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A Brief History of Mazes

Categories: Articles

What exactly is a maze? What have mazes been used for throughout history? How have mazes been used in pop culture?

Is a labyrinth the same thing as a maze?

Though the words are often used interchangeably, the answer is no.

Labyrinth
Maze

A labyrinth has winding, curved passages, forming a “unicursal,” or one-way path from the outside toward the center. Walking through a labyrinth, you will change direction often, but theoretically should not feel lost or confused as you wind through the space. Often the labyrinth is purposefully engineered so that it takes a long time to get to the middle, encouraging slow, meditative contemplation while navigating many twists and turns.
A maze is filled with dead ends. Often there are puzzles that help you find your way and alleviate frustration, but the idea is to get lost a few times before figuring out the terrain and finding your way. Two-dimensional mazes offer the ability to see the entire course at one time, though the hardest ones will take time to solve. While labyrinths are often seen as thoughtful, peaceful spaces for quiet reflection, mazes tend to attract those more interested in solving puzzles and facing challenges.

DID YOU KNOW?

The word “maze” dates from the 13th century and comes from the Middle English word mæs, denoting delirium or delusion. The word “labyrinth” may date as far back as the 14th century, and derives from the Latin labyrinthus and the Greek labýrinthos, or, a building with intricate passages.

Ancient Times

“It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but, provided [you are] not devoured at the midpoint, it leads surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning.” — Plato

Coins from Knossos with depiction of labyrinth, c. 400 BCE.
Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis., perhaps obstacle-filled, journey towards enlightenment.

In remarkably similar form, mazes and labyrinths can be found on artifacts from the ancient world; from the Bronze Age in Spain, to Ireland and India; from North Africa to the American Southwest. In these cultures—and many others—the labyrinth conveyed ideas about a meandering.

The Labyrinth of Crete is familiar to all lovers of Greek myths: a menacing minotaur—half human, half bull—was said to wait in the center. Herodotus, a Greek historian writing in the 5th century, described an ancient Egyptian labyrinth, noting that: “The Pyramids likewise surpass description, but the Labyrinth surpasses the Pyramids.” Pliny, the Roman historian, also wrote about ancient labyrinths across Europe and North Africa.The Tonoho O’odham and Pima peoples—from the desert region in what is now Arizona and northern Mexico—traditionally depict, in ancient petroglyphs and modern basketry, a man in the maze setting off on his winding path toward home.

Man in the Maze, Pima art piece.
Photo by Jared Tarbell.

We do not know why the maze and labyrinth appeared independently all over the world, but the pattern continues to be compelling in our own time.

DID YOU KNOW?

In Greek mythology, the hero Theseus successfully traveled through the Labyrinth of Crete and slayed the minotaur with the help of the goddess Ariadne, who gave him a ball of thread, called a clue.

Spirituality & Healing

Labyrinths are often used as a way to force the body and mind into a state of calm where one can achieve spiritual peace. One of the most famous examples of a labyrinth in a religious setting is the one at Chartres Cathedral, built in the 13th century. Later generations of Roman Catholics covered it, worried about the ancient, pagan origins of the labyrinth. Today it is available for visitors to walk through on certain days, like  Midsummer Day.

Chartres Cathedral.
Photo by Andrew Hick.

In the early 19th century, the utopian society Harmony constructed several labyrinths, including the vine and flower example at New Harmony, Indiana. The winding path of the trail encouraged followers to think about the journey we all take in life to reach contentment. The labyrinth at New Harmony fell into disrepair as the community disbanded, but has since been built as a tourist attraction.

New Harmony. The Labyrinth by Ross F. Lockridge, Sr., Director of the New Harmony Memorial Commission, in collaboration with other members of the Commission. Published by the New Harmony Memorial Commission, 1941

Today, the shape of the labyrinth creates contemplative moments at sites such as public parks and schools. Used as part of meditation and other health programs, labyrinths at hospitals and retreat centers can help facilitate relaxation.

Art and Attraction

When you think of the maze in popular culture, perhaps films such as The Shining (1980) and Labyrinth (1986) come to mind. But long before Jack pursued young Danny in a hotel hedge maze, these puzzling structures were an intriguing subject for artists, filmmakers, and authors. The maze is often a symbol of danger, confusion, or, as in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a challenge for characters on a quest.

Film Still from The Shining.

The hedge maze was once a mainstay of British formal gardens and estates. Known as “the most famous maze in the history of the world,” the Hampton Maze was originally planted from hornbeam in 1690 for William of Orange and is still there—it now includes a half mile of paths. Hedge mazes became popular all over England in the 18th century, their popularity waning as a craze for “natural” gardens overtook them in the 19th century. In their prime, hedge mazes provided privacy and entertainment for the members of the royal court at grand estates.

Tourists can find examples of hedge and corn mazes at seasonal fairs. In Buffalo, Toronto, St. Paul, and other cities, festivals have long included an ice maze, with the largest using over 2,000 blocks of ice. In Nebraska, a 54,000 square foot corn maze is so complex that visitors must use their smartphones to navigate the twists and turns.

Mazes transform everyday spaces into whimsical, challenging pathways that temporarily change our relationship with the built world.

DID YOU KNOW?

The world’s largest temporary corn maze opened in 2007 in Dixon, California. It measured an incredible 4 0.5 acres and took several hours to walk through.

This post was written for the BIG Maze.