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Labyrinth describes a system of lines or paths which, through numerous changes of direction, make following or pacing the pattern a puzzle. Labyrinths can be designed as a building, ornament , mosaic , planting and corn labyrinth , as a drawing or rock carving . In addition, the term is used in a figurative sense to identify a situation as unmanageable or difficult.

Finger labyrinth at the parish church of Beyenburg


Labyrinths are not to be confused with concentric circles or spirals that appear in the same context or on the same carrier material.

Word origin

The origin of the word labyrinth ( ancient Greek λαβύρινθος labyrinthos ) is unclear.

MacGillivray wants it on the prenomen Labaris of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet III. lead back. According to Egli, the Greek word corrupt is from Egyptian Lope-ro-hunōt ('palace at the entrance of the lake'), referring to a building on a lake where statues of King Amenemhet III. and his wife stand. An old theory sees a connection between the words labyrinth and labrys (which originally could have meant (double) ax) with the ending -inthos.

The art historian Henry M. Sayre (* 1948) suspects that the Greeks called the complexly built palace of Knossos , due to the numerous images of double axes in the palace itself, "the house of double axes" ( labyrinth ) and the word later its meaning Maze received. According to Karl Kerényi , the word labyrinth referred to a quarry with many shafts and passages. One of the oldest sources for the word is a stone tablet found near Knossos in Linear B , which contains the words DA-PU-RI-TO-JO PO-TI-NI-JA. The word labyrinth could have originated from DA-PU-RI-TO-JO.

Types of labyrinths

Cretan ("classic") labyrinth
Roman labyrinth
Christian labyrinth

The shapes of labyrinths are varied. On the basis of the line layout (the path pattern), two types can be distinguished:

  • Labyrinth in the original sense: a winding, branch-free path, the lines of which, with regular changes of direction, inevitably reach the goal, the center.
  • Labyrinth in the broader sense: a system with branches that can contain dead ends or closed loops. This type of labyrinth is also called a maze . There it is possible to get lost and it usually makes sense to invest.

The building that Daidalos built for the Cretan King Minos in Knossos as a prison for the Minotaur , had a branching system of corridors, as suggested by the Ariadne thread used for orientation . Such a labyrinth has not been proven archaeologically. Ornamental representations of labyrinths may have been used in the Cretan bull cult .

Labyrinthine patterns with branches are occasionally documented in Europe from the 15th century; real mazes emerged in the 16th century. The first installations with high hedges , in which one could get lost, appeared in the second half of the 16th century (Verona, around 1570). From this point on, the development of the labyrinths in the broader sense (the "real" mazes) took on an independent development, which has led to increasingly complex patterns and path networks to this day.

From the Cretan pattern, the Roman pattern can be developed by repeating it four times, and the medieval or “Christian” pattern can be developed by joining two smaller Roman patterns. It cannot be proven that the patterns really formed in this way. Considerations that the basic shape of the labyrinthine figure was created by cutting open a spiral or concentric circles and connecting the resulting open sections of the path are speculations of the late 19th century and have no basis.

More differentiated patterns developed from these basic forms. The corridor systems of the Roman labyrinth were modified in three ways: patterns with serpentines , spirals and simple or complex meanders were created.



The dating of labyrinths in rock carvings is disputed. A labyrinth is carved into the wall of the rock tomb of Luzzanas in Sardinia , locally called "Tomba del Labirinto".


Cretan labyrinth on a clay tablet from Pylos , back, 7 × 5.7 cm, baked clay, Athens Archaeological Museum
Roman mosaic: Depiction of a labyrinth with the Minotaur in Conímbriga, Portugal
Cretan silver coin with the "classic" labyrinth pattern, 400 BC. Chr.

Greece and Crete

A clay tablet with text in linear B script has a labyrinth on the back. This oldest reliably datable illustration comes from the palace of Nestor in Pylos in Greece and was made around 1200 BC. Chr.

The ruins of the Palace of Knossos are often referred to as the "Labyrinth of Knossos". A structure resembling a classic labyrinth has not yet been found there. A clay tablet with ( Mycenaean linear B script) from around 1200 BC BC from Knossos describes offerings and possibly means a labyrinth or the palace as a whole. The name da-pu-ri-to-jo , which means something like “structure in stone”, is perhaps the name of the labyrinthine architecture.

