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LABYRINTHUS (λαβύρινθος). This is by some set down as the corruption of an Egyptian word meaning “the building at the entrance of a reservoir” (Brugsch, Egypt under the Pharaohs), by others derived from a king Lamaris or Labaris (whose name, however, should perhaps be Maris or Moeris), but it is more probably an older form of the word λαύρα, “a passage.” This older form became stereotyped as the proper name for a building with a maze of such passages, while the later form, λαῦραι, is particularly applied to the passages of a mine. Accordingly the labyrinth was a large and complicated subterranean building, with numerous chambers and intricate passages, like those of a mine. Hence the cavern near Nauplia was called a labyrinth (Strabo viii. p.369). And all the structures to which the ancients apply the name labyrinth are described as entirely or partially under ground.

Pliny (Plin. Nat. 36.84) notes four.

1. As the earliest, largest, and most famous, that of Egypt, described by Herodotus (2.148), near lake Moeris, and 100 stadia, as Strabo states, from Arsinoë (Strabo xvii. p.811). The remains have been found 11 1/2 miles from the pyramid of Hawara, in the province of Faioum. Herodotus ascribes its construction to the dodecarchs (about 650 B.C.); and Mela (1.9) to Psammetichus alone. Other and more correct accounts refer its first construction to a much earlier period (Plin. l.c.; Diod. 1.61, 89). It is very likely, however, that additions were made at various times. The names of more than one king have been found there, the oldest that of Amunmhe III., who is placed in the 12th Dynasty, about 1960 B.C. This labyrinth is described as having 3,000 chambers, 1500 under ground and the same number above, and the whole was surrounded by a wall. It was divided into courts, each of which was surrounded by colonnades of white marble. At the time of Diodorus and of Pliny it was still extant; the remains now serve only to show the exact position and size corresponding with the stadium of length given by Strabo. Herodotus, who saw the upper part of the labyrinth and went through it, was not permitted to enter the subterranean part, and he was told that the kings, by whom the labyrinth had been built, and the sacred crocodiles, were buried there. Pliny's theory that it was divided into a number of halls or buildings corresponding to the number of nomes, and the consequent theory that it was a place of assembly for the nomes, do not agree with the account of Herodotus; and the number of nomes too varied greatly at different times: nor is there any better foundation for the idea, alluded to also by Pliny, that the plan had something to do with the solar system. It is unnecessary to imagine more than that it was monumental, and a monument of more than one king of Egypt.

2. Pliny gives as second the Cretan labyrinth (cf. Diod. Sic. l.c.), which was said to have been built by Daedalus near Cnosus, after the model of the Egyptian, but very much smaller. (For further legendary accounts, see Verg. A. 6.27, 5.588; Ov. Met. 8.159; Apollod. 3.15; and Dict. Biog. under “Daedalus.” ) Most modern writers treat the Cretan labyrinth as a purely mythical or poetical creation, following Höck, who lays stress on the fact, that no ancient writer describes it as an eye-witness, and that neither the Homeric poems nor Herodotus mention it. That it was designedly built after any Egyptian pattern is improbable, but sufficient groundwork for the legends can be found in the rock-excavations existing in Crete. Admiral Spratt (Travels and Researches in Crete, 2.42) points out that the subterranean passages in limestone rock near Gortyn correspond to the ancient description of the labyrinth--tortuous alleys which occupied two hours to pass through. They were plainly, as might be seen by the marks of tools, ancient quarries, and had been used by the Christians in recent times as places of refuge. We can understand from this why Claudian (Sext. Cons. Hon. 634) speaks of Gortyn as the site of the labyrinth. Admiral Spratt found also the entrances of subterranean passages, apparently sepulchral, in the rocks [p. 2.2]near Cnosus. These were too much blocked up to explore, but there seems no reason why in ancient times they should not have been as extensive as the caverns at Gortyn, and so have given rise to the myths connected with Cnosus.

3. A third labyrinth, the construction of which belongs to a more historical age, was that in the island of Lemnos. It was begun by Smilis, an Aeginetan architect, and completed by Rhoecus and Theodorus of Samos about the time of the first Olympiad. It was in construction similar to the Egyptian, but had as a special feature one hundred and fifty columns. Remains of it were still extant in the time of Pliny. Some have conjectured that it was intended as a temple of the Cabeiri.

It may be mentioned here that the labyrinth said on the authority of Pliny (Plin. Nat. 34.83) to have been built by the same Theodorus at Samos, has probably been created by a misplaced comma. The passage should be read: “Theodorus, qui labyrinthum fecit, Sami ipse se ex aere fudit.”

4. Pliny (Plin. Nat. 36.91) classes as a labyrinth the tomb of Porsena at Clusium, a description of which he quotes from Varro--a monument in masonry, 300 feet square and 50 feet high, beneath which is a labyrinth, “quo si quis introierit sine glomere lini exitum invenire nequeat.” It had above it five pyramids of astonishing height. Niebuhr altogether discredits it; but though, with Pliny, we may think the dimensions exaggerated, it may be permitted to ask whether there is not too great a tendency to treat as pure fictions the statements of ancient writers. Dennis in his latest edition (Cities of Etruria, ii. p. 349) gives an interesting description of recent explorations in a tumulus at Poggio Gajella, three miles north of Chiusi. These are extensive sepulchral remains; in fact, it is described as like a city of tombs, with a network of small streets and alleys bearing the Egyptian character, which is so suggestive in Etruscan remains; and further a labyrinth of low, narrow passages in the heart of the mound. There seems really no valid reason for asserting the impossibility of some such great sepulchral building as Varro describes having once existed as a superstructure. It is possible that Varro himself found only a part standing, and that the huge size of the pyramids at the corners may be a somewhat exaggerated account given him as a tradition by the people of the district. This is surely a safer view than, with Niebuhr, to accuse so sober a writer as Varro of giving us “tales from the Arabian Nights.”

Labyrinthus. (
Museo Borbonico.

The garden labyrinth, or maze, is purely modern; but Pliny (l.c.) speaks of the word as applied to an intricate pattern drawn on the pavement or scratched on the ground in a boyish game; and to this may be referred the rude drawing, given in the Museo Borbonico, which was scratched on a pilaster at Pompeii, and is somewhat similar to the modern idea of a labyrinth.

[L.S] [G.E.M]

hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library, 3.15
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.148
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.159
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 5.588
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 6.27
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.61
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.89
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