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The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity Through the Middle Ages

Labels: books. No comments:. These labyrinths, generally in coastal areas, are marked out with stones, most often in the simple 7- or course classical forms. They often have names which translate as " Troy Town. There are also stone labyrinths on the Isles of Scilly , although none is known to date from before the nineteenth century. There are examples of labyrinths in many disparate cultures.

The symbol has appeared in various forms and media petroglyphs , classic-form, medieval-form, pavement, turf, and basketry at some time throughout most parts of the world, from Native North and South America to Australia , Java , India , and Nepal. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths and a revival in labyrinth building, of both unicursal and multicursal patterns. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was entranced with the idea of the labyrinth, and used it extensively in his short stories such as "The House of Asterion" in The Aleph.

His use of it has inspired other authors e. Danielewski's House of Leaves. Additionally, Roger Zelazny 's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Amber , features a labyrinth, called "the Pattern," which grants those who walk it the power to move between parallel worlds.

The avant-garde multi-screen film, In the Labyrinth , presents a search for meaning in a symbolic modern labyrinth. Australian author Sara Douglass incorporated some labyrinthine ideas in her series The Troy Game , in which the Labyrinth on Crete is one of several in the ancient world, created with the cities as a source of magical power.

A magical labyrinth, based on the original myth, appears in the third episode of The Librarians "And The Horns of a Dilemma". The labyrinth is also treated in contemporary fine arts. Mark Wallinger has created a set of enamel plaques of unicursal labyrinth designs, one for every tube station in the London Underground , to mark the th anniversary of the Underground.

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The plaques were installed over a month period in and , and each is numbered according to its position in the route taken by the contestants in the Guinness World Record Tube Challenge. Labyrinths and mazes have been embraced by the video game industry, and countless video games include such a feature.

Prehistoric labyrinths may have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as paths for ritual dances. In this they may be preserving its original meaning: the ultimate ancestor, here evoked by two continuous lines joining its twelve primary joints. One can think of labyrinths as symbolic of pilgrimage ; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Author Ben Radford conducted an investigation into some of the claims of spiritual and healing effects of labyrinths, reporting on his findings in his book Mysterious New Mexico.

Many labyrinths have been constructed recently in churches, hospitals, and parks.

The idea of the labyrinth from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages

These are often used for contemplation; walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind. The Labyrinth Society [47] provides a locator for modern labyrinths all over the world. In addition, the labyrinth can serve as a metaphor for situations that are difficult to be extricated from, as an image that suggests getting lost in a subterranean dungeon-like world.

Octavio Paz titled his book on Mexican identity The Labyrinth of Solitude , describing the Mexican condition as orphaned and lost. Labyrinths have on various occasions been used in Christian tradition as a part of worship. The earliest known example is from a fourth-century pavement at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria, with the words "Sancta Eclesia" [ sic ] , meaning 'holy church', i.

In medieval times, labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around C. The most famous medieval labyrinth, with great influence on later practice, was created in Chartres Cathedral. The use of labyrinths has recently been revived in some contexts of Christian worship. Many churches in Europe and North America have constructed permanent, typically unicursal, labyrinths, or employ temporary ones e.

For example, a labyrinth was set up on the floor of St Paul's Cathedral for a week in March From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For other uses, see Labyrinth disambiguation. Turf maze at Wing in Rutland , UK. Play media. This section possibly contains original research. Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding inline citations. Statements consisting only of original research should be removed. November Learn how and when to remove this template message.

Retrieved 28 December The Labyrinth Society. Retrieved 18 September Oxford University Press p. The Ancient Greeks.

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An introduction. Oxford University Press. Zur mykenischen Tracht und Kultur". VII : Journal of Hellenic Studies. Rouse criticised the association, noting the reappearance of the same inscribed symbols at the newly discovered palace at Phaistos p. Greek Etymological dictionary, p. Through the Labyrinth. Pliny thought the ancient labyrinths were a tremendous waste of resources, and I hope those who have invested enormously in this book feel their money has been somewhat better spent.

Maze-walkers also need help in the exhausting tasks of searching bibliographies, checking dates and quotations, writing for permissions, photocopying articles, and so on. Still more important, they believed in what I was doing even when I despaired of ever reaching the end. That this book exists at all is in large part due to their persistent encouragement over two decades. If one needs an overview of the maze, one also needs distraction from its labors now and again. In this respect, I record my gratitude to my dear friend, the late Constantin Patsalas, who granted me the privilege of intense involvement in his own Daedalian artistry as a choreographer.

His imagination sparked mine, and I often returned from rehearsals and excited discussions of his ballets with far greater energy to attack my own work. We had planned some day to collaborate on a ballet about the Cretan myth; his early death ended that hope. People who create labyrinths need to gain perspective by stepping back and describing what they have designed so far. For letting me give papers and lectures on parts of this research over the years and for valuable feedback, I want to acknowledge Nicholas Mann Oxford, , Raymond St.

Kolve Medieval Academy, A special award for patience in adversity must go to the generations of York University graduate and undergraduate students who, since , have had versions of the chapters on The House of Fame and The Consolation of Philosophy inflicted on them, often at trying hours in the early morning.

Ancient labyrinths were lavishly decorated with works of art, and while my labyrinth of words is not as extensively ornamented as the mazes of Egypt or Etruria, I have been able to draw upon some supplemental visual artistry. Michel Baridon, William C. Irvine, and Leonard Boyle generously helped me obtain certain photographs, and Alison and Robert Ouellette provided expert assistance with other photographs and drawings.

For dealing skillfully with the impact of the computer age on the generation and regeneration of textual mazes, I am grateful to Deirdre Maclean and Chris Monteith. Once a verbal maze exists, its architect needs readers and listeners willing to venture inside and report on what they have seen. Reed, Jr. Roger Haydon of the Press suggested appropriate finishing touches.

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While the manuscript has been much improved by the advice of all these fellow travelers, the academic enterprise remains an irrevocably multicursal maze in which I have sometimes insisted on my own way despite the wisdom of my guides. If errors remain, as they surely do, they go with the territory. My greatest debt is to my husband, Graham Parker, who accompanied me to countless labyrinth sites, tolerated recurrent crises of confidence, and lugged innumerable books back and forth from libraries during the years I was embroiled in the impenetrable labyrinths of administrative office.

More important, he read one draft after another, providing the judicious perspective that only a highly literate nonspecialist can give. Having endured the countless labors, errors, false turnings, and blind alleys I have brought upon him in the course of writing this book, he has staunchly remained my center and my path. ANCIENT and medieval labyrinths or mazes the words have different etymologies but mean the same thing are characteristically double. They are full of ambiguity, their circuitous design prescribes a constant doubling back, and they fall into two distinct but related structural categories.

They presume a double perspective: maze-treaders, whose vision ahead and behind is severely constricted and fragmented, suffer confusion, whereas maze-viewers who see the pattern whole, from above or in a diagram, are dazzled by its complex artistry. What you see depends on where you stand, and thus, at one and the same time, labyrinths are single there is one physical structure and double: they simultaneously incorporate order and disorder, clarity and confusion, unity and multiplicity, artistry and chaos.

They may be perceived as path a linear but circuitous passage to a goal or as pattern a complete symmetrical design. Their paths are linear, but—since many ancient and medieval labyrinths are round—their pattern may be circular, cyclical; they describe both the linearity and the architecture of space and time. They may be inextricable if no one can find the exit or impenetrable if no one can find the center. Our perception of labyrinths is thus intrinsically unstable: change your perspective and the labyrinth seems to change. As images, then, labyrinths are convertible and relative: what you see and feel and understand one moment can shift completely the next like a reversible figure, an optical illusion.

Thus mazes encode the very principle of doubleness, contrariety, paradox, concordia discors , as Wyatt knew. Accordingly, the aims of this book are dual: to reconstruct the idea of the labyrinth in the western Middle Ages by extrapolation from a wide variety of sources, both literary and visual, and to see how that idea informs an array of important literary texts. I use the word idea to mean the general governing concept of the labyrinth as a visual or verbal sign, its ruling principles, the theoretical set of characteristics abstracted from and manifested in the specific labyrinths of art or literature.

The idea of the labyrinth thus encompasses both formal principles e. But because there is considerable constancy in the idea of the labyrinth over many centuries, including those spanned by this book, I speak of an idea albeit one with permissible variations , not of many ideas. Since it allows for certain variations, this idea is not monolithic, a fixed and perfect template; rather, it includes a small repertory of attributes and associations among which a maze-maker can select, emphasizing these as opposed to those to shape the precise significance of this particular maze, which will in turn be interpreted by readers or viewers in accordance with their familiarity with the received idea of the labyrinth.

The word idea is also appropriate because I am interested not only in real labyrinths—mazes one can see and touch, things that are labeled labyrinths—but also in metaphorical labyrinths and in the very concept of the labyrinth. In this context, I have coined the term labyrinthicity, by which I mean the condition of possessing significant features habitually associated with labyrinths.

