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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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…
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.