The classic maze is an intricate puzzle of twisted corridors, chambers, or passageways. It is an ingenious wandering way filled with devious detours and byways, constructed to perplex and confuse. The labyrinth is a special type of maze. And now for some ancient history.
In Egypt, Amenemhet III of the XII Dynasty built himself a funeral temple in the form of a great labyrinth. In Europe’s first civilization, crowned with the 1,500-room palace at Knossos, a more famous example in Crete was built by Daedelus for King Minos to house the Minotaur and trap his sacrificial captives. Theseus, son of the Athenean King, was able to solve the riddle of the maze using a ball of string, killing the Minataur to end the cycle of blood sacrifice that started with Minos and his defiance of the gods. This labyrinth is also associated with Rhea, mother of Zeus, goddess of caves whose symbol was the double axe, “labrys,” from which the term comes.
The labyrinth is one of the earliest man-made environments, an artwork of stone or hedges (the maze) designed not to shelter people or store goods but to confound the mind and spirit. It was the first puzzle in three dimensions to be solved in real time. Its windings have been the nexus of fascination in myth and legend—starting with the trials of the gods, moving on to the devout pilgrim’s journey and taking the contemporary form of the maze-making of experimental psychology. An experiment at the University of Rochester in a basement maze was used to demonstrate the difference between male and female toolbars in direction-seeking. It is a metaphor of frustration and anxiety, of tangled politics, of inconsistent systems and clues, as well as the spiritual quest for meaning. There is a critical distinction between the maze and the labyrinth here: The maze is designed mainly to confuse; the labyrinth, a more specialized format, to resolve the maze confusion by both leading to a central core and then back out again for the resolution of a complete journey.
Its serpentine shape bespeaks intrigues, captives, teases, and outrages. Used as a substitute or symbolic journey for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it is a capsule version of the Christian progress through tests of faith as the center and return that can be won through faith and patience. The mazes at Hampton Court Palace in Greater London, at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, at the Emperor’s Summer Palace in China, and in the film “The Shining” and “Sleuth”-- all play their parts in constructing the meaning of this special journey in its time. The maze at Versailles (now defunct) contained at its 39 intersections fountains in the shapes of animals from Aesop’s Fables. The maze concept was incorporated into the formal garden as topiary and ornamental plantings forming circuitous routes called alleys.
In this way the labyrinth is a living illustration of the merging of symbol with nature, in which the map is itself the puzzle to be divined. Since ancient times, it has been far more than a shape in which to move around and find one’s way (and oneself); it has been the archetype for a wicked sort of complexity. The word itself is the index for intricacy, intrigue, and ingenuity in both the problem-poser and the solution-finder. The labyrinth constructs a special kind of journey, not only, as the “Twilight Zone” TV series put it, of sight and sound, but of mind. The web of sinuous windings is the problem itself. Its heavy symbolism is an invitation to more abstraction, for example, in the puzzle-map model as viewed from above. In the glass case model in the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” a close-up inspection shows little live figures tracking its pathways. We can’t be sure whether they live in Jack Torrance’s tortured imagination or in director Stanley Kubrick’s --or in ours.
The labyrinth is also the ultimate experiential puzzle. Its baffling corridors remind us of the fuzzy logic problem to which the answer is never straightforward. In fact, following the maze in search of the elusive exit more nearly resembles the search for the problem itself. Once defined and tracked down by switchback routing, the question, once properly posed, answers itself. The parallels to spiritual journey and problem solving, along with the medieval metaphor of the difficulty of attaining heaven, are rich. This richness invites exploration in the mind and heart in tandem with the journey on foot in physical space. Maze is equally the word for testing skill in problem solving, linking mental dexterity to the “amazement” of spiritual inquiry.
To be in the hedge-and-alley maze at Hampton Court Palace (built in 1690, it is the oldest surviving maze in England), or following the labyrinth carved into stone in the entryway at Chartres Cathedral in France, is a living exercise in mind-reading: trying to follow the mind-map of the designer. Did he make all right turns in his mind? On the other hand, how did the labyrinth-maker predict the wayfinding of the puzzle-walkers who would take up the challenge of his creation? It is a mind journey of discovery, frustration, and existential search. Along the way are the key experiences (or mindshifts, as they are called at the School for Innovators) that can be charted on an expedition: thinking differently to get different results that get you to the top of the peak—and back down. Being lost in a space designed as a brain and body teaser forces discovery of the box as the key to finding the way out of the box. It inspired the breakout of the Minotaur’s prison in Crete, because the mind contained by the walls knew that “the air and sky are free.”
Played out in space, the convolutions of the labyrinth resemble the folds and furrows of the brain, with its billion connections. These folds, turned in on each other to pack maximum torque into the smallest space, thrive on play and intrigue, leading us to invent these circuitous puzzles as we solve them.
The convoluted trails, with their false leads and dead ends, quickly prove that there is no straightforward route to the goal. Stress and discouragement soon follow this proof. Uncertainty, fear, and doubt soon prevail. Even in the safest of mazes, the commercial theme-park type, there is always the lookout for a reassuring sign, any indication that there is an end in sight or around the corner. Where are when the end is to be found is never clear because this is no distance race: this is distance coiled up in a cluster of detours and dead ends. There is no reassurance, no benchmark to signal that success is at hand. Very quickly after entering the maze, faith is involved: in staying the course, trusting that it leads somewhere and somehow, to serve one’s purpose. Much like life.
As the journey progresses, one has the sensation of moving backwards through the landscape as old landmarks and vistas loom ahead in an apparent regression through the pattern. Dismay sets in as the journey, proceeding to a point as yet unknown, seems to propel the maze-walker back in space and time, the working definition of “lost.” Accordingly, there comes the persistent temptation to retrace steps in a regressive re-run to escape to the beginning before bewilderment sets in. Lost in Injun Joe’s cave, Tom Sawyer, with a ball of twine and a depleted candle, finally collided with the outside world only because he connected to an opening from which he could see the “free air” as a blue clue of daylight. Had the sky color been the dark of night, the caves would have kept him prisoner.
Anything circuitous and peripatetic appears to lead nowhere but back into the morass of misleading indirection. But, with perseverance and faith, the path rewards by at last guiding the seeker to the goal. This is the magic and mystique of the labyrinth, and the reason that century after century we are drawn to its wicked lair design. To find by looking, to discover by following, in real space and time, a systematic train of thought that carries the traveler through chaos to create a unique pattern of order: that is the labyrinth’s promise and purpose.
We move, not always forward, but sideways and backward. Our goal is seldom in sight but must be held as a precious property in the mind, an abstraction that draws our steps forward. Once inside this devious perplex, where there is no escape but to solve for the exit or center; in circle mazes, the center is only the midpoint of the journey; the next challenge is to find the way back out again to the startpoint. Creativity, hope, and persistence are the required equipment. Forced into conscious awareness is a whole cycle of thought; risk, ambition, reticence, and uncertainty about how and when the problem will finally be solved. Resistance against entering the unfamiliar arena of complexity takes hold and exerts pressure. Tortuous meandering locks into place and can’t be broken.
Originally a defense device to baffle the enemy, the labyrinth is a problem created to be solved, and to put the solver to a kind of whole-body test. Humans are problem solvers. To add to our myriad real-life fuzzy-mess problems, we invent them as an artform. Here play as learning and problem solving is put through its paces in time and space. Getting through the maze of life is survival, but it is also, as an extension of the collective brain, the ultimate in gamesmanship—whether at the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg, at Hampton Court, or at Versailles.