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History of the Labyrinth

Mazes have been used in most of the world’s main religions, and reached the New World a thousand years before Colombus.

The most ancient type of maze had just one path and no hedge - yet you could choose a path! You could choose the path design when you made one, because ancient mazes were special patterns made by rules. So there was a puzzle in making them, but the finished article was not a puzzle for people - it was a trap for evil spirits. At the aMazing HEDGE PUZZLE you can experience the world's oldest puzzles "hands-on" in the Museum of Mazes and explore mazes, myths, maths and mysteries. In this very short essay Lindsay Heyes explains the evidence.

Maze or Labyrinth

The word maze means “a contrived path layout”. Everyone thinks that they know what that is - lots of paths, with hedges in between, and you get lost in it - like our aMazing Hedge Puzzle. Most people have heard the story of the ancient Greek hero Theseus, who had to escape a maze known as the labyrinth. But there’s a problem: Mazes like ours were invented 600 years ago in Venice, not 3,000 years ago in Crete.

Strange patterns with a single path and no hedge were known as mazes over 300 years ago. Some researchers assert that these were known as labyrinths before that, but the absence of evidence of the early use of the English word is no evidence of its absence:

The truth is that written English is almost non-existent from 1066 until 1380 A.D. because people wrote in Anglo-Norman and Latin after the Norman Conquest, although the majority spoke English. The skill of writing and knowledge of Latin were almost exclusively the preserve of clerics, for whom the mediaeval Latin spelling laborintus had an arcane religious meaning.

However, from 1380 John Wyclif, a Doctor of Divinity at Oxford University, started to write English works on theology and philosophy and by 1390 had translated The Bible. He was highly critical of the church, and doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation. Within a year of his first English work he had inspired the Lollard dissenters, a rebellious sect. The lollard heresy was punished by burning from 1401 onwards. Even when printed books became common around 500 years ago, authors of any books in English risked the accusation of Lollardy for another generation, and branded as being ignorant, disloyal and unobservant. Public access to English translations of The Bible was prohibited until 1538.

The prejudice against English persisted in Universities for centuries: No geometry was published in English until 1575; Scholars of classical sources for the study of ancient history - like Plutarch’s Lives, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Vergil’s Aeneid - published their work exclusively in Greek and Latin long after compulsory education made literacy commonplace after 1870. The English word maze was thus hardly ever written although it must have been spoken. In fact, 600 years ago Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of the English to explain the Latin proves that the English was the normal vernacular term before mazes with hedges and lots of paths were invented.


One maze was drawn to identify Crete on the oldest map of the world over 700 years ago, and can still be seen in Hereford. The monk who drew it labelled the maze on his Mappa mundi with the mediaeval Latin word laborintus - labyrinth - and explicitly linked it with Daedalus, a character from the ancient Greek Theseus myth. The pattern has only one path. The same word labels a similar pattern drawn in Pompeii over 1,900 years ago and captioned in Roman latin - labyrinthus. The ancient Romans often decorated these patterns with illustrations of Theseus, confirming that these patterns with a single path are what Romans meant by the word. Ancient Romans were taught by Greek teachers, so these patterns were also what was meant by the Greek labyrinthos -  - the ending of which shows that it was not a Greek word, but probably Phoenician in origin.

In Ancient Roman times, such labyrinths were stamped on Cretan coins from Knossos, where the labyrinth of Theseus had been located in the myth, but the earliest such mazes we can date appeared in Pylos (Greece) and Syria around 3,200 years ago. The Greeks later claimed that the Egyptians had used them. Personal names like Asterion and Aegeus, and numerology and themes in the Theseus myth and Wayland’s Saga suggest that stories about mazes may have been told around 6,000 years ago in a postulated proto-Indoeuropean language which, like English, Spanish or Arabic today, was used by many ethnic groups.

These ancient mazes were a special type of pattern which was a path - just one path, which went all around the whole pattern, either to end in the middle or to come back out again. The pattern did not repeat, and a single set of rules could make different designs - and because each design was a path, you had thousands of paths to choose before you made one. There was more than one algorithm for making them, but they all share a “pattern-grammar”. These mazes were measured-out with great accuracy. Chaucer wrote that the labyrinth was solved with a clewe of twine - Old English for "ball of string". A cord knotted at regular intervals was commonly used for measuring in building works, exactly what is needed to solve a pattern-making puzzle by geometry. And the word “geometry” comes from the Greek for ground-measurement. The Maze Making Magic Group Activity at the aMazing Hedge Puzzle is a reconstruction of the method based on evidence, by which 15 children can make a maze in less than 5 minutes. The geometric puzzle is the origin of our word clue for solving a puzzle. Understanding this geometry has enabled Lindsay Heyes to identify a maze on the Plains of Nazca in Peru, near which was found a wooden peg - apparently used for making patterns by a similar method - which has been radio-carbon dated to a time about a thousand years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Thus suggests that this type of maze may have reached the New World with early colonizers from Asia, perhaps 9,500 to 14,500 years ago.


Myths are intended to conceal mystery, not reveal history, so are early written descriptions of the labyrinth reliable? Plato thought of maze-patterns "as illustrations to our study of the true realities", proving - in the context of his beliefs- that the labyrinth was a religious mystery, a secret for the initiate. Aristotle wrote that the most important playwright in ancient Athens, Aesculus, was acquitted of revealing a religious mystery - a crime which carried the death penalty. It is thus wrong to expect Theseus, the first labyrinth-myth to have been written down, to reveal the mystery behind the story. In fact some of the first people to write down the myth were Sacerdotal Magistrates whose job was to judge such cases of blasphemy. The Theseus myth had to be recited annually by the Club of Troezen under Attic law, so it is possible that these authors wrote the story down just in case they came across a prosecution involving the mystery.

Archaeology reveals the foundation of the mystery: One Greek maze at Epidaurus, the cult centre of Asclepius where healing was practiced through exorcism, had walls which held up the temple floor, while the path of that maze was set below ground level; Theseus is depicted on pottery, and when he is in the underworld (the world of the dead) he is shown surrounded by the Greek key-pattern meander, which shares the pattern-grammar of ancient mazes; When Theseus is in the world of the living, he stands on top of that key-pattern. Theseus is thus in the labyrinth when he is in the underworld; When he is in the world of the living, the labyrinth beneath his feet is the boundary with the underworld; The labyrinth under the Temple floor is therefore a passage controlling access to the underworld - a chthonic path (it may at the same time have been a lithophone, a stone instrument to amplify the sound of a staff struck on the floor, or a place where sacred snakes were kept, and the design on the floor above it may have served as a mnemonic for cosmological cycles).

Geometry unveils more: All ancient mazes were made by some set of rules. Some had writing along the path, but not always real words, and not always real letters. This proves that a path made by rules was the active component.

Mythology adds to the picture: Escape from the sentence of a king (who traditionally acts by divine right) is the common theme. This is analogous to escape from the Judgement of the Dead: Theseus escaped the underworld on two occasions; The ancient Roman story Aeneid has Minos, the King of Crete whose judgement Theseus escaped, as a judge of the dead; In the myth of Asclepius, a son of Theseus escapes the death-sentence given by his father with the help of Asclepius through resurrection; In the Indian Mahabharata, the Baghavad Gita reveals that Abhimanyu can escape death by renouncing worldly life itself, which he does in a maze. There is a numerology shared in Theseus and the Baghavad Gita which may be a mnemonic for the length of an eclipse cycle - and the Gita refers explicitly to an eclipse the day after Abhimanyu’s self-sacrifice - but we can only guess at its significance.

