s quest for accuracy and origin and instead appreciate and revel in the intricacies of the visual patterns and designs, whether “true” labyrinth or maze (another reason to conflate the terms).

            But Evans warns us not to confuse the Palace, with its complicated and extensive ground plan of rooms, passageways, and stairways, with the labyrinth built by Daedalus. It’s not a maze.

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