In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate maze constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half human and half bull, eventually killed by Theseus. The 'Minoan' dynasty of King Minos was called "the house of the double axe"; labrys is Greek for "double axe", but labyrinth is one of a small number of pre-greek words absorbed by classical Greek. Though no site in Crete has been positively identified as the Minotaur's Labyrinth, we do find 3rd century BC coins, from Knossos in Crete, imprinted with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple 7-circuit style known as the classical.
The term labyrinth has come to be applied to any unicursal maze of a particular circular shape. The principal two designs are the classical (illustrated below) and the medieval; although there are numerous variations, the basic shape is easily discerned. The term is often used interchangeably with maze, but a maze is a puzzle, with choices of path and direction while a unicursal labyrinth has only a single path to the centre.
The oldest known examples of the labyrinth design are small simple petroglyphs (stone carvings) perhaps dating back 3000 years. These labyrinthine petroglyphs are found in numerous places across the world, from Syria to Ireland.
In Roman mosaics the simple classical labyrinth is transformed into the meander border pattern, squared off as the art medium requires, but still recognisable. Often an image of a bull-man, a minotaur, appears in the centre of these mosaic labyrinths. Roman meander patterns gradually developed in complexity towards the four-fold shape that is now familiarly known as the medieval form.
The full flowering of the medieval labyrinth design came about during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the gothic cathedrals, most notably Chartres and Amiens in Northern France. It is this version of the design that is thought to be the inspiration for the many secular turf labyrinths in the UK, such as Wing in Rutland, Hilton in Cambridgeshire, and Saffron Walden in Essex.
Over the same period some 500 or more non-ecclesiastical labyrinths were constructed in Scandinavia. These labyrinths, generally in coastal areas, are marked out with stones most often in the simple classical form. They are thought to have been constructed by early fishing communities, to trap malevolent trolls/winds in the labyrinth's coils in order to ensure a safe fishing expedition. There are also stone labyrinths on the Isles of Scilly, although none of them are known to date back as far as the Scandinavian ones.
There are remarkable examples of the labyrinth shape from a whole range of ancient and disparate cultures. The symbol has appeared in all forms and media (petroglyphs, classic-form, medieval-form, pavement, turf and basketry) at some time, throughout most parts of the world, from Java, Native North and South America, Australia, India and Nepal.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the labyrinth symbol, which has inspired a revival in labyrinth building notably at Willen Park, Milton Keynes; Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; and Tapton Park, Chesterfield.