In English, the term labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze. As a result of the long history of unicursal representation of the mythological Labyrinth, however, many contemporary scholars and enthusiasts observe a distinction between the two. In this specialized usage maze refers to a complex branching multicursal puzzle with choices of path and direction, while a unicursal labyrinth has only a single path to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not difficult to navigate.
Labyrinth is a word of Pre-Greek (Minoan) origin, which the Greeks used for the palace of Knossos in Crete, and it is derived from the Lydian word labrys ("double-edged axe"). This was a symbol of royal power, which suggests that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace in Crete and meant "palace of the double-axe" (the suffix -nth as in Korinth).
In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos.
In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth).
The full flowering of the medieval labyrinth came about from the twelfth through fourteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the gothic cathedrals, notably Chartres, Reims and Amiens in northern France. These labyrinths may have originated as symbolic allusion to the Holy City; and some modern thinkers have theorized that prayers and devotions may have accompanied the perambulation of their intricate paths.
Over the same general period, some 500 or more non-ecclesiastical labyrinths were constructed in Scandinavia. These labyrinths, generally in coastal areas, are marked out with stones, most often in the simple 7- or 11-course classical forms. They often have names which translate as "Troy Town". They are thought to have been constructed by fishing communities: trapping malevolent trolls or winds in the labyrinth's coils might ensure a safe fishing expedition. 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.
"we thought we were at the finish, but we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning..."
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the labyrinth symbol, which has inspired a revival in labyrinth building. Countless video games depict mazes and labyrinths. On bobsled, luge, and skeleton tracks, a labyrinth is where there are three to four curves in succession without a straight line in between any of the turns. In modern imagery, the labyrinth of Daedalus is often represented by a multicursal maze, in which one may become lost.
The labyrinth is also treated in contemporary fine arts. Examples include Piet Mondrian's Dam and Ocean, Joan Miró's Labyrinth, Pablo Picasso's Minotauromachia, M. C. Escher's Relativity, Friedensreich Hundertwasser's Labyrinth, Jean Dubuffet's Logological Cabinet, Richard Long's Connemara sculpture, Joe Tilson's Earth Maze, Richard Fleischner's Chain Link Maze, Dmitry Rakov's Labyrinth, and Labyrinthine projection by contemporary American artist Mo Morales. The Italian painter Davide Tonato has dedicated many of his artistic works to the labyrinth theme.