Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
A FEW miles to the north-east of Gortyna, and not far south of the north coast town of Candia, lay, at the base of the hill of Kephala, a few ruined walls indicating the site of the ancient city of Knossos. These walls consisted of large blocks of gypsum and bore curious engraved marks.
For many years Dr. A. J. Evans (now Sir Arthur Evans) had been convinced that excavation of this site would probably bring to light evidence of a system of writing which might be of interest in connection with the origin of the Greek system, but it was not until the year 1900 that he finally obtained a concession enabling him to explore the spot. The resulting discoveries were of such an astonishing nature, and of such absorbing interest, that one is greatly tempted to digress and to mention them in some detail. However, they have been summarised and discussed by many able writers (see Appendix III, ii.), and it must suffice here to refer simply to the main points in which they bear upon the story of the Labyrinth.
After about two months' work, with a staff of from 80 to 150 men, about two acres of the remains of a great prehistoric building, showing strong evidence of having
been destroyed by fire, were uncovered, and later excavations showed that it was yet more extensive, covering altogether about five acres. Not only this palace, but the multitude of objects found within it, or associated with it, were of surpassing importance in their bearing on the nature of the ancient civilisation of which they demonstrated the existence, and to which Sir A. Evans has given the name "Minoan." Vast quantities of pottery of widely different designs and workmanship, written tablets, wall paintings—often of great beauty—reliefs, and sculptured figures, shrines, seals, jewellery, a royal gaming-board, and even a throne, were discovered as the work went on, and eventually the whole area was excavated down to the virgin rock, remains of an earlier and smaller palace being found beneath the other, and below this again a great thickness of deposits containing many remains of neolithic man.
By means of occasional discoveries of imported Egyptian objects, by comparison of Minoan pottery and paintings with some found in Egyptian tombs, and by various other indications, it was possible to date the upper remains, say from 1580 B.C. onwards, fairly nearly. The dating of the older remains is much more difficult, chiefly because, although they can often be equated with certain periods of Egyptian culture, the chronology of the latter admits of widely different views, but it seems safe to say that the earliest traces of the Minoan civilisation date from quite 3000 years B.C., and possibly many centuries before that.
The earlier palace and town seem to have been built before 2000 B.C. and destroyed a few centuries after that date. The later palace was begun somewhere in the eighteenth or nineteenth century B.C., was elaborated in succeeding centuries, and was sacked and burned, just as it had attained the height of its glory, about I400 B.C.
The discovery of this palace was one of the first-class "finds" of archaeology. Those who based their estimates
of the architectural capabilities of ancient Crete on their knowledge of the development of the builder's art in classic Greece, a millennium later, were amazed to find that in many respects the product of the older civilisation was superior.
To mention but a few of the most remarkable facts about the palace, it was of several storeys, grouped around a central court and pierced by "light-wells"; it contained several staircases, one of them at least being of a very imposing character and composed of many flights. Moreover, it possessed a quite modern system of drainage, with jointed underground pipes and with inspection manholes to the main drains. Along the west side of the basement ran a long straight gallery flanked by a series of great storage-rooms or magazines. It was near one end of this gallery that Dr. Evans discovered a store of tablets with pictographic inscriptions, in proof of his suspicion that the Phoenician script was not the original parent of European written language.
Not far from this spot was the room containing the throne (or Worshipful Master's Chair, as the masonic Dr. Churchward prefers to call it) which may actually have been occupied by King Minos.
A definite distinction can be recognised between state and domestic apartments and subsidiary offices and workshops.
To the north-west of the palace was a "stepped theatral area" (orchestra), which suggests the "dancing ground" of Ariadne.
From the point of view of our subject, however, the most interesting features were the frequent occurrence of the sign of the double axe, which was obviously an object of great importance in Minoan worship, and the profusion of evidence concerning the cult of the bull. On the fallen plaster of one of the walls of a corridor, too, was a repeated meander pattern, painted in red on a white ground, very suggestive of a sort of maze (Fig. 8).
The significance of the axe symbol from our point of view lies in its bearing on the derivation of the word "labyrinth," a question that will be referred to in rather more detail in a later chapter.
One room of the palace, a stately hall about 80 ft. in length by 26 ft. in breadth, traversed by a row of square-sectioned pillars, has been named by its discoverer
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FIG. 8.—Knossos. Maze-pattern on Wall of Palace. (After Evans.)
[paragraph continues] "the Hall of the Double Axes," from the frequent occurrence of this symbol therein. Not only does the sacred axe occur as a more or less crude engraving on the stone blocks composing certain pillars in the palace, but little models of it were found associated with an altar, and, in the Dictaean cave, some miles distant, several bronze specimens of the axe were discovered in circumstances which show that they were votive offerings. Sometimes the sacred symbol was set up on a socketed pedestal
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Fig. 9. Double Axe and Stepped Steatite Socket from Dictaean Cave. (Psychro)
(From Archæolagia, by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries, and Sir Arthur Evans)
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Fig. 11. Knossos. View of Cist, showing shape of Double Axe.
(From Archæolagia, by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries and Sir Arthur Evans.)
[paragraph continues] (Fig. 9). Moreover, in more recent excavations a curious "tomb" was found (Figs. 10 and 11) which was double-axe
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FIG. 10—Knossos. Plan of Tomb of Double Axes, showing position in which relics were found.
(From ''Archæolagia,'' by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries and Sir Arthur Evans.)
shaped in plan and was evidently the repository of a giant emblem (Fig. 12. See plate, p. 42).
Long before Dr. Evans' excavations in Crete the great
[paragraph continues] German archaeologist Schliemann, during his researches at Mycenae on the mainland, unearthed from one of the graves an ox-head of gold plate, with a double axe between the upright horns. The double axe was also the sign of the Zeus worshipped at Labraunda in Caria, a country to the north-east of Crete, on the mainland of Asia Minor, where the implement was known as the labrys.
The cult of the bull was also much in evidence in the palace remains. Schliemann, in excavating the site of Tiryns in 1884, came across an extraordinary wall-painting depicting a man holding one horn of a great bull whilst he leaps over its back, the animal meanwhile charging at full speed. Several examples of such scenes have since been discovered, painted upon walls, engraved on gems, or stamped on seal-impressions. Amongst the debris of one of the rooms in the palace at Knossos was found a painting of a scene in which two girls are engaged in dodging the charge of a bull, whilst a boy, who has evidently just left hold of its horns, turns a somersault over its back.
Near the main north entrance to the palace was brought to light a large plaster relief of a bull's head, no doubt originally forming part of the complete beast. This relief was a masterpiece of Minoan art. It was of life-size and beautifully coloured, and particular attention had been given to the modelling and colour of the eye, the fierce stare of which, in conjunction with the open mouth, conveys a fine effect of frenzied excitement.
These are only a few examples, amongst many, which go to demonstrate that the sport of "bull-leaping"—or ταυρωκαθαψια, as it was called by the Greeks—was beloved of the Minoans and was probably practised in the precincts of the palace.
In the light of these discoveries Dr. Evans concludes that the palace of Knossos was the Labyrinth, or House
of the Labrys, which gave rise to the classic legend, the idea of the Minotaur originating in the practice of training captives to participate in the dangerous sport of bull-leaping. (Tauros = bull, hence Minotaur = Bull of Minos.) We will refer further to the etymology of "labyrinth" in a later chapter. The palace was certainly of sufficient complexity to render it difficult for the uninitiated to find their way about it, but the plan of its remains exhibits no resemblance to a designed labyrinth of the conventional type. There is, however, a suggestion of the latter in the meander pattern painted on one of the walls, to which reference has been made above. The notion as to the Labyrinth having been a prison from which escape was impossible may also have some connection with two deep pits beneath the palace, whose function was possibly that of dungeons for prisoners.
In considering the origin of the legend, we must remember that a period of several centuries elapsed between the destruction of the Knossian buildings and the first written account of the Labyrinth, and must take into account the probability that the people who in later ages became the dominant race in Crete would be likely to make ample use of their imagination in formulating an explanation of the vast and complicated ruins of the burnt city, with their mysterious frescoes and enigmatic symbols.
It may also be borne in mind that the excavations in Crete have by no means reached a final stage, and that, although no architectural remains of a plan conforming to the usual conception of a formal labyrinth are yet forthcoming, there is a possibility that something of the kind may yet turn up, though indeed the chance seems very remote. Even as this book is going to press appears an article in The Times by Sir Arthur Evans announcing yet further enthralling discoveries; he finds abundant signs of a great earthquake, causing ruin over the whole Knossian area, about i 600 B.C., also evidence
[paragraph continues] —including portable altars and huge ox-skulls—indicating an expiatory sacrifice recalling Homer's words, "in bulls doth the Earthshaker delight"; and finally, on a floor-level about thirty feet down, the opening of an artificial cave with three rough steps leading down to what was apparently the lair of some great beast. "But here, perhaps," says Sir Arthur, "it is better for imagination to draw rein."