Labyrinths with seven whorls were between 431 and 67 BC. Depicted on Cretan coins. The labyrinths are round as well as square, figuratively resembling a swastika , a bundle of rods , or meanders . Occasionally the word Knossos is added.


Strabo reports the in Faiyum Oasis located mortuary temple at the pyramid of Amenemhet III. (1844–1797 BC) in Hawara , which he calls the labyrinth. In hieroglyphic spelling it was called lprnt , which is vocalized as lo-pe-ro-hunt ("palace on the lake").

Etruscans and Romans

An Etruscan oinochoe from Tragliatella has a spear-bearer carved into it, followed by two riders. A Cretan labyrinth hangs on the tail of the last horse, with "Truva" carved into the first passage. (660-620 BC). Matthews interpreted this as an image of the game of Troy .

On a column of the peristyle in the house of Marcus Lucretius (Via Stabiniana) in Pompeii there is a drawing together with the inscription Labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaur ("Labyrinth, this is where the Minotaur lives"), which dates from the time of the catastrophe (79 AD .) should come.

Labyrinths are also depicted on Roman floor mosaics. About sixty of these labyrinths have been preserved. They can be found throughout the Roman Empire . The ornaments are too small to be committed. They originated between the 2nd century BC. BC and the 5th century AD. Some show the Minotaur or the battle of Theseus' with the monster in the center ( Minotauromachy ). The labyrinth in the villa of Theseus in Nea Paphos (Cyprus) is well preserved. Other labyrinths from the Roman period are surrounded by pictures of the wall and city gate. The mosaic by Loig near Salzburg (275-300 AD) has thirteen whorls and a minotauromachy in the center.

The earliest known labyrinth in a Christian church is in Reparatus in El Asnam ( Wilaya de Chlef , Algeria), a spiral pattern with eleven whorls. The representation dates from 324 AD. In the center of the labyrinthine square is an anagram with the words Sancta Ecclesia .

middle Ages

Amiens Cathedral, floor labyrinth, approx. 12 × 5 m, restored in 1894–97 based on the destroyed model from 1288
Labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral
Drawing by Villard de Honnecourt
Lucca Cathedral, finger labyrinth, diameter 50 cm, 13th century

Many medieval cathedrals have floor mazes. They were used for penitential exercises in which the penitent followed the pattern on his knees and said prayers at certain stations. The labyrinth symbolized the soul's path to salvation and at the same time the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Examples can be found in the Basilica of Saint-Quentin (Northern France, octagonal), in the Cathedral of Amiens (France) and in the Cathedral of Siena (Italy). It is the shape of the Christian labyrinth, which is called "Chartres type" after the pattern in Chartres Cathedral . This is probably the best-known floor labyrinth based on a drawing by Villard de Honnecourt (1200/1210). It has a diameter of 12.8 m and eleven whorls. It is made of blue and white stone, a wreath of 112 regularly arranged teeth forms the outer edge. With a diameter of 3.1 meters, the round center corresponds to the inner part of the window in the main facade.

Lawn maze in the Reichenfels castle ruins

The labyrinth in the Cathedral of Bayeux consists of red and black bricks, has ten whorls, a diameter of 3.75 m (around 1200). The labyrinth in Reims Cathedral (square with corner bastions, eleven aisles) from the early 13th century was destroyed in 1779.

A round finger labyrinth is carved vertically into the wall at the west entrance of the cathedral in Lucca (Northern Italy); so it can be traced with the finger. A sandstone slab with a labyrinth comes from the monastery church of San Pietro de Conflentu in Pontremoli (near La Spezia , Italy ). Lawn labyrinths also symbolize the Chemin de Jerusalem , but their dating is rarely certain. Presumably they imitate the floor mazes of medieval cathedrals.

In Scandinavian churches in Denmark and the south of Sweden , Norway and Finland only simple frescoes can be found. They almost exclusively represent the Cretan type. The small-scale wall paintings were mostly monochrome on a white background. They were hidden under paintwork and were discovered and exposed during restoration work at the end of the 20th century. In Denmark you can find in the old church of Skive ( Jutland , Cretan, red, 15 whorls, 125 cm), in the churches of Hesselager ( Funen , Cretan, red, 11 whorls, 0.4 m, from 1481) and von Roerslev (Funen, Cretan, red and dark gray, 15 whorls, 125 × 110 cm, 15th century), von Gevninge ( Zealand , Cretan, red-brown, 11 whorls, 0.5 m, 14th century) labyrinths. In Sweden, the churches of Grinstad ( Dalsland , red, Christian type with drawing errors, 11 whorls, 100 cm, half preserved) and of Hablingbo ( Gotland , Cretan, 18 whorls, 100 cm) can be cited; in Norway the church of Seljord ( Telemark , Cretan with modifications, red-brown, 11 whorls, 0.8 m, possibly 12th century).


