previous next


Λαβύρινθος). A name given to a species of structure full of intricate passages and windings, so that when once entered, it is next to impossible for an individual to extricate himself without the assistance of a guide. The origin of the term will be considered at the close of the article. There were four very famous labyrinths among the ancients—one in Egypt near the Lake Moeris, another in Crete, a third at Lemnos, and a fourth near Clusium in Italy.


The Egyptian. This was situated in Lower Egypt, near Lake Moeris, and in the vicinity of Arsinoë or Crocodilopolis. The accounts which the ancient writers give of it are very different from each other. Herodotus, who saw the structure itself, assigns to it twelve courts (Herod.ii. 148). Pliny , whose description is much more highly coloured and marvellous than the former's, makes the number sixteen (Pliny H. N. xxxvi. 19); while Strabo, who, like Herodotus, beheld the very structure, gives the number of courts as twenty-seven. The following imperfect sketch, drawn from these different sources, may give some idea of the magnitude and nature of this singular structure: A large edifice, divided, most probably, into twelve separate palaces, stretched along with a succession of splendid apartments, spacious halls, etc., the whole adorned with columns, gigantic statues, richly carved hieroglyphics, and every other appendage of Egyptian art. With the northern side of the structure were connected six courts, and the same number with the southern. These were open places surrounded by lofty walls, and paved with large slabs of stone. Around these courts ran a vast number of the most intricate passages, lower than the corresponding parts of the main building; and around all these again was thrown a large wall, affording only one entrance into the Labyrinth; while at the other end, where the Labyrinth terminated, was a pyramid forty fathoms high, with large figures carved on it, and a subterraneous way leading within. According to Herodotus, the whole structure contained 3000 chambers, 1500 above ground, and as many below. The historian informs us that he went through all the rooms above the surface of the earth, but that he was not allowed by the Egyptians who kept the place to examine the subterraneous apartments, because in these were the bodies of the sacred crocodiles and of the kings who had built the Labyrinth. “The upper part, however,” remarks the historian, “which I carefully viewed, seems to surpass the art of men; for the passages through the buildings and the variety of windings afforded me a thousand occasions of wonder, as I passed from a hall to a chamber, and from the chamber to other buildings, and from chambers into halls. All the roofs and walls within are of stone, but the walls are further adorned with figures of sculpture. The halls are surrounded with pillars of white stone, very closely fitted.”

According to Herodotus, the Labyrinth was built by twelve kings, who at one time reigned over Egypt, and it was intended as a public monument of their common reign (Herod.ii. 148). Others make it to have been constructed by Psammetichus alone, who was one of the twelve; others again, by Ismandes or Petosuchis. Mannert assigns it to Memnon. Opinions are also divided as to the object of this singular structure. Some regard it as a burial-place for the kings and sacred crocodiles, an opinion very prevalent among the ancients. Others view it as a kind of Egyptian Pantheon. Others, again, make it to have been a place of assembly for the deputies sent by each of the twelve nomes of Egypt; while another class think that the Egyptian Mysteries were celebrated here. According to Galterer, however, the Labyrinth was an architectural symbolical representation of the zodiac and the course of the sun through the same. The twelve palaces are the twelve zodiacal signs; the one half of the building above ground and the other below is a symbol of the course of the sun above and below the horizon.

As regards the name Labyrinth itself, much diversity of opinion exists. By a sort of antiphrasis it was formerly derived ἀπὸ τοῦ μὴ λαβεῖν θύραν, from its difficulty of egress; but very probably from λαύρα (λάϝρα), “a passage-way;” the termination being found in such words as μήρινθος, ὑάκινθος. Others, finding in Manetho that an Egyptian king, named Lachares or Labaris, had erected the structure in question, make the term equivalent to “the abode of Labaris.” Brugsch regards it as the corruption of an Egyptian word meaning “the building at the entrance to a reservoir” (Egypt under the Pharaohs).

The position of the Egyptian Labyrinth is clearly indicated by the words of Herodotus, “a little above the Lake Moeris.” It is now certain that the remains of the Labyrinth must be sought for near Sakkara in the district called Fayûm. Vast piles of rubbish are here to be seen, and the destruction is supposed to be owing to the Arabs, who may have thought that treasures were concealed under ground here. The ruins were first carefully explored, and an imperfect idea of their original plan made out by the Prussian expedition of 1843, of which Prof. Lepsius was the head. More recent expeditions are those of Mr. Petrie, to whose work the reader is referred (Hawâra, Biahma, and Arsinoë [1889]).


For an account of the Cretan and Etrurian labyrinths, consult the articles Porsena and Theseus respectively.

hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.148
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 36.19
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: