The Riddle of the Labyrinth
As mentioned in the story about the Royal Game of the Goose in the earlier part of this booklet, the amazing popularity of that game through all those centuries in all those different
countries is quite a mystery, as is its origin, and as is the fact that its distinctive spiral track and even the rather odd designations of certain fields have been preserved intact since the Renaissance era.
It is fascinating to discover that these characteristic details have apparently been preserved since even much earlier times. To find the clues to this mystery, we'll have to stride back through the centuries not just a couple of millennia to Antiquity, the period where much of the European Renaissance found its inspiration. We will take a third thousand-year step or so, all the way back to the Golden Age of Minoan Crete -- that fabled time whose long-gone splendors had inspired the highest achievements of the Classical Greeks and Romans.
To solve a problem in, say, mathematics, those adept in the ancient Arab art of algebra take at times two or more unknowns and combine them to and fro in manifold ways to determine the value of each by that of the others. In puzzle solving, too, we often try two pieces together to find the proper place for a third. And in the mystery of life, Nature relies on the same method: combining two to obtain a third.
So, to shed light on one mystery, we shall now go back to the sources of the sources and look at two other famous historical puzzles.
Ancient Labyrinths: One similarly intriguing mystery is the Labyrinth of King Minos and his famed Minotaur. We know from Apollodorus the Athenian (115 BC) that Daedalus had built a labyrinth at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete, and that he had built it on the lines of the Egyptian Labyrinth but on a smaller scale.
The Egyptian Labyrinth was the mortuary temple of pharaoh Ammenemes III (1800 BC) at Hawara in Northern Egypt. This marvel of Antiquity so impressed the Greek historian Herodotus (445 BC) with its intricate design and the complexity of its white marble courts, as well as with the splendor of its decoration, that he said it was beyond his power to describe and even more astonishing than the pyramids in labor and materials consumed.
But when the archaeologists found the ruins of that Labyrinth at Hawara, centuries of use as a convenient quarry had so destroyed the walls and floors that the scholars could not even guess at the shape of its once so admired layout.
The layout of the Cretan Labyrinth is familiar from many ancient carvings and coins, and from graffiti like the one shown above. But no one has ever found a building, cave, quarry, or other ancient structure in or near Knossos that even remotely resembled this layout, and nowhere else in Crete or the rest of the world, either.
The Minoans were accomplished builders and left us quite visible ruins of solidly constructed palaces with indoor plumbing and sanitation better than those in many of our towns just a couple of centuries ago. But did they really build the Labyrinth for which they were and are so famous?
The archaeologists say they would have found by now a building of that size if it had existed at Knossos, so King Minos and his Minotaur are myths. Neither Homer nor Hesiod nor Herodotus, our earliest Greek sources, ever mentioned the Cretan Labyrinth; and the Cretan coins with the Labyrinth design are a thousand years younger than the palace period named after King Minos.
A doodle on the reverse of a tablet from Pylos, about 1400 BC, showing the familiar classical labyrinth pattern
Even the first datable graffiti of a labyrinth were scratched just after the Minoan decline and were found in Greece, not on Crete. And yet, when the gifted amateur Michael Ventris deciphered the Linear B script the Greek conquerors used on their tablets in Crete, these birdfoot-like scratchings mentioned a house or temple of Daedalus and a Labyrinth, so these words remain linked with Crete and all things Minoan.
Labyrinths of the same basic design, and sometimes also spirals, persist in England as turf-mazes of great but undatable age, similarly along the Scandinavian coasts as rock-and-pebble mazes, and in many other places as well as media. The most impressive examples of this mysterious pattern are found in France and Italy as elaborate marble mosaics at the central crossing of many medieval church naves.
The center of these church labyrinths was called "heaven" or "Jerusalem," and pilgrims often followed the long winding path on their knees as substitute for a real pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The reason for their pilgrimage was that they had been told they were sinners and had to do their penance before death so they would not have to go through it afterwards like all those heathens of Antiquity who did not even know they were in trouble.
(The ancient Egyptians, for instance, were virtuous people: not one of the tomb paintings ever showed the owner's soul harmed in the dark and monster-filled maze through which it had to go after death, nor did any of the captions record the rejection of their heart when it was weighed before the underworld judges against the feather of truth.)
One of the finest and best-preserved church labyrinths graces the center of the Cathedral of Chartres in France, built in the eleventh century, and other major examples survive in Amiens and Reims. Legend has it that their design had been copied from the labyrinth of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, the then greatest church in Christendom.
Constantin the Great had laid the foundation stone of this basilica in 324 AD, and the masons of that time were said to have copied their labyrinth from a design once in King Solomon's Temple, preserved through the Temple's destructions in 587 BC and again in 70 AD. (We will return to that design in the page on Solomon's Labyrinth.)
The Bible tells us in 2 Chronicles 2 that King Solomon's architect Hiram, son of a woman from Dan (in the Philistine area) used labor conscripted from all the aliens resident in the region. This included a good many Philistines, since these had been masters of the land until a generation before and continued to live there.
And this brings us back to Crete, because Amos (9, 7) and Jeremiah (47, 4) say that the Philistines had arrived from Crete. An abundance of Minoan motifs in King Solomon's Temple is consistent with this: spirals and rosettes all around the panels, and two pillars in front just as in Crete.
For added mystery, many of the labyrinths in Christian churches from the early (zealously pious and anti-pagan) times openly show their pagan origin in the Cretan tales about King Minos, without even trying to hide these heathen roots. The inscriptions mention Theseus, Ariadne, Daedalus, and Crete, or a little Minotaur appears in the center.
There is more on the subject in the book Mazes and Labyrinths (by W. H. Matthews, Dover, New York) but even that author concludes that nearly everything about these labyrinths is still a mystery, "misty and ill-defined, a circumstance that only gives zest to the study of the subject."
In other words, labyrinths are fun to explore.
Continue reading, or buy the
Game of the Goose and of the Labyrinth at www.gamepuzzles.com
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