The 35 labyrinths on Bolshoi Sajazki , one of the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea , (locally called vavilons - Babylons -) are the world's largest remaining concentration of labyrinths.

Great Britain

In Woodstock , England, a brick labyrinth has been found in the 12th century, which is probably one of the earliest secular structures. It became known through the affair of Henry II with the beautiful Rosamunde . It is not preserved.

Modern times

Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Young Man , around 1510, oil on panel

In the architectural treatise by Antonio Averlino (called Filarete) from the 15th century, which has only been preserved in incomplete copies, there are three drawings of labyrinths that were apparently drafts for defensive structures. In Sebastiano Serlio's Sette libri dell'architettura (“Seven Books on Architecture”), the fourth book (1537) depicts two square labyrinths, one with five, the other with seven. They are likely to be intended as ornamental decorations or as a planting scheme for flowers or herbs and subsequently appear in numerous other places.

In the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua there is a damaged wall fresco by an unknown master, which was probably created between 1521 and 1523 and shows Olympus in the middle of a water labyrinth. In the Palazzo del Te in Mantua there are numerous representations of labyrinths relating to the Minotaur myth, mostly as imprints .

In the late Renaissance , patterns emerged that differ significantly from the path systems of the previously known labyrinths through numerous branches and dead ends. These mazes are an independent development. The first accessible mazes can be found in northern Italian gardens, plants with head-high walls are created in Italian mannerism . The early mazes are mostly formed from espalier hedges , trimmed hedges only appear increasingly in the Baroque era. In contrast to the unbranched labyrinth, mazes are characterized by a complex network of paths with numerous branches, crossings and dead ends. Mazes convey the danger of going astray, the pleasure of looking for a destination and the game of hiding. Many baroque mazes were laid out in the pleasure gardens of residential castles to pass the time of court society, but they can also be found as an attraction for everyone in the inn gardens in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 17th century. In England, Henry VIII had a maze laid out at Hampton Court in 1690 , which measures 66 × 25 m and is still preserved today.

The emergence of the mazes represents a parallel development, which the labyrinth did not replace as a decoration or a symbol.

In the emblem books of the 16th to 18th centuries, representations of the labyrinth are used as warnings against human involvement in the “sinful world”. In the panel painting there are two garden labyrinths by Lucas van Valckenborch from 1584 and 1587. Around 1510 Bartolomeo Veneto painted a young man with a round labyrinth on his chest and a cloak decorated with Solomon's knots.

Labyrinths also emerged in the following centuries. A floor labyrinth adorns a hall in the town hall of Ghent (light and dark tiles, 13 × 11 m, from 1533), it reproduces the destroyed floor mosaic of the monastery church of St. Bertin in St. Omer . In Ely Cathedral (Cambridgeshire), a new floor maze was created in 1870 (black and white tiles, 6 × 6 m). An example of a paving labyrinth can be found in the New Town Hall in Munich , which was started at the end of the 19th century . It is located in the left inner courtyard and represents a Chartres-type pattern reduced to nine galleries (17.5 × 18.5 m). In the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen there is a floor labyrinth (Roman type, red and white tiles, about 5 × 5 m, 1839–48).

Many stone labyrinths and lawn labyrinths are difficult to date ( lichenometry ), as they are often reconstructions whose historical models e.g. T. are no longer detectable. The edges of the routes are often made of stones half buried in the ground. Troy Town Maze on St. Agnes , Isles of Scilly , a stone labyrinth, was laid out in 1729 by a lighthouse keeper based on the model of a Troy castle .

The accumulation of stone setting with this pattern on the coasts of Scandinavia is striking. Only a few seem to date from the Middle Ages, most of the buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Examples: on Blå Jungfrun (Gotland, first described in 1741), Steinvåg near Gamvik ( Finnmark ) and twelve stone labyrinths on the Solowezki Islands ( White Sea ).


