Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
IN 1858—the year in which Archdeacon Trollope published the results of his researches—Capt. W. H. Mounsey drew attention to the description in a Welsh history book ("Drych y Prif Oesoedd," published in 1740) of a curious custom formerly prevalent among the Welsh shepherds. This custom consisted of cutting in the turf a figure in the form of a labyrinth, which they called Caerdroia, i.e. the walls, or citadel, of Troy. He also remarked that the herdsmen of Burgh and Rockcliffe "at the present day are in the habit of cutting this labyrinthine figure, which they also call 'the Walls of Troy.'" He drew the tentative conclusion that this name "would seem to be an after-thought of pure Cymric origin, suggested by the similarity between Caerdroia, the City of Troy, and Caer y troiau, the city of windings or turnings." A similar suggestion had already been made in the Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society in 1822, the writer ("Idrison") holding that the turf figures, and also those on the Knossian coins, had reference to the courses of the sun as conceived by ancient worshippers of that orb.
Captain Mounsey was promptly answered by Dr. Trollope, who referred to the wide distribution of these devices throughout England and commented on their total absence from Brittany, where, if they were of ancient Cymric origin, one would have expected to find at least
some trace of them. He also stated that they first received the name of "Troy-towns" in Tudor days, when "subtleties" of all kinds were in vogue, the term being used simply to indicate, by analogy with the Troy of legend, the difficulties to be overcome before the centre could be reached. Dr. Trollope gave it as his considered opinion that they were originally cut for penitential purposes by ecclesiastics, and this opinion has since his time remained practically unchallenged. In his memoir on the subject he reproduces a sketch showing the St. Anne's Hill maze with two gowned and kneeling persons in the act of performing a penitential circuit. Both the sketch and Dr. Trollope's conclusion are based on inference, however; there does not appear to be any direct evidence in the matter.
The theory of an ecclesiastical origin of the turf mazes is chiefly supported by analogy with the continental church-labyrinths which many of them so strongly resemble. Against the argument of their frequent proximity to an ecclesiastical site we may place that of their equally frequent proximity to known Roman remains and the fact that many of our old churches were founded on Roman sites.
The Welsh custom above referred to was also described by P. Roberts in his "Cambrian Popular Antiquities," published in 1815. He gives a plan of the figure as usually cut—a design resembling the circular labyrinths on Knossian coins, but flattened on the side where the entrance is situated—and expresses dissatisfaction with it because there are "no means of losing the way into the citadel, the supposed way continuing regularly through all its windings unbroken, which could scarcely have been the design of the inventor" (Fig. 70).
This figure, he says, is the plan of a labyrinth which is sometimes cut out in the turf by shepherd boys whilst they are tending their flocks on the mountains of Wales, and is sometimes drawn and presented as a puzzle by
boys to exercise the ingenuity of their school-fellows, either in finding their way to the citadel at the centre or in drawing the plan. The tradition which accompanies the plan is that the city of Troy was defended by seven walls represented by the seven exterior lines and the entrance made as intricate as possible in order to frustrate an attacking force.
On the question whether turf mazes were, as Dr. Trollope affirmed, constructed by ecclesiastics for penitential purposes, there does not appear to be sufficient
FIG. 70.—''Caerdroia.'' (After P. Roberts.)
In "The Tempest" also (Act III., Sc. iii.) he makes the old counsellor Gonzalo say:
and further on (Act V., Sc. i.) he puts a similar phrase into the mouth of Alonso:
It is most likely that the turf mazes were in existence long before Shakespeare's time. The similarity of design between some of them and certain of the continental church labyrinths, which has already been alluded to, furnishes some grounds for supposing that they were contemporary with the latter in origin, in which case they would most probably have been constructed in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. The fact that several of them were situated in the neighbourhood of some religious institution also lends support to the assertion that they were of monastic workmanship. There is no reason, however, to suppose that their construction and the handing on of the labyrinth tradition was confined to ecclesiastics.
According to M. Berthelot, who made a special study of the work of the ancient and mediaeval alchemists, a similar figure was employed by the latter. At any rate he found in an eleventh-century alchemistic manuscript, which he refers to as the Manuscript of St. Mark, Venice, a labyrinth drawing closely resembling the ecclesiastical type, accompanied by a commentary in Greek verse. He, however, expresses the opinion that both the labyrinth and the verses are an addition of the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The figure, he says, is referred to as "The Labyrinth of Solomon."
The name of Solomon was in use at least as late as 1844 in connection with labyrinthine figures. In that year M. Didron, a noted French archaeologist, whilst making a tour through Greece, visited the convent of St. Barlaam, a building perched high up on a huge crag and approached only by a rope. On the wall of the guest-room
he observed a red tracing of a labyrinth resembling that on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. M. Didron inquired as to the origin of it, and was informed that it was called the "Prison de Salomon" and that it had been copied on the wall long before by a monk who had found the design in a book. The monk was dead and the book lost. This "Solomon's Prison" was of the same character as the "Solomon's Labyrinth" described by M. Berthelot, but very probably these and similar terms were at one time as popular as "Chemin de Jérusalem," "Julian's Bower," and so on, in their application to all sorts of labyrinthine devices.
A simple "interrupted-circle" type of labyrinth was adopted as a heraldic device by Gonzalo Perez, a Spanish ecclesiastic who aged as Secretary to Charles V and Philip II, and published in 1566 a translation of Homer's "Odyssey." The labyrinth was shown in perspective, with the Minotaur, in fighting attitude, at the centre. It was surmounted by the motto In silentio et spe.
No doubt continental heraldry could furnish us with many similar references of the sort, although nothing of the kind seems to occur in English heraldry. In Fig. 71, for instance, is shown one used by Bois-dofin de Laval, Archbishop of Embrun. The motto in this case was Fata viam invenient ("The Fates will find a way"), a motto adopted in England by the Berkshire Vansittarts. Our illustration is copied from an early seventeenth-century book entitled "Devises Héroïques et Emblemes," by Claude Paradin.
In the text it is stated that "par ce labyrinthe . . . se pourroit entendre que pour rencontrer la voye, & chemin de vie eternelle, la grace de Dieu nous adresse: nous mettant entre les mains le filet de ses saincts commandemens. A ce que le tenans & suivans tousiours nous venions a nous tirer hors des dangereux foruoyemens des destroits mo_dains." In other words, the device may be taken as emblematical of the temptation-labyrinth of this
worldly life, which can only be safely traversed by means of the Ariadne thread of divine grace.
The design in this case is of a peculiar type, but it may be very easily derived from the simple split-ring or "Pigs in Clover" design (Fig. 144).
We have in the two cases just mentioned, as in the case of the pavement labyrinths, an association with the
Click to enlarge
FIG. 71.—Labyrinth Device of Archbishop of Embrun. (After C. Paradin.)
[paragraph continues] Church or with ecclesiastics. At the same time we know that, in England at any rate, the turf mazes were used for sportive purposes in the days of Elizabeth, and there is, so far, a lack of contemporary reference to their employment in a devotional or penitential capacity. "Treading" or "threading" the maze was a favourite game for several generations. Seeing that the path in the turf maze has as a rule no branches or dead-ends, the sport in question would appear to have been rather simple in
character, unless we imagine the participants to have been blindfolded for the purpose or primed with a tankard or two of some jocund beverage.
Let us refer once more to that chapter of Pliny's "Natural History" in which he says that we must not compare the Egyptian and other labyrinths with "what we see traced on our mosaic pavements or to the mazes formed in the fields for the entertainment of children." The italicised words clearly show that the construction of something akin to our turf mazes was practised by the Romans. It seems very reasonable to infer that, if the custom were so common as Pliny seems to imply, it would have been carried to the Roman colonies in these islands. An argument which has often been brought forward in this connection is that from very early times the game of Troy, the lusus Trojae, was played by Roman youths. Virgil describes it in the fifth book of his "Aeneid," and draws attention to the similarity between the mazy windings of this sport—which was performed on horseback—and the sinuous path of the Cretan labyrinth (see Chapter XVIII). The inference drawn from this is that our "Troy-towns" and the sports connected with them are in the direct line of descent from this classic game and are therefore a legacy of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Dr. Stukeley, whom we had occasion to mention with reference to the Horncastle maze, suggested that the term Julian's Bower was derived from the name of Iulus, the son of Aeneas, who is described as having taken part in the game. We see, then, that there is a good deal to be said for the claim of a Roman origin.
Assuming for the moment that such was the case, we are faced with some difficulty in accounting for the preservation throughout the intervening ages of a class of earthwork which, without attention, is liable to become effaced in a few decades.
Is it likely that the Britons, after the Roman recall,
would trouble to preserve the playgrounds of their late rulers' children? Is it at all probable that the successive waves of immigrants, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Norse-men, would concern themselves with the maintenance of such alien frivolities?
Is there not a chance that perhaps some of these invaders brought the custom with them?
If we had to rely solely on our own historical records, we should find it extremely difficult to arrive at any conclusion in the matter. Researches of recent decades have, however, rendered it possible to approach the matter from a much wider angle, and, before we attempt any further to inquire into the origin of our own turf mazes, we shall find it necessary to go back very far indeed in the history of European civilisation, and to look at the question of labyrinth origins from another point of view.
Before doing so, however, we will review a development which, in the eyes of the archaeologist an insignificant side-line, is perhaps to many readers a matter of greater interest than anything we have yet dealt with, embracing as it does that type of labyrinth which is familiar to all in the famous Hampton Court specimen.