History of the Maze

History of the Maze

In my never-ending search for fascinating topics, I’ve been collecting data on Georgian garden follies and other landscaping features. I’ve found so many marvels, I now have enough material for multiple months of blogs! I plan to space them out over time, but have decided to devote the month of March to the intriguing creations falling under the umbrella category of MAZES. I will focus on existing historical mazes located in the UK, specifically those that are created by turf and hedges (as opposed to interior mazes or ones built of stone, etc.), as well as the history of mazes in general. In order to appreciate and understand how mazes came to exist in England, it is essential to delve into where mazes and labyrinths originated.

NOTE: These maze-centric blogs will be interspersed throughout the month with other topics, but it will be an A-MAZING month! 


Before getting to the ancient history, it is vital to clear up a couple of definitions, specifically MAZE vs. LABYRINTH. Historically, the two terms were used interchangeably. The English words originated, etymologically, at about the same time although from different sources and roots.


From Old English mæs, c. 1300, a noun meaning "delusion, bewilderment, confusion of thought" –from which the word amazed derives. The meaning "labyrinth, baffling network of paths or passages" is recorded from late 14th century, the notion being "something intended to confuse or mislead."


Origin c. 1400, laberynthe meaning "labyrinth, maze, great building with many corridors and turns." Derived from the Greek labyrinthos meaning "maze, large building with intricate passages," specifically the structure built by Daedelus to hold the Minotaur, near Knossos in Crete. 

As this series proceeds, the two words will crop up seemingly without differentiation. Depending upon the year of creation and who was naming the design at the time, either maze or labyrinth might be chosen. There IS a difference, technically, between the two, although the clear-cut distinctions are modern (comparatively speaking).

LABYRINTH has winding, curved passages, forming a “unicursal” or one-way path from the outside toward the center. Walking through a labyrinth, you will change direction often but will not get lost or confused. Often the labyrinth is purposefully engineered so that it takes a long time to get to the middle, encouraging slow, meditative contemplation while navigating many twists and turns. Labyrinths are seen as thoughtful, peaceful spaces for quiet reflection.

MAZE has many pathways in a “multicursal” pattern and is filled with dead ends forcing the walker to retrace their steps. Often there are clues to help navigate and to alleviate frustration, but the idea is to get lost a few times before figuring out the terrain and finding your way through. Two-dimensional mazes offer the ability to see the entire course at one time, though the hardest ones will take time to solve. Mazes tend to attract those more interested in solving puzzles and facing challenges.

Keep the above definitions in mind as I progress over the month with the varied types of mazes and labyrinths. Just remember that the name may or may not be accurate to the modern distinctions. In fact, not all contemporary maze scholars adhere to those definitions either, in part because those from the past did not differentiate between the two terms!

Secondly, while subsequent blogs will focus on garden mazes, the maze existed as a solidly built structure of stone long before clever folk designed them out of living shrubs. So we must begin there, and to do so we must first travel to Egypt!

Artist rendering of the Fayoum Labyrinth and Amenemhat III pyramid.

The oldest known mazes are Egyptian. The exact purpose of a maze are not always known (I’ll cover the purposes in tomorrow’s blog), but an Egyptian maze primarily served to keep looters away from the tombs of the important and wealthy. The ca.1825 B.C. Egyptian labyrinth at Fayoum (also Fayum) beside Amenemhet III’s tomb was hailed as a wonder of the world, the multi-level complex said to be comprised of over 3,000 underground chambers. Pliny the Elder, the Roman author and philosopher, wrote in his book Natural History that the maze at Fayoum had “laborious windings with their baffling intricacy.”

Herodotus in Histories, Book, II, 148 — “This I have actually seen, a work beyond words. For if anyone put together the buildings of the Greeks and display of their labours, they would seem lesser in both effort and expense to this labyrinth… Even the pyramids are beyond words, and each was equal to many and mighty works of the Greeks. Yet the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids.”

Many other ancient writings mentioned the labyrinth at Fayoum, some in fine detail, giving archeologists a good idea what the maze looked like. There are dozens of artist’s renderings, such as the one above. Then in 2008, a dig uncovered what is believed to be the remains of the “lost labyrinth” below the sand of a famous pyramid. I have links below if interested in reading more about this amazing discovery.

Ruins of Knossos Palace, a small portion of the city.

Moving from Egypt to Greece, the genesis of the labyrinth/maze takes us into the realm of mythology. On the island of Crete, the city of Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archeological site and Europe’s oldest city. Settled at a time so far into the past no one can date with accuracy, the city was abandoned at some point between 1380-1100 B.C. for unknown reasons. As with many ancient places, legends were passed down into literature, many of them long believed to be pure fantasy. Such is the case with the mythology of King Minos, his palace at Knossos, and the labyrinth constructed to imprison the monstrous Minotaur.

Minoan coin found at Knossos.

The legend, in brief, is that a half-human and half-bull hybrid was born to King Minos’ wife Pasiphae after a curse by the god Poseidon. The unnatural creature became ferocious and insatiable, feeding on humans to survive. Following the advice of the Oracle at Delphi, King Minos had master craftsman and engineer Daedalus create an elaborate, dark labyrinth to trap the Minotaur so it could never escape.

There is much more to the Minotaur myth, of course, and I’ve added several links below if interested in reading more. As with many ancient stories, truth and fiction were impossible for the best scholars to separate, even most archeologists leaning toward the fiction side. The discovery of Troy in 1871 by Heinrich Schliemann –long believed to be a fantasy created by the poet Homer– changed many minds. In the early 1900s, archeologist Arthur Evans led excavations of the ancient palace at Knossos, and he uncovered sources verifying at least portions of an enduring myth in European history. Images of bulls were all over the palace, which itself is a complex structure spanning five-acres with around 1000 buildings up to four-stories connected by a literal maze of stairs and corridors. Evans believed the palace and surrounding city were the labyrinth, the incomprehensible maze spawning the myth of the trapped Minotaur from the inability of Greeks to understand the sprawling structures at Knossos.

A labrys

Also fascinating, especially to linguists, was the long-unknown origin of the word labyrinth. As I noted above in the etymology box, the word first popped up in writings about the mythical Minotaur, but why exactly? One scholar had suggested, in 1892, that labyrinthos might derive from labrys, a Lydian word for “double-bladed axe.” However, there was no source connecting the words, until, that is, Evans’ excavations discovered multiple images of a double-headed axe! Evans interpreted labyrinth to mean “the palace of the double-headed axe.”

The vast city continues to undergo excavations and surely some mysteries will remain forever. What can be stated with confidence is that the Labyrinth of Knossos, whether to secure a monster or not, is real, even if perhaps not in the precise style we imagine. As such, it is the second oldest legendary example.

Ancient mazes —as in full-size structures built for people to walk along or through— are most plentifully traced to Egypt and Greece. For instance, the walls of Troy were intentionally designed in such a complex and confusing way that enemies who entered were unable to find their way out. In other words, even if not called a maze or labyrinth, the concept of circuitous pathways built with walls, for a variety of purposes, are probably far older than archeological evidence has discovered.

Beyond the structures themselves, labyrinth designs have been found worldwide and as far back as prehistoric times. Carved into rock walls as petroglyphs, onto clay tablets and vessels, on coins and jewelry, and so much more, maze drawings exist everywhere and from periods when travel between continents was virtually non-existent. Scholars believe this is an indication that humans have always been intrigued by patterns, whether seen in the natural world, created for entertainment, or associated with rituals.

The classical maze designs are typically referred to as “Cretan” because they were plentiful on the island of Crete (after the fall of Knossos). Both the round and square forms, as noted below, are found all over the world. The patterns vary, of course, some insanely huge and elaborate, but the general format is fairly consistent

Similar forms can be found on artifacts from Spain, Ireland, India, Syria, Romania, Pompeii, North Africa, and the American Southwest. Essentially, just about everywhere across the globe! Below are a few examples.

Scratched on the back of a clay accounting tablet at Pylos, Greece, ca.1200 B.C.
Etruscan vase from Tragliatella, Italy, ca.600 B.C.
2000 year-old clay tablet (56×56 feet) found in Gedimedu near Pollachi, India.
Jericho labyrinth from a manuscript discovered at the monastery of Abruzzi, Italy. Dated to AD 822.

The Tonoho O’odham and Pima peoples —from the desert region in what is now Arizona and northern Mexico— traditionally depict a “man in the maze” setting off on his winding path toward home in ancient petroglyphs and basketry. This pattern is so ancient within the legends, it has been adopted as their official motif.

The Russian White Sea is home to the highest concentration of Neolithic labyrinths in the world, dating over 3000 years old. The Solovetsky Islands alone contain thirty-five, known by locals as vavilons (“Babylons”). Bolshoi Zayatsky Island holds the archipelago’s most famous stone labyrinths, fourteen structures clustered in 0.2 square miles. The largest is over 82 feet in diameter, the smallest 20 feet diameter. It is unrecorded what the original purpose of these labyrinths, but researchers propose the labyrinths served as fish traps when the sea levels were significantly higher, while others suggest they served as calendars tracking the orbits of the sun and moon.

Bolshoi Zayatsky Island stone labyrinth


I have barely brushed the surface of this fascinating historical topic. Whole books have been written on the origins and types of mazes, as well as a ton of website resources and YouTube videos. I share a few links below if interested in learning more, and the 28 minute video gives a nice, albeit basic overview. For the purposes of this series, hopefully I’ve given enough of the basic history to grasp the global occurrence of mazes, and the significance within the cultures.

Perhaps it is only me, but when I think “maze” the first thing to pop into my mind are the printed ones in puzzles books which, like a crossword, are designed to pass the time and stimulate the mind. Next I imagine the awesome garden mazes found at places like Chatsworth House or the corn mazes cut around Halloween. Learning the expansive history of mazes and labyrinths is rather mind blowing! I hope you agree and will return for more on this topic. In the days ahead, I’ll dip into history beyond the shores of England from time to time, particularly as it relates to the myriad varieties of very old, existing turf and shrubbery mazes found in the United Kingdom.

Return tomorrow for MORE maze history as MAZE MONTH continues!
Share your thoughts below on what has been covered so far!



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