Curious Questions: What’s the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?

Perhaps it never occurred to you to think about what distinguishes a labyrinth from a labyrinth. But, as Martin Fone explains, it’s kind of like a minefield.

In case this escaped your notice, Saturday, May This is World Labyrinth Day, an opportunity to celebrate these complex, often maddening marriages of geometry, architecture and horticulture. In accordance with Labyrinths in Britain, there are about five hundred mazes and labyrinths in the United Kingdom, each of which they lovingly recorded on an interactive map. They do not claim to be an exhaustive list and welcome the details of any glaring omissions.

The preface to the map makes it clear that the distinction between labyrinths and labyrinths is a sensitive subject for those who care, and the unwary wander into it at their own peril. The group agonized over whether their map should include mazes, and eventually decided it was necessary due to their similar origins and many design overlaps.

To the purist, the difference between the two is quite obvious: the labyrinth is “one-way”, having only one path leading from the entrance to the center, no matter how windy its passages may be. The maze, however, is “multi-cursive”, with several paths, most of which lead to dead ends, and usually only one leads you to the center. Mazes test the explorer’s ability to solve problems, while the labyrinth lends itself to slow, contemplative wandering.

Terminological inaccuracy affects much of the literature on labyrinths and labyrinths, and this is not surprising. Labyrinth is a much older word, first found on a clay tablet from 1400 BC. at Knossos, on which was the legend “one jug of honey for all the gods, one jug of honey for the Mistress of the Labyrinth”, and transmitted through Greek and Latin. into most European languages.

Labyrinth, derived from the Middle English “maes” meaning delirium or delusion, dates from 13 century and probably appeared to help distinguish multi-course mazes from single-course ones. Today the two terms are used interchangeably, except by connoisseurs; this trend is likely to continue, as the adjective “labyrinthine” expresses complexity and confusion more than the more soothing labyrinth.

Labyrinths and labyrinths have fascinated mankind for millennia, with early examples found throughout Europe, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, the American Southwest, and occasionally South America. Until the early centuries BC, the basic plan was a single path that wound back and forth to complete seven circles of diminishing size, bounded by eight walls that guarded a central point or goal.

One of the greatest labyrinths of the ancient world, the Egyptian labyrinth located just above Lake Merys and opposite the Crocodopolis impressed Herodotus so much that he wrote that it was one of the most impressive labyrinths of the ancient world. Herodotus was so fascinated by the Egyptian labyrinth that he “found it more majestic than words could express”, believing that “all the works and buildings of the Greeks, taken together, are certainly inferior to this labyrinth in respect of labor and costs” (Stories Book 2). Little remains now, but the foundation, a thousand feet long and 800 feet wide, bears witness to the size, if not the splendor, of the structure.

As Geoffrey Chaucer told in The legend of good womenTheseus was able to penetrate the recesses of the labyrinth at Knossos, slay the fearsome Minotaur, and safely return back to Ariadne’s arms, folding and following the ‘twins club as he walked’ -not/ffolwynge always thread how he came’. The ball was a ball of yarn, from which the meaning of the key was derived as a figurative unraveling of mysterious information.

The myth of Theseus is not without its own mysteries: if it really was a labyrinth, why did Theseus need help to get out, and how did the Minotaur stay in the center? Archeology cannot help, as no remains of a labyrinthine structure have been found at Knossos, although the city capitalized on its mythological status by issuing labyrinthine coins in the fourth and third centuries BC.

Is Escher’s Labyrinth a Reality? Step well at Amber Fort – or Amer Fort – in Jaipur, India.

Early and medieval Christians used two-dimensional labyrinths in their iconography, usually in the form of wall or floor decorations, the oldest known at the Basilica of Reparat in Orléansville in Algeria, dating from the 4th century century AD. Their purpose is unclear: some suggest that they depict the vicissitudes of the Christian life, others that they outline a penitential journey that one could take while kneeling in one’s own church.

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Labyrinths were especially popular during the church building boom of the 13th centuries in France and Italy, a fashion not followed in England, the only example of this period being the tiny labyrinth symbol on World map and the gilded roof of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. Most of the labyrinths found in churches in the south and east of England date from the late 19th century, although there has been a wave of new constructions recently, such as at Norwich and Wakefield Cathedrals in 1985 and 2013 respectively.

A familiar sight in or near late medieval British villages was the lawn maze. Carved about six inches into the turf and ranging from twenty-five to just over 80 feet in diameter, the path was traditionally a mile long. They had a long legacy, Pliny the Elder in his Natural history warning his readers not to compare the Egyptian labyrinth with “mazes created in the fields for the amusement of children.” They were colloquially known as the “mizmazes” or “city of Troy”, an allusion to the legend that Troy was fortified by seven walls arranged in a labyrinth, or “Shepherd’s Race”, echoing a reference in Theophilus Evans. Prime era mirror (1740) to shepherds cutting turf in the shape of a labyrinth.

Hedge labyrinths, a natural development of the village lawn labyrinth, were first built in the 16th century. They were not originally intended to be confusing, and simply consisted of a one-way path winding along low hedges of evergreen grasses or dwarf boxwood. Puzzling hedge mazes, with their diabolical multi-directional path design, dead ends and hedges above eye level, were introduced in the late 17th century. The oldest surviving example is at Hampton Court, it was planted for William of Orange in 1690 using a hornbeam and contains half a mile of paths. Replacing an earlier labyrinth, it was surrounded by pre-existing walkways, giving it a distinctive trapezoidal shape.

Hedge labyrinths remained a feature of the fashionable English garden well into the 18th century, wonderfully named Betty Langley, who included several designs for them in his New principles of gardening (1728). However, over time, new styles of horticulture, not least the trend towards more “naturalistic” designs, coupled with the enormous cost of maintaining them, have caused many of them to be uprooted and plowed up. What remains today is only a fraction of the number of labyrinths that were in Britain in the early 18th century.

However, they are still under construction. With over 16,000 English yews and over a mile and a half of paths leading to the central observation tower, the hedge maze at Longleat in Wiltshire is the largest in Britain. It was only added to the estate in 1978.

Labyrinth at Longleat, Wiltshire. You can’t use this picture to cheat…

Whatever we call them, we should celebrate their long historical heritage, their architectural and geometric complexity, and the pleasure they bring. Live mazes and mazes!

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