Ethnography gives the context: All religions aim for a positive outcome after death. Judaism, Brahmanism, Sufism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity all had labyrinth traditions similar to those of ancient Rome and Greece. Sometimes they used the same pattern-making tricks, sometimes they invented new types. In all these traditions, three things go together for the use of mazes:

  1. Making the maze;
  2. Telling or singing a story;
  3. Going around the maze or following its path with the eye.

People would go around mazes in many ways: holding hands; in chariots; in full armour; or naked on horseback with monkeys. Mazes were used for games and for rituals of hunting, fishing, war, marriage, birth, funerals, exorcism, laying winds, relieving thirst and drought, averting the evil-eye, protection from drowning, and healing.


Putting the evidence together to make a theoretical model of the mystery: The archaeology, geometry, mythology and ethnography make complete sense if ancient mazes were a path to a life after death, the geometry controlled access to the underworld, the stories were incantations, and the use of the maze and incantation constituted ritual magic to exorcise evil spirits by promising them escape from judgement so that they would pass into an after-life.

Here are some recorded practices from the last 200 years, with analysis according to this model in square brackets:


Roman Christians interpreted the Theseus myth as an ignorant prophesy of the "the harrowing of hell" by Jesus, when it was believed that, just after the Crucifixion, He had rescued good heathens from hell, thus giving hope of forgiveness for the Original Sin to Christians so that they could go to Heaven. Magic is anathema to Christians, so their use of mazes was controversial. A Christian monk invented a new type of maze about a thousand years ago which was an exclusively Christian symbol to get around the problem. It was not made by an algorithm, but used the cross as a schema (a rough template for design), so it had a style grammar rather than a pattern grammar. This new type of maze could be built into churches for Easter dances. These Mediaeval Christian Mazes symbolised martyrdom (which led to heaven), perseverance, secrecy, skill in architecture, or the doctrinal dilemma of a Christian monk explaining pagan philosophy. The puzzle and magic were cloaked in this symbolism in most of western Europe, and mazes became moral symbols of a spiritually redemptive path through life, the way of Jesus, the path to resurrection.

Four hundred years later, Giovanni Fontana read the Theseus myth in Venice, couldn't understand what the Christian mazes he knew had to do with the pagan myth - and invented the modern maze with its many paths and walls to fit the story. These puzzle mazes were neither Christian nor pagan, so they could be used without risk.

Puzzle-books soon had very complicated mazes - perhaps because the symbolism was unimportant to children - but those planted in gardens had very simple designs, and low hedges. Lovers could hold private conversations in them, but were in full view of their chaperones so that reputations could be preserved. The atmosphere was nostalgic for fertility rites and very suggestive: The paths represented temptations on the way to marriage; The hedged maze was a version of the hortus conclusus (secret garden) which represented the inviolate womb of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus; A hypaethrum erected at the centre (like the one in the aMazing Hedge Puzzle) was thatched with evergreen to form a phallic “tent of the May King”, out of the top of which sprayed the white branches of a sapling stripped of bark, graphically illustrating consummation. This lewd symbolism is cleverly invoked by Chaucer in his Merchaunte’s Tale, an interminable shaggy-dog story featuring an affair consummated up a tree in a secret garden. The punch-line hinges on a pun on the word mase.

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenot protestants in 1572 was allegedly plotted by Catherine de Medici with men she had met in the maze-like parterres of the garden at the Palace of the Tuileries. Mazes acquired a darker significance for Protestants, and for a while, word-mazes were associated with religious polemic rather than romantic love. Distaste for religious intolerance inevitably led to the development of secular and Masonic ideals during The Enlightenment, and mazes came to symbolise the virtuous choice of one’s path through the vicissitudes of life.

In the last 200 years these arcane meanings have become ever less important with the rise of secularism, and leisure became the aim, so more complicated mazes with high hedges were built with the idea of getting people lost. This European notion of the maze has recently spread around the world, and is not religious at all. Mazes are often used in advertising to symbolise difficulty of choice, especially by the financial services industry.

Mathematicians call finding the best path in a maze critical-path analysis. CPA can find the cheapest route for telephone-calls, design the electrical paths of circuit-boards, or reduce the cost of road-trips. Computer programs which do critical-path analysis are called autorouters, and were first developed by E.F. Moore and C.Y. Lee in the late 1950s to plan wiring for reducing noise in telephone networks. Autorouters helped miniaturise electronic circuits, and have been a major factor in the development of Information Technology. The first autorouter was demonstrated solving a map of the maze at Hampton Court Palace. Autorouters are the core software for SatNav systems based on electronic mapping and the Global Positioning System.

Plato said of the labyrinth "Anyone who knew anything about geometry [...] would think it absurd to study it in the serious hope of learning", but in 1991 Lindsay Heyes discovered what the Ancient Greeks missed about the labyrinth - ancient mazes had chaotic paths and are cross-sections through branches of fractals. Today, chaos theory helps mathematicians understand how far ahead they can forecast the weather. The discipline is only a century old, but if the ancient Greeks had taken an interest in it, this branch of mathematics might have been studied for over 2,500 years - and our weather forecasts might be much better.

Ancient labyrinths with a single path have been revived by New Age mystics, who use them for meditation and healing. These New Religious Movements are creating their own mystery traditions and myths often connected with Earth Mysteries - for example that the labyrinth was a celtic symbol, or that ancient labyrinths were aligned with the sun, sited on ley-lines, or form a ritual path up Glastonbury Tor. Christians have started to build them in churches again, but now for meditation, which is not an occidental tradition.

Each new belief about mazes is valid as a matter of faith for its believers. There is nothing new in this: Oral traditions have always changed the myth of the labyrinth, each telling being slightly different until new threads of the story evolve. In other parts of the world, the old traditions still exist, but altered through contact with European culture. And writing this history will change the history a little too.

Discover Maze Myths

"Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth: there monsters and ugly treasons lurk."
Shakespeare, King Henry VI

The hundreds of myths about mazes are surprisingly similar wherever they are found in the world. They were once incantations for fertility magic and exorcism. You can find out about the essential elements which underpin all maze myths, and discover how key features of the myths vary by religion. There are tales from Ancient Greece, India, and France, Teutonic Sagas and American-Indian Myths of Origin.

The Theseus Myth

The hero had to solve the labyrinth on Crete and kill the monstrous Minotaur. Of course, the monster never existed - it was a symbol of divine retribution, and the escape of Theseus from punishment was a symbol of divine mercy. The myth has become so well-known, and was so brilliantly crafted as an adventure, that it successfully concealed the mystery of the geometry of the labyrinth for thousands of years.

The tale of Abhimanyu

The story of the son of the hero Arjuna in the Mahabharata reads like a fairytale, but a second look shows that it reveals how a boy had greater spiritual maturity than his famous father, and might have achieved the ultimate goal of Brahmanism.

The Ballad of Rosamund

An English folk-song was about a King's "affair of the heart", concealed in a maze. Find out the dark secret of local heroine Rosamund Clifford, and her dreadful fate.

Wayland's Saga

The story from the teutonic Heldensagen reveals the brutal crimes which led the greatest smith in the world to be condemned by monks to shoe the horses of all and sundry for a pittance on Salisbury Plain - if you ever dare approach his grave !

The tale of Iitoi

The flood myth of the South-West American Indians (famous for living in their adobe villages) reveals how the ghost of the hero took his revenge on people who had ignored his moral guidance and murdered him.

Types of Maze

"... and the maz'd world, by their increase, now knows not which is which."
Shakespeare, Titania, "Midsummer Night's Dream", Act II, Sc. 2.

The words labyrinth and maze have exactly the same meaning: a contrived path arrangement. There are three types, different in their design, history and function:

Puzzle Mazes

Like the Jubilee Maze, puzzle mazes are built as landscape features and are used for amusement. These networks of paths have hedges, and the puzzle is solved by finding a path to the centre of a maze which is already built. They were only invented 600 years ago by the Venetian architect Giovanni Fontana. He proposed them as defences, inspired by the arcane description in the Theseus myth which was situated on the island of Crete, which Venice had recently conquered.

Magical Mazes

These mazes may date back to the last Ice-Age. They were used in magical rites and as moral symbols of a chosen path that would lead to renewal of life. They were patterns made by geometric rules or schemata. Also called Classical Mazes, they are so called because some of the earliest datable mazes of this type date from the time of the Ancient Greeks. A Classical Maze had only one path and was constructed by following a set of rules which could make an infinite range of designs. Physical walls were not needed because it was impossible to get lost in these mazes, so a Classical Maze drawing does not seem much like the Labyrinth described in the Ancient Greek Theseus myth - to us. However, a graffito of this type, buried in Pompeii two thousand years ago by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, was captioned “Labyrintus Hic habitat Minotaurus”, so this type of pattern was exactly what the Romans meant by the labyrinth in the Theseus myth.

Several versions of the construction method were used to make different styles of Classical Maze. The Cretan type, named for its appearance on Cretan coins, was made by one method. The Roman type was made by another method which could make a squared version of a Cretan type, or link a series of mazes. The Christian type does not have a formal geometry, but reveals a sign of the cross, which is a symbol of martyrdom and spiritual redemption.

Maze Analogues

"Men forget where the way leads..."
Heraclitus, Fragment V, 6th century BC

Maze Analogues were not known as mazes, but they were used in the same way and are often found next to mazes. Strikingly, they are all are based on intractable permutation puzzles in which a solution is constructed by rules, and there is often a single preferred solution amongst infinite possibilities - just like Magical Mazes.

Literary labyrinths, acrostics and latin squares were sentences or words which could be read in many ways - either through ambiguity, or in a transposition of letters or words in a matrix. There were many types. Some had many paths and were used exactly like Magical Mazes. They have been around for at least 2,300 years. Palindromes were common, perhaps to imitate the Hebrew and Aramaic scripts. Another type, popular with Babylonians and Etruscans, was written along the path of a Magical Maze. Pseudoscripts and nonce-words suggest that it was not the writing but the pattern which was important.

Magic squares are arrangements of numbers in a grid, such that the sums of each row and column is a common number. They are set out systematically by a number of algorithms. In Qabbala mysticism, lines linking consecutive numbers form patterns which, by their similarity to signs of the zodiac, make them symbols of the planets. In Sufism, the numbers represent letters which further form literary mazes which are linked to the Quran. In Taoism, the numbers are represented in arrangements of an emblem called Ba Gua, and symbolise family members, the elements, and the land. In the Greater Vehicle of Buddhism the magic square is the "universal Calculator" at the centre of the calendar and in Shinto it used in astrology, so the Magic Square was a type of computus.

Computi are tables or diagrams used to calculate precession of the phases of the moon, or to pick outcasts in dipping-games (e.g. Eeny-meeny-mo), or synchronize the dates of movable feasts. Today we can use Modulo Arithmetic to do such calculations easily, but many Dipping Rhymes contained an encrypted mnemonic for the job. Skill in using such tricks is the basis of St. Peter's Game (a variant of the 2,000 year old "Josephus' Problem"). Diagrams of solutions of St. Peter's Game are effectively linear representations of Mystic Roses and were sometimes situated next to mazes.

Mystic Roses are star shapes which can be drawn by linking the corners of regular polygons without lifting the pencil from the paper. They include the Pentagram (a five-pointed star inside a pentagon), which can be drawn in 264 ways. One of these solutions was symbolic of health to Pythagorean "Mathematicians" - and can calculate the precession of heliacal risings of the planet Venus through the zodiac. The ancient Romans used the Mystic Rose of the heptagon to ensure dedication of the hours to the correct gods. In Taoism, the Mystic Roses of the octagon are represented in certain arrangements of Ba Gua.

Polyskelia include the Hakenkreuz (hooked cross), Farmer's Fylfot, and Swastika (four-legged); Rgyan-'k'yil (three-legged); and Yin Yang (two-legged). The latter is the central figure of Ba Gua, and in the Magic Square configurations of Ba-Gua, the elemental symbols are arranged around it in pairs which form a swastika when they are joined by lines. Like the pentagram, it represents the number 5. The path of a Roman Maze is a path around the outside of a Polyskelion, usually a hakenkreuz.

