Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
A DELIGHTFUL air of romance and mystery surrounds the whole subject of Labyrinths and Mazes.
The hedge-maze, which is the only type with which most of us have a first-hand acquaintance, is generally felt to be a survival of a romantic age, even though we esteem its function as nothing higher than that of a playground for children. Many a tender intrigue has been woven around its dark yew alleys. Mr. Compton Mackenzie, for example, introduces it most effectively as a lovers' rendezvous in "The Passionate Elopement," and no doubt the readers of romantic literature will recall other instances of a like nature. The story of fair Rosamond's Bower is one which will leap to the mind in this connection.
This type of maze alone is worth more than a passing thought, but it is far from being the only, or even the most interesting, development of the labyrinth idea.
What is the difference, it may be asked, between a maze and a labyrinth? The answer is, little or none. Some writers seem to prefer to apply the word "maze" to hedge-mazes only, using the word "labyrinth" to denote
the structures described by the writers of antiquity, or as a general term for any confusing arrangement of paths. Others, again, show a tendency to restrict the application of the term "maze" to cases in which the idea of a puzzle is involved.
It would certainly seem somewhat inappropriate to talk of "the Cretan Maze" or "the Hampton Court Labyrinth," but, generally speaking, we may use the words interchangeably, regarding "maze" as merely the northern equivalent of the classic "labyrinth." Both words have come to signify a complex path of some kind, but when we press for a closer definition we encounter difficulties. We cannot, for instance, say that it is "a tortuous branched path designed to baffle or deceive those who attempt to find the goal to which it leads," for, though that description holds good in some cases, it ignores the many cases in which there is only one path, without branches, and therefore no intent to baffle or mislead, and others again in which there is no definite "goal." We cannot say that it is a winding path "bounded by walls or hedges," for in many instances there are neither walls nor hedges. One of the most famous labyrinths, for example, consisted chiefly of a vast and complicated series of rooms and columns. In fact, we shall find it convenient to leave the question of the definition of the words, and also that of their origin, until we have examined the various examples that exist or are known to have existed.
It may be necessary, here and there, to make reference to various archaeological or antiquarian books and other writings, but the outlook of the general reader, rather than that of the professed student, has been mainly borne in mind.
The object of this book is simply to provide a read-able survey of a subject which, in view of the lure it has exercised throughout many ages and under a variety of forms, has been almost entirely neglected in our literature—the subject of mazes and labyrinths treated from
a general and not a purely archæological, horticultural, mathematical, or artistic point of view.
Such references as have been made have therefore been accompanied in most cases by some explanatory or descriptive phrase, a provision which might be considered unnecessary or out of place in a book written for the trained student.
For the benefit of such as may wish to verify, or to investigate more fully, any of the matters dealt with, a classified list of references has been compiled and will be found at the end of the book.
The first summary of any importance to be published in this country on the subject was a paper by the Venerable Edward Trollope, F.S.A., Archdeacon of Stow, which appeared in the Archaeological Journal and in the "Proceedings" of a provincial archaeological society in 1858. Nearly all subsequent writers on the subject—in this country at any rate—have drawn largely upon the paper in question and have made little advance upon it.
The "Encyclopaedia Britannica" contains an illustrated article, written originally by a botanist and chiefly concerned with hedge-mazes. Such books as Rouse Ball's "Mathematical Recreations," Andrews' "Ecclesiastical Curiosities," and Dudeney's "Amusements in Mathematics" devote each a chapter or so to the matter, and from time to time there have been brief displays of interest in some aspect or other of the topic in popular periodicals, the most notable being a pair of richly illustrated articles in Country Life in 1903. A condensed and scholarly review of the subject, in so far as it is relevant to his main thesis, is contained in the first volume of Mr. A. B. Cook's ponderous work on "Zeus" (1914). A similar remark applies to the recently published (1921) Volume I of Sir Arthur Evans's magnificent summary of his Cretan researches, "The Palace of Minos at Knossos." There is a characteristically Ruskinian discourse on Labyrinths in "Fors Clavigera"
[paragraph continues] (Fors No. 23); and an interesting, if not convincing, section of Mr. E. O. Gordon's "Prehistoric London" adduces a certain amount of labyrinth lore in support of the Trojan origin of the metropolis. So far as the writer has been able to ascertain, no book dealing solely with the subject has hitherto appeared in our language.
In 1915-16 there appeared posthumously in the Revue Archéologique a very remarkable series of articles on "Les Fallacieux Détours du Labyrinthe" by a brilliant young French archaeologist, M. Robert de Launay, who was killed on the field of honour at Neuville-St.-Vaast in May 1915. The articles are characterised by great boldness and enthusiasm and show a wide range of knowledge, but it is probable that, if the author had lived, mature consideration would have led him to modify some of his conclusions. This is the most recent work of importance on the subject, though the new work by Sir A. Evans mentioned above contains much interesting and valuable information on certain aspects.
In the following chapters an attempt is made to set forth, as readably as may be, an account of the various devices in which the labyrinth-idea has been embodied, to indicate where examples may be found, to give some notion of the speculations which have been made regarding their origins, and to consider the possibilities of the idea from the point of view of amusement and recreation.
The earliest labyrinths of which mention is made by the classic writers are those of Egypt and Crete, and we shall find it convenient to consider these first of all. We will then notice the other labyrinths alluded to by the writers of antiquity, and pass on to a consideration of labyrinthine designs introduced by way of ornament or symbolism in various objects of later classic art. We shall see that the labyrinth-idea was adopted and developed by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, and will note its progress as a medium of horticultural embellishment. It will be interesting to examine the mathematical principles,
such as they are, which underlie the construction or solution of mazes, also to see in what a number of ways these principles may be applied.
We shall find that our inquiry will bring us into contact with a greater variety of subjects than one would at first be inclined to imagine, and that labyrinths and mazes need not by any means be considered as exclusively a concern of archaeologists and children.
Incidentally we may help to rescue from threatened oblivion a certain class of native antiquities, small and diminishing in number, but surely worth sufficient attention to ensure their preservation, namely, the turf-labyrinths.
As to the actual origin and primary purpose of these devices we cannot be dogmatic on the evidence before us, and herein, perhaps, lies a good deal of their charm. When we can classify and date with precision any object which is not of a utilitarian nature we relegate it at once to our mental museum, and a museum is only too apt to become an oubliette. But when there is a considerable margin for speculation, or, as we usually say, a certain amount of "mystery" in the case, we are more likely to find pleasure in rehandling it, looking at it from different points of view and wondering about it. Let us grant, by all means, that there are quite sufficient unsolved riddles in nature and life without raising up artificial mysteries. Let us even admit that when evidence is available (which, by the way, is not the same thing as existent) it is better to settle a question straight away than to leave it open to further argument. At the same time, let us not be too hasty in accepting speculations, however shrewd, as proved facts. Antiquarian books should naturally be as free as possible from actual misstatements, but they have lost all their charm when they become collections of bald dogmatic statements or mere descriptive catalogues.