I speak of reconstructing the medieval idea of the labyrinth because I want to avoid imposing modern definitions and canons of interpretation on medieval mazes. The modern idea of a labyrinth is curiously limited. It holds that mazes must contain many points of choice between two or more paths they are multicursal , to use a word that will recur throughout this study—see plate 4 with dead ends leading nowhere, and that they are intended to confuse and frustrate.

But the modern concept of the maze excludes virtually all medieval labyrinths in the visual arts, which show a single winding path leading inevitably to the center and then back out again they are thus unicursal —see plate 5. The medieval idea of the labyrinth allows both patterns, so modern readers must discard their mental image of the maze if they are to approach medieval examples and see what is actually there.

Previous studies of medieval labyrinths have been seriously handicapped by their failure to appreciate, let alone to examine carefully, the implications of the coexistence of these radically different paradigms of the maze. Similarly, most modern studies of labyrinths manifest an interest in determining anthropological origins or archetypal significance. Instead, I want to recover what medieval people actually thought about mazes, what their horizon of expectations might have been when they heard the word laborintus or saw a maze in a cathedral nave, what they meant by the sign in their own works; I want to describe an appropriate code for deciphering medieval visual or literary works involving literal or metaphorical labyrinths, to define the literary competence required to appreciate labyrinth references and intertextualities.


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  • What were characteristic and atypical medieval ways of seeing the labyrinth? How did the idea of the labyrinth, both literary and visual, generate metaphor, and what are the consequent metaphorical uses of the sign? This general focus on the medieval, the metaphorical, and the literary distinguishes my work from most recent studies of labyrinths. Readers familiar with W.

    First, these previous studies concentrate on the visual arts, not on literature, and certainly not on labyrinthine texts. Second, they treat the labyrinth from prehistory to the present, and the medieval idea of the labyrinth merits far more attention than they have given it. Third, despite their visual orientation, they give little or no attention to the formal implications of the two medieval paradigms of the maze and the tensions between literary and visual traditions. Fourth, my work deals more with metaphorical labyrinths than with real ones.

    The best way to suggest the scope, rationale, and methods of this book is through a brief overview of its contents. Part One lays the groundwork for the study of medieval labyrinths by examining several facets of the classical and early Christian background. Focusing on the written witness, Chapter 1 identifies, analyzes, and compares two major classical traditions associated with different kinds of literature and well-known to the Middle Ages—the historical-geographical, quasi-factual description of four ancient labyrinths as real buildings, discussed by Pliny the Elder, Strabo, and others, and the purely literary tradition established by Virgil and Ovid, the classical poets who most influenced medieval thought.

    Here I explore characteristically labyrinthine dualities—artistry vs. Chapter 2 focuses on the surprising conflict between written tradition and the visual arts, which endorse not the multicursal model but rather the unicursal model that persists in art throughout the Middle Ages. It is almost impossible to overestimate how remarkable this paradigmatic incompatibility is: as an analogy, imagine that literary descriptions of circles defined them as having four sides joined by right angles, whereas visual illustrations showed the figure we recognize as a circle.

    Other studies of the labyrinth at best mention the extraordinary discrepancy between medieval unicursal and modern multicursal visual models. But I will argue that it is precisely the peaceful coexistence of ancient and medieval literary multicursal models and visual unicursal models that is the key to understanding what medieval people meant by the word labonntus.

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    Analysis of the two paradigms, then, constitutes the substance of Chapter 2. Formal features specific to one model or the other fill in the picture and allow considerable flexibility in individual instances: medieval authors can pick the model that best suits the metaphor in mind, or occasionally they can select features from both models, or very rarely they can describe a transformation of one model into the other. Chapter 3 shows how three shared formal characteristics generate a taxonomy of labyrinth metaphors: because of certain physical attributes, the labyrinth may be a sign of complex artistry, of impenetrability or inextricability, and of difficult intellectual, epistemological, and verbal process.

    These categories are illustrated and developed by a wide range of classical and early Christian texts, most of them known in the Middle Ages. Part One thus describes the literary, conceptual, and metaphorical backgrounds of the medieval idea of the labyrinth.


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    Part Two tackles that idea directly. A brief introduction, Chapter 4, considers Latin etymology and vernacular terms for mazes and condenses the various ambiguities of labor intus and domus daedali into three general categories of meaning roughly corresponding to those outlined in Chapter 3: artistry, morality, and difficult process.