Drawing Toward The Center: Labyrinths Through Time and Space
AN ESSAY BY MARA FISHER
“ALL INTERPRETATIONS SIGNIFY THAT THE USE OF LABYRINTHS REFLECTS A HUMAN INSTINCT TO LEAVE AN IMPRINT UPON THE EARTH, TO CONTEMPLATE NATURE AND ITS COMPLEXITIES AND TO EXAMINE ONE’S OWN EXISTENCE, AND PERHAPS THAT OF A HIGHER POWER.”
The meandering pathway of the labyrinth has been used by humans for thousands of years to help develop an understanding of the natural world and to engage in a profound search for the self. The path of the labyrinth may symbolize life’s trajectory or the passing of time; its indirect yet decisive path can be said to align with ideas about a preordained fate, or the unpredictability of existence. All interpretations signify that the use of labyrinths reflects a human instinct to leave an imprint upon the earth, to contemplate nature and its complexities and to examine one’s own existence, and perhaps that of a higher power.
The labyrinth design precedes that of the maze by centuries, and is considered by some scholars to be the defining example of mankind’s artistry — unlike a circle or line, the symbol doesn’t replicate a form actually found in nature, making it perhaps one of the first instances of visual culture derived purely from imagination.
The first known labyrinth symbol — the seven-circuit classic or “Cretan” labyrinth — has appeared in locations all over the world, weaving its way in and out of our collective consciousness from prehistoric times until today. Though there has been much speculation about petroglyphs depicting labyrinths that may date to the Neolithic period, the earliest known example of the seven-circuit classic labyrinth symbol is from an inscribed clay tablet dated to 1200 BC from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos in southern Greece. The symbol would later be used across the Mediterranean to decorate Cretan coins used at Knossos from around 300 to 70 BC as a tribute to the mythical labyrinth of King Minos, Theseus and the Minotaur.
The myth of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur and the labyrinth was well known in the ancient world — Herodotus referred to it, and the Roman poet Ovid later included the legend in his 8 AD narrative poem Metamorphoses. The transformative power of a winding, indirect path appeared to be on the minds of ancient Greek poets and audiences as well. Homer’s The Odyssey from the 8th century BC tells the tale of a decade-long labyrinthine journey that leads its protagonist, Odysseus, through a number of perilous encounters and eventually to his physical home and proverbial “center.” The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur illustrates the allegory of human development into adulthood by means of a literal labyrinth — the youth enters the spiraling structure designed by Daedelus and emerges triumphant, enlightened by his experience and ready to assume his role as king of Athens.
It is known that the Romans celebrated the labyrinth for both its narrative potential and its visual appeal, incorporating it as a design into elaborate mosaic floors and walls in baths, public buildings and private villas between the second century BC and fifth century AD. For the Romans, labyrinths were purely decorative — stripped of their philosophical meaning, these graphic elements were rarely intended to be interactive motifs for users to trace or walk upon.
The archetype of the labyrinth has been used extensively by artists, writers and filmmakers in the last several generations to convey subjects that are mysterious, obscure or confusing, or as an allegory for the intricacies of the human mind. Director Stanley Kubrick uses the symbol as a visual device suggesting the dangerous potential of the mind in his 1980 film The Shining — at the film’s climax, the auxiliary characters have to weave their way through a hedge maze as the protagonist’s psyche devolves into madness. In an exploration of the fantastic possibilities residing within the human mind, Spanish painter, sculptor and ceramicist Jean Miró designed a colorful labyrinthine garden at the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul de Vence, France as a means for visitors to experience the winding course of his imagination.
Whether a labyrinth is traversed by walking through it, or tracing with our eyes or fingers, its twists and turns create a rhythm that can variably quiet the mind or thwart malevolent spirits, communicate power or provide a metaphorical journey into the self and back out again. Though their origins have been obscured by the passing of time, a labyrinth’s convolutions contain within them an inherent, unspoken essence that has resonated with humans at different times and in various places across the globe. What these groups have in common is an understanding that the least direct path can at times be the most illuminating — though some turns appear to return us to familiar terrain, they eventually bring us ever forward, ever closer toward the center.