Meanders include the Greek Key-Pattern and Swastika-Meanders. They can be extended to form tesselations and "Celtic" Knot patterns (which are probably of Pictish origin), or deformed to make Roman Mazes. The Greek key-pattern was used to symbolise earth or the underworld. Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, called the Greek key-pattern on the floor of his house “the labyrinth”.

Distribution of Mazes

"Here is likewise a most inextricable labyrinth."
Evelyn, describing the gardens of Count Ulmarini at Vicenza


Greek myth has Crete as the birthplace of the maze, connected with events of about 3,800 years ago, but the Greeks thought its inventor got the idea from the Egyptians. In north Africa, mazes are found in areas of Greek and Roman occupation, where it was thought they were introduced by Alexander the Great, but a recent find shows that Cretans used mazes in Egypt about 3,400 years ago. In the 19th century, mazes were reported in Ethiopia in Coptic culture. Maze traditions reported by European settlers in South Africa and Namibia are probably misidentified, having had no formal method of construction or mythology.


Mazes may have spread with Minoan or Phoenician prospectors to tin and copper mining areas in Italy, Spain and perhaps England. The Greeks had the labyrinth from the time of the Revolt of the Sea Peoples, but seem to have lost interest in the labyrinth, perhaps because the Pentagram took its place as a symbol. The tale of Theseus was popularised by the Romans and then Christians. However, Roman maze designs - both unicursal and literary - follow older Babylonian patterns as much as Greek labyrinths.

Vikings used Greek-style mazes in Iceland and on the shores of the Black Sea, but no maze in the Viking homeland is known to be more than a few hundred years old, even though remains of about 500 mazes have been found in the Baltic littoral.

In the rest of western Europe magical traditions were suppressed until an exclusively Christian style was invented about a thousand years ago. These mazes were built in cathedrals as emblems of the "one true path" to spiritual redemption. Some people protested that they were pagan symbols, but Sprenger and Kramer (who defined witchcraft for the Inquisitors of the counter-reformation) were unconcerned about them.

Six hundred years ago, Puzzle Mazes took the place of the Magical Maze in secular gardens after the construction puzzle of the original mazes had been displaced by the Christian Maze. Europeans later spread this new type of maze to their colonies around the world.


Mazes were known in Syria 3,200 years ago, and in Mesopotamia before the conquest of Alexander the Great. He may have introduced the maze to Iran, Afghanistan, and the Indian subcontinent. From there it could easily have spread by trade links to Java and Sumatra.

The maze tradition also seems to have reached the Vanuatu and Ceram, but although the myths survived, the construction methods were either lost or replaced: on the island of Malekula the search for new methods was a national preoccupation, and new designs were traded. In China and other areas where Taoist mysticism prevails the labyrinth is absent, but its mystic rôle is fulfilled by the symbol Ba Gua, which represents Tao (the Way) through eight interchangeable symbols derived from the magic square.

Literary Mazes survive from the Greek occupation of the Holy Land after the death of Alexander the Great, but may have had their origins in Chaldean tradition picked up during the Exile of the Jews in Babylon.

The New World

Mazes reached Peru nearly a thousand years before Christopher Colombus got to the West Indies. They are used extensively by the South-West Indians of the United States. Analysis of m-DNA of indigenous people in South America suggests that they separated from Asian ancestors between 9,500 years and 14,000 years ago. However, some cultures that have used mazes would dispute this explanation on the basis of faith (for example, it is impossible if creation was only 6,000 years ago).

Writing a history (such as this page) changes history. Opinions expressed in this web are those of the author alone. The author is not bound by any duty of circumspection in respect of mysteries which have been deduced from primary sources in the public domain. The Religious Studies perspective of this web and the Museum of Mazes is not intended to favour any specific world-view or faith.

Lindsay Heyes

Copyright © aMazing Hedge Puzzle 2011