Labyrinth in front of St. Lambertus
Pavement labyrinth in the Gardens of the World Berlin
Labyrinth, Weissenfels Farm, Namibia World icon

In the second half of the 20th century, various artists took up the labyrinth motif again, such as the sculptor and writer Michael Ayrton , who devoted himself to the ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus , the artist Alice Aycock , a representative of conceptual art , and, since the 1980s Years ago, the designer Adrian Fisher , who created plaster labyrinths depicting the Minotaur. A new interpretation of a church maze was opened in 1981 in Grey's Court near Reading by Robert Runcie , the Archbishop of Canterbury .

The labyrinth of the library in the novel The Name of the Rose

An accessible paving labyrinth was opened in 2007 in the Marzahn recreation park in Berlin. It is an enlarged replica of the Chartres labyrinth. The diameter of the facility, which borders the forecourt of a hedge maze, is 20.8 meters. The design comes from the landscape architect Thomas Michael Bauermeister. In the Schönbrunn Palace Park in Vienna , a maze with a Feng Shui stone was built next to a hedge maze that was restored in 1999 . "Feminist labyrinths" can be found on the Zeughausplatz in Zurich and in Frankfurt ( women's memorial labyrinth ). The religious meaning of the labyrinth with its medicinal plants and willow figures should make the "Living Labyrinth" of the Catholic Women's Community of Germany (kfd) inaugurated in 2007 on the grounds of the Helfta Monastery a new experience. Even in literature and film labyrinths play a role, as in Jorge Luis Borges and the novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco .

The charm of the mysterious and the unknown origin of the labyrinth made it a projection surface for their ideas, especially for esoteric , Christian and feminist groups. Numerous new labyrinths were created, maintained and used for events. There is a labyrinth movement in both Anglo-American and German-speaking countries that deals with the meaning of the labyrinth. Walking through a walk-in labyrinth, which is understood as a symbol of the intricate way of life, is used for meditation and prompts you to rethink your own way of life. In addition, the symbolism of light can be picked up in an Advent labyrinth . It stands for Jesus Christ , who redeems people from the darkness . The target in the center can be the light in the form of a candle or symbolized by a gospel book as the word of God .

In 2017, a maze of 500 cubic meters of snow was built in Bernau in the Black Forest .

Research history

Rock carving in the Rocky Valley near Tintagel (Great Britain), slate rock

A more intensive occupation with labyrinths began with the growing interest in antiquity at the beginning of the 18th century. For example, in 1700, as part of an expedition, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort visited the cave near Gortyn on Crete, where the ancient Cretan labyrinth was suspected. In the 19th century, speculative theories emerged that were largely based on the descriptions of ancient authors. The Roman labyrinth mosaic by Loig near Salzburg was discovered in 1815, the wine jug from Tragliatella was recovered in 1877. Arthur Evans uncovered the ruins of the palace of Knossos in 1922, in which from then on - without comprehensible justification - the labyrinth of Daidalos was seen. The Pylos tablet was excavated in 1957.

William Henry Matthews (1882-1948) succeeded in 1922 with his book Mazes and labyrinths ("mazes and labyrinths") a first systematic representation. 1967 followed with Il libro dei labirinti ("The Book of Labyrinths") by Paolo Santarcangeli (1909-1995) another detailed presentation of the labyrinthine theme. The extensive publication by Hermann Kern, which dates back to exhibitions in Milan and Munich ( Haus der Kunst , 1982), documented the various shapes of the labyrinth in detail for the first time in the form of a catalog. In the following years the work became a point of reference and a source of further research. The Briton Jeff Saward founded the small magazine Caerdroia in 1983 .

