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The quest for the Cretan labyrinth

The Minoan civilisation of Crete is seen as the birthplace of the labyrinth, said to hold the monstrous Minotaur. But despite extensive excavations on the island, where is the labyrinth?

Philip Coppens

One of the most famous myths is that of the Cretan labyrinth. The phenomenal structure was said to be designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, to keep the Minotaur – a creature that was part bull, part man – captive.
The story as to how the Minotaur came about relates that Minos had to sacrifice a specific bull, but instead substituted it with another animal. This displeased the god Poseidon, who instilled an urge in Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to mate with a bull. She had Daedalus fashion a model of a cow in which he concealed Queen Pasiphae, so that she could satisfy her love for the bull. Alas, of their union was born a monster, the Minotaur, for which Daedalus had to construct the labyrinth.
Subsequently, wars between Athens and Crete broke out, which resulted in the defeat of Athens. The Athenians thus were forced to send seven men and women to Crete every year, which were sacrificed to the Minotaur. Over time, however, this caused great resentment and expeditions were mounted by the Athenians to try and destroy this monster, so that the sacrifices could end. In time, the Greek hero Theseus challenged to kill the creature. He found his way through the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter. Ever since, the story of Theseus and Ariadne has inspired thousands of people and was depicted numerous times in many of the labyrinths that were installed in the Gothic cathedrals, including that of Chartres.

Is the story of the Cretan labyrinth purely a myth, or rooted in history? After Heinrich Schliemann had convinced the world that the legendary city of Troy had existed by a series of excavations that seemed to prove its reality, the question was whether the Cretan labyrinth too was fact. The man who tried to prove as such was the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, who began excavations at the Palace of Knossos, just south of the Cretan capital of Iraklion.
Indeed, the site of the Cretan labyrinth is assumed to be Knossos, and specifically the Palace of Knossos, though there is no hard evidence for this conclusion. Indeed, the structure does not adhere to the design of a proper labyrinth, which is that of a unicursal path leading towards the centre of – mostly – concentric circles. The Palace of Knossos is anything but. Indeed, Evans pushed the identification through on the notion that the extraordinary amount of chambers and corridors that made up the Palace made it a labyrinthine structure.

Technically, the Palace is therefore not a labyrinth – though Evans himself was not the one who forced the evidence. The earliest reference to a labyrinth was Egyptian in origin and appears in the 5th century by Herodotus, describing the Egyptian labyrinth. The link between that structure and Crete was done in the following centuries by Diodorus and Pliny, who stated that Daidalos had learned of the labyrinth design in Egypt. Indeed, some researchers posit that the very word “labyrinth” originates from lapi-ro-hun-t, or “Temple on the Mouth of the Sea” – which is Egyptian.
It was the American journalist W. J. Stillman, a former American consul in Crete, who in the 18th century reintroduced the notion that Knossos might be the Labyrinth of Greek mythology. His articles were widely read and even inspired Schliemann to venture to Crete, to dig at Knossos. Crete was at the time under Turkish control and all attempts to excavate were denied, which is why it was Arthur Evans, with a new political regime in place, who was able to start excavations.

The inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth was said to be built at Medinet el Fayum, ca. 1800 BC, under Pharaoh Amenemhet III (12th Dynasty). This Egyptian “labyrinth” at Hawara was actually a temple of the dead and is a vast array of rooms, set on several floors, so that one could easily get lost. As such, it is indeed on par with the Palace of Knossos. Indeed, both were possibly temples of the dead and labyrinths were specifically identified as structures from which the dead could not escape.
Though the chief focus for Knossos being the labyrinth has been the amount of rooms within the palace, some have observed that the access routes to Knossos had several bends – never is there a straight line in approaching the Palace. This is more important than it might appear to be at first. Spirits were said to be able to travel only in straight lines; as such, bends – like those for entering Knossos – guaranteed that spirits could not enter or leave such constructions. Seeing that the palaces of Crete were likely linked with a cult of the dead, this is a significant observation to make.

The Palace of Knossos thus shares similarities with the design of the Egyptian labyrinth. But is the Palace truly a labyrinth? Or “the” Daidalos Labyrinth? The answer is both yes… and no.
It is a matter of fact that so far, a “genuine labyrinth” has not been found at Knossos. Indeed, a quarry near Gortyn has better credentials for holding a genuine labyrinth. In the 17th century, W. Lithgow, writing “The Totall Discourse”, was shown the entrance to the so-called “Daidalos Labyrinth”, which was not the palace at Knossos as such, but the quarry near Gortyn.
This is largely where the story remained until 2009, when an Anglo-Greek team of scholars led by Nicholas Howarth, an Oxford University geographer, undertook an expedition to the Gortyn caves, which are known locally as the Labyrinthos Caves. They consist of about two and half miles of interlocking tunnels with widened chambers and dead-end rooms and are therefore far more on par with a labyrinth – or at least a maze – than what the Palace at Knossos had to offer.

Gortyn is of further interest as the site is connected with one of the most important events in Greek mythology. It was beneath a plane tree beside a brook at Gortyn that the sacred marriage between Zeus and Europe was contracted. He was the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon and she was of course the deity that would give her name to a continent. From their union, Minos himself was born. The tree was blessed and never lost it leaves thereafter – thus becoming evergreen.
Their son Minos is said to have founded Knossos, Phaistos and Kydonia, though archaeologists have identified two other main “palace complexes” on the island: Malia and Kata Zakros. There is therefore an interesting overlay between the mythology and the archaeology on the island.

All four of the main Minoan palaces are very similar in appearance. One far less visited and far less reconstructed palace than Knossos is Malia. The site itself was mentioned by Homer, as Odysseus tried to land on the beach at Malia on his way to Troy, but winds drove him to the narrow bay of Amnissos.
As mentioned, the “standard” layout of a labyrinth is a unicursal path leading to a centre, where communion with God and/or the spirits could occur. Communion with the deceased, it seems, might indeed be the primary purpose of these palaces.
When looking at the palaces, it becomes clear that all palaces have a central courtyard. As at Knossos, Malia has a self-contained apartment at the north end of the west side of the court, with a fine stone-pave Loggia in the centre, namely the Throne Room. Near it, in the central court, was a large stone sphere, a betyl, or sacred stone – an omphalos stone.
The Throne Room is traditionally interpreted as the site where the king sat in audience, though it is far likelier that this was the site where a mummy was placed during certain funerary rituals. But could it also be an oracular site and could the throne have been the site of a Pythia? For the original oracles were nothing more – or less – than places where communion with the dead occurred. Seeing that these Palaces were temples of the dead, where better to install an oracle?

Though there is little evidence to suggest this might be another use of these palaces, the presence of a libation bowl in front of the “throne” is an important detail that few have fully appreciated. The bowl was actually made of porphyry, which was imported from Egypt. But more importantly, libation bowls were used for scrying: the person using it, had visions induced. And the likeliest position for this person to be, was seated, on the “throne”, and was of course an oracle.
The final destination for those entering the palace seems to have been the just-mentioned Throne Room, which could not be reached from the interior of the building, but only from the central courtyard. Furthermore, the room only received indirect sunlight. Inside, several steps lead to a basin-like depression below the light shaft itself, which some argue is for bathing, others believe is a snake pit or an imitation of a Cretan cave sanctuary. Seeing the floor is laid with gypsum flags, it is unlikely it contained water. In design, this room therefore has further parallels with the chambers in which the oracle prophesised.

Though the palace complexes do not adhere to the standard text-book definition of a labyrinth, fact of the matter is that there is a labyrinthine-like access to the palace, and that in its inner sanctuary, communion with the deities occurred.
When we look at Knossos, we find that part of its access system is the “Sacred Way”, which is actually the oldest road in Europe. Also known as the Royal Road, it connected the Little Palace to the main complex of Knossos. Running east-west, it enters Knossos at the Western entrance, ending in a small theatre.
A bull head was found in the Little Palace, which is thought to have been used for ceremonies. There were openings in the top and the bottom and the head was said to be filled with oil or wine, which would then spill on the road of the procession. It is known that at Greek oracular sites, the visitor was prepared for his visit to the Oracle. Does Knossos reveal how this preparation occurred a millennium if not more before the popular Greek oracle sites such as Delphi? And what to make of the fact that the bull played such an important role in Knossos, and in the story of the Labyrinth?

In hindsight, it seems that the term labyrinth was applied to two distinct structures. One was a design, unicursal and concentric, while the other was a structure. Both, however, were linked with the spirits of the deceased, and it is likely that some confusion arose over time, leading to the current problems in identifying the “real” Cretan labyrinth. However, if the Palace of Knossos was indeed the residence of the infamous Minotaur, than its cell is still to be discovered, or identified. Until that moment in time, speculation and discussion will continue. Rightfully so…