The Ancient Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky
On a small collection of remote islands in the White Sea of Russia lies the highest concentration of ancient labyrinths on the planet. Despite numerous theories, archaeologists and historians have not come to any agreement about why they were built and what their purpose was. The labyrinth remains one of the most mysterious symbols found on Earth – thousands of years ago, it appeared at the same point in history on all inhabited continents in the world – why?
Today, we use the term ‘labyrinth’ to refer to any maze-like structure. However, there is a key distinction between a labyrinth and a maze. A maze refers to a complex branching (multicursal) puzzle with choices of path and direction; while a labyrinth is a single-path (unicursal) pattern that has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the centre.
The long history of the labyrinth
The word ‘labyrinth’ comes from the ancient Greek words ‘labrys’, a word for the iconic ‘double axe’ which was used by the Minoans on the island of Crete, and ‘inthos’ meaning ‘place’. Thus, labryinthos has been interpreted to mean ‘house of the double-headed axe’. The complex palace of Knossos in Crete is usually implicated. According to Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete had the craftsman Daedalus construct the labyrinth in order to conceal the Minotaur, the half-bull, half-human offspring of Minos' wife Pasiphae and a bull. For some unknown reason, Daedalus and his son Icarus were confined in the labyrinth. Constructing wings of feathers and wax, the two were able to escape by flying above the walls of the labyrinth. Young Icarus, however, impetuously flew too near the sun. His waxy wings melted and he drowned in the Icarian Sea. While the legend of the Minotaur was long thought of as a myth, the remains of the labyrinth of Knossos were uncovered in the early 20 th century by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.
An ancient mosaic depicting the labyrinth of Knossos and the Minotaur
Although there are numerous labyrinth designs found throughout history, such as the seven circuit, eleven circuit, and twelve circuit labyrinths, in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean, a common symbol of a 7-circuit labyrinth was associated with the legends. Known today as the Cretan labyrinth, it consists of a single path winding back and forth to a centre point in a series of seven concentric rings. Intriguingly, the shape of the 7-circuit labyrinth also mirrors the motion of the planet mercury in the sky over a long period of time. Did some ancient astronomer record this motion, and create the labyrinth symbol based upon it? We will probably never know. The earliest known use of the 7-circuit labyrinth symbol occurs on a clay tablet from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos in Greece. A fire destroyed this palace around 1200 BC, baking the clay tablet and preserving it for archaeologists.
A depiction of a seven circuit labyrinth
While the word ‘labyrinth’ is closely tied in with Greek history and mythology, labyrinths have been around a lot longer than the legend of Knossos and the Minotaur. Dating back nearly 4000 years is the famed labyrinth of antiquity, the Egyptian temple precinct of a pyramid complex of many courts, built at Hawara by Amenemhet III of the 12th Dynasty (1844-1797 BC). There were twelve separate courts of considerable size all facing one another throughout this labyrinth and all connected by corridors and colonnades and shafts. Criss-crossing alleys and false doors sealed by stone plugs all protected the central burial chamber of the pyramid of the king.
But the labyrinths of Greece and Egypt are just the tip of the iceberg. Labyrinths have been found in just about every major religious tradition in the world, have formed an integral part of many cultures, and have been found on every inhabited continent. At about the same time as the appearance of the Greek labyrinth, an essentially identical pattern appeared in Native American culture, the Tohono O'odham labyrinth, which features I'itoi, the "Man in the Maze". A prehistoric petroglyph on a riverbank in Goa shows the same pattern and other examples have been found among cave art in northern India and on a dolmen shrine in the Nilgiri Mountains. In terms of ancient archaeological monuments, more than 300 examples of labyrinths can be found in various locations around the world. Many questions remain around how the same pattern managed to appear at the same time in apparently disparate cultures.
While recorded history links the creation of labyrinths to a period beginning around 4,000 years ago, the earliest labyrinths are much older than that and first appeared in Neolithic rock carvings and stone formations concentrated around Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia.