More Maze History, and an Exploration of the Purpose

More Maze History, and an Exploration of the Purpose

This blog is a direct continuation of yesterday’s introductory post — History of the Maze — so please click to read that one first. The history behind mazes and labyrinths is surprisingly complex. I am barely scratching the surface in these two posts, which is fine for my main MAZE MONTH purpose to delve into the still existing turf and hedge mazes found in Britain. Those posts will follow throughout the month of March, however, I truly believe that in order to appreciate and understand how mazes came to exist in England, it is essential to delve into where they originated and for what purpose.

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


As seen in yesterday’s blog, mazes and labyrinths have been around in one form or another, all over the world, for millennia. The classical, or Cretan, pattern is the oldest and provides the foundation, but there are hundreds of variations seen. Mazes can be small or large, two or three dimensional, simple or convoluted, and created on or with an endless range of materials. They can be unicursal (single-pathed) or multicursal (many-pathed with dead ends).

In point of fact, the ONLY attributes that all mazes/labyrinths have in common are paths and walls.

Even a maze drawn in a puzzle book or carved on a stone surface has “walls” distinguishing the pathway to navigate from an opening to the final destination. The main point to this seemingly obvious description is to contrast patterns which at first glance appear to be a maze but upon closer examination are not. As an example, take the Celtic Knot. The pattern is very maze-like, but there isn’t a start or finish to create a walking pathway, so to speak. Another example are Stone Age carvings called “cup and ring marks” found predominantly in Northern England and Scotland.

“Cup and Ring” patterns


Maze patterns —and maze-like patterns— have been around for a very long time. Humans have, since the dawn of time, been fascinated with spiral scrolling, symmetrical designs, this much is clear. This natural inclination may well have contributed to the global occurrence of mazes and labyrinths, whether carved or built. However, the first true mazes created to confuse and waylay people were in Egypt and Greece (as covered yesterday) thousands of years B.C. As the centuries marched on, more and more mazes entered into cultures for a host of purposes.

The Romans were extremely fond of maze diagrams, primarily as mosaics laid onto floors. Romans designed patterns unique to their culture, almost all square or rectangular, unicursal (without choice or branches), and divided into four sections. Whether small or very large, the Roman designs had pathways too narrow to walk along, the purpose being aesthetic enjoyment and art.   Read more about Roman mazes HERE.

Roman period mosaic mazes (L—>R) Piadena, Italy
Italica, Spain
2 from Conimbriga, Portugal


In 1235 AD France, a pavement labyrinth with a completely unique pattern was inlaid when Chartres Cathedral was built. The “Chemin de Jerusalem” (Road of Jerusalem) is located on the floor in the center of the nave, measuring just over 42-feet square. The Chartres Maze (or Labyrinth, as both names are equally recorded) is not the oldest church maze —Roman churches and basilicas have several— however the circular pattern became the standard for Christian churches throughout Europe, including in England. Read more about the Chartres maze HERE.

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth


Perhaps at another time in the future I shall delve into the plethora of mazes and labyrinths scattered across the British Isles located in churches and secular buildings. There are far more than the handful I’ve shared in this post, believe me! That would be super fun and fascinating, but as already noted, the main focus of MAZE MONTH are the historic and still existing labyrinths created using natural sources. Yet, before I can fully devote blogs to specific turf and hedge mazes in the United Kingdom, we must examine why these mazes and labyrinths were made.


Essentially, pure entertainment is the only purpose for original labyrinths and mazes that can be ruled out. There is no indication that ancient folk were carving maze designs onto stone walls or clay tablets to keep the kiddies amused and out from underfoot! Perhaps the patterns provided that side benefit, of course. The Roman mosaic mazes were largely created for the artistic beauty, so from a certain point of view that can be classified as “entertainment” or pleasure.

As already noted, the Egyptian and Greek labyrinths were created to confuse and trap. Egypt’s maze was to keep people out of the pyramid tomb versus the Knossos labyrinth to keep the Minotaur in, but essentially the same goal. Clearly this is the #1 purpose of a maze, as indicated by the etymology and definitions of the two words (covered in yesterday’s blog).

Another major purpose of a maze/labyrinth was as a way to force the body and mind into a state of calm where one can achieve spiritual peace. The Chartres Cathedral pavement maze was built toward the end of the Crusades as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or as a path to travel on one’s knees as a penance for sin. The twisting and turning of the path are symbolic of the travails of life, the path winding toward the center, which is toward God. In truth a labyrinth, the one-way path without branches or dead-ends (as in a true maze) was meant to reveal a single, ordered track to follow.

(L—>R) Reims Cathedral, France, 1270
San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna, Italy, 1583
Amiens Cathedral, France, 1288


A 10th century labyrinth in the Basilica of San Savino at Piacenza in Italy (which sadly was destroyed in the 17th century) was accompanied by a legend in Latin hexameters which translates to—

“The labyrinth represents the world we live in, broad at the entrance, but narrow at the exit, so he who is ensnared by the joys of the world and weighed down by its vices, can regain the doctrines of life only with difficulty.”

The Christian religious symbolism of the labyrinth led to designs appearing across the western continents, mainly in churches but also outside with the larger turf mazes (more on these in subsequent blog posts). As a general device for serenity and contemplation, labyrinths have long been embraced by many religions. The spiritual applications for meditative walks to refocus the mind, realign the two poles of the body, restore the wholeness of the psyche, and so on are encouraged by many disciplines.

From there it is easy to comprehend the logical evolution to garden labyrinths and mazes, although here is where the stark differences between a labyrinth and a maze become very important. When used interchangeably —as was the case for most of maze history— the unicursal nature did not allow for confusion. Obviously, as in the case of the Labyrinth of Knossos and the Egyptian Maze at Fayoum, confusion was the point, and there are many other examples of ancient labyrinths designed to trap unwelcome spirits as well as living beings. I will cover this more in depth later, but the walls of Troy (and possibly Jericho) were said to be a maze intended to ensnare invaders and prohibit entrance into the city.

Another way to state it is that the labyrinth symbol and the surrounding mythology surfaced in cultures for a wide variety of uses. Same is true with mazes. The mediums employed have also been many and varied: a drawn symbol, carved on wood or a rock face, woven into the design on a blanket or basket, laid out on the ground with water-worn stones, in colored mosaic stone or tiles on the floors of villas, churches and cathedrals, or cut into the living turf. Over time the design might be altered and the use changed, making it difficult to decipher the original reason for the labyrinth or maze.

In the end, as much as researchers attempt to explain the histories, for most of the very old mazes, mysteries will always remain. Not until the 18th to 19th century onward, particularly with hedge mazes and the like, are the purposes much more certain.

An unusual labyrinth sketch once on the wall of the Cathedral of St. Peter (built 1162) in Poitiers, France of a floor labyrinth of unspecified dimensions that perished long ago.
12th century Fresco of Christ in center of a labyrinth on the wall at San Francisco Church in Alatri, Italy.


1607 book of games and magic tricks by Venetian nobleman Andrea Ghisi titled “Laberinto” (Labyrinth) illustrates a man trying to navigate a maze. This scene evokes the process by which landscapes were ‘surveyed’ by both religious and secular authorities, pillars and towers often symbolic of raised consciousness. Note the Scripture from Psalms underneath.

MAZE MONTH continues on Thursday with the study of Turf Labyrinths.
Be sure to come back!
For now, share your thoughts on the fascinating history of mazes!



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