See also

Literature and Sources

Generally understandable presentations in German

  • Janet Bord: mazes and labyrinths. Verlag DuMont, Cologne 1976, ISBN 3-7701-0923-6 .
  • Greg Bright: Who Will Find Out? 35 tricky mazes. DuMont publishing house, Cologne 1975, ISBN 3-7701-0923-6 .
  • Greg Bright: The maze. Extraordinary puzzles for extraordinary people. Benteli Publishing House, Bern 1975, ISBN 3-7165-0057-7 .
  • Gernot Candolini: Labyrinth. Inspiration for a journey through life Verlag Herder, Freiburg 2015, ISBN 978-3-451-31596-1 .
  • Gernot Candolini: The mysterious labyrinth . Myth and History. Pattloch , Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-629-02160-1 .
  • Frithjof Hallman: The riddle of the labyrinths. Where are you from? How old are they? Where are they? Damböck, Ardagger, Lower Austria 1994, ISBN 3-900589-15-1 .
  • Jürgen Hohmuth: Labyrinths & mazes. Frederking & Thaler , Munich 2003, ISBN 3-89405-618-5 (photo book with images from a balloon).
  • Hermann Kern: Labyrinths. Appearances and interpretations. 5000 years of presence of a prototype. 4th, unchanged edition. Prestel , Munich 1999, ISBN 3-7913-2096-3 . (First edition 1982)
  • Ulrich Koch: The big book of labyrinths. False paths, tangled gardens, search images, 80 labyrinths. / The Book of Mazes [With a Daidaleia by Hans-Peter Niebuhr and an Ariadne thread for lost people]. Anaconda , Cologne 2010, ISBN 978-3-86647-450-5 . (German and English)
  • John Kraft: The goddess in the labyrinth. Games and dances under the sign of a matriarchal symbol. Edition Amalia, Bern 1997, ISBN 3-905581-00-0 .
  • Jeff Saward: The Great Book of Labyrinths and Mazes. AT , Aarau / Munich 2003, ISBN 3-85502-921-0 .
  • Bruno Schnetzer: Labyrinths in Switzerland , tredition Verlag, Hamburg 2018, ISBN 978-3-7469-1331-5 .
  • Ilse M. Seifried (ed.): The labyrinth or the art of walking. Haymon , Innsbruck 2002, ISBN 3-85218-400-2 .
  • Thomas Thiemeyer, Bertrun Jeitner-Hartmann: Magical labyrinths. Travel through space and time. ars edition, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-7607-1835-3 .
  • Tell me maze. Women's culture in public spaces. 20 years of Labyrinthplatz Zurich. , Christel Goettert Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-939623-33-5 .

Scientific literature

Individual evidence

  1. Alexander MacGillivray: The astral labyrinth at Knossos. In: British School at Athens Studies. 12, 2004, p. 330. (Knossos: Palace, city, state)
  2. ^ Johann Jakob Egli : Nomina geographica. Language and factual explanation of 42,000 geographical names of all regions of the world. , Friedrich Brandstetter, 2nd ed. Leipzig 1893, p. 519
  3. a b Fritz Schachermeyr : The Minoan culture of ancient Crete. 1964, pp. 161, 237, 238.
  4. ^ Henry M. Sayre: The Greek World. In: Discovering the Humanities: Culture, Continuity & Change. 2nd Edition. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River 2010.
  5. ^ Friedrich Kluge: Etymological dictionary of the German language. 20th ed., Ed. by Walther Mitzka, Berlin and New York 1967, p. 416 f. ('House of the Double Ax')
  6. Labyrinth Studies. Labyrinthos as a line reflex of a mythological idea. (= Albae Vigiliae. Volume 15). Amsterdam et al. 1941.
  7. ^ HG Orpen: The Hollywood Stone and the Labyrinth at Knossos. In: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 13/2, 1923, fig. 2.
  8. ^ HG Orpen: The Hollywood Stone and the Labyrinth at Knossos. In: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 13/2, 1923, p. 179
  9. ^ HG Orpen: The Hollywood Stone and the Labyrinth at Knossos. In: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 13/2, 1923, fig. 3.
  10. Anon 1853, The Cathedral of Chartres, in France. In: Illustrated Magazine of Art. 2/7, 1853, p. 10
  11. a b c d Penelope Hobhouse: A Book of Gardening. Ideas - Methods - Designs. A practical guide. Pavilion, London 1986, p. 44
  12. WH Matthews: Mazes and Labyrinths, London 1922, online version (English), Chapter 19: The Bower of "Fair Rosamond"
  13. Weissenfels Labyrinth
  14. ^ Mary Keen: The Glory of the English Garden. Litte, Brown and Co., Boston 1989, p. 17.
  15. See: Labyrinthplatz Zurich
  16. Ulrike Spiegelhalter: Bernau: Ephemeral work of art: Germany's largest snow labyrinth is in Bernau. Badische Zeitung, January 29, 2017, accessed on February 2, 2017 .

Web links

Commons : Labyrinth  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Commons : Labyrinths  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Labyrinth  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations