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Introduction to Mazes and Labyrinths

Intro --- Pre-maze --- Cretan --- Roman --- Chartres --- Turf --- Garden --- Other --- Design --- Lay out --- Designer --- Games

... And found no end, in wand'ring mazes lost - Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608-1674)

What is a maze?

Most people would answer by saying "It's a place with high walls or hedges, where you wander around and get lost." It's a little more complicated than that. Humanity has always enjoyed patterns. Some of the earliest patterns were spirals, either simple ones or double ones where you wound your way into the centre and out again. I think of these as pre-maze patterns. Later the Cretan (or classical) pattern arrived. Everyone agrees that this is a maze, but it has no choices. There is one path winding its way to the centre, without branches. It's really just a complication of a spiral. This type of maze is a unicursal maze. The other strange thing about the Cretan design is that the oldest version is just a doodle on a clay tablet, and it's also found on old coins. That is, it's a pattern that you look at rather than something big that you walk through. Later on, branching mazes were made, of course, and so were mazes big enough to walk, and mazes you could truly get lost in, such as the garden mazes.

So there is a basic division of maze designs, unicursal mazes (without choices) and branching mazes. However, even when a design is chosen, there is also a division between mazes that you look at, which may be very small, and mazes that are big enough for you to travel through. There is also a wide range of materials to make mazes, and only some of them have walls higher than you head, so they hide the future possible turns of the path. You can see that the 'getting lost' mazes are only a small part of all mazes.

One thing that all mazes have in common are a path or paths, and walls. Perhaps 'walls' is rather a strange word to use, since they might be hedges, or pebbles, or grass, or water. Still, that is the first thing that you look for in understanding the design of a maze - what is the path and what is the wall. In the traditional designs, sometimes one is shown by the lines, sometimes the other. In this website, in the designs, I use a red line to show a path and a blue line to show a wall.

Maze or Labyrinth?

Maze and Labyrinth are two words which have been used interchangeably for this type of design throughout English history. Labrys The word Labyrinth probably comes from the word Labrys, a double headed axe. This was a religious symbol of ancient Crete. In the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the Labyrinth was the name of the building where the Minotaur was kept. Anyone who entered wandered lost until eaten by the Minotaur. So Labyrinth was the classical word, the posh word, used by people with knowledge of the myths of Greece. The word Maze doesn't have a clear derivation, but means "confused or dizzy" as well as its conventional meaning. This was the simple word, used by people who didn't understand Greek.

Labyrinth Some people say that the unicursal (or single-pathed) mazes should be called labyrinths, and that "proper" mazes must have choices or branches. As I have just pointed out, this is a modern usage; there used to be no distinction between the different types. Still, you might feel that this is a useful distinction to make. However, I feel that this modern usage got it the wrong way round! The turf mazes of England have always been called that - never labyrinths - and they are unicursal mazes. Even Shakespeare called them so! It seems only polite to carry on calling them the same. Also Theseus definitely got lost in a labyrinth, not a maze, and that must have had choices, or why did he need the thread to stop getting lost? Finally, the word Labyrinth is quite frankly a pain to type and spell, and I like the word Maze. So I will tend to use the word Maze in this website, even though most of it is unicursal mazes rather than branching ones. I will point out whether any given maze is unicursal or branching. In honour of the word Labyrinth, I have designed the maze on the left, which is a unicursal maze, not very interesting to walk, but quite attractive to look at.

The distinctions between different types of maze go back into the past. Pliny was a Roman writer, who wrote an encyclopaedia called Natural History. He says this about mazes:
We must mention also the labyrinths, quite the most abnormal achievement on which man has spent his resources, but by no means a fictitious one, as might well be supposed. One still exists in Egypt. There is no doubt that Daedalus adopted it as the model for the labyrinth built by him in Crete but that he reproduced only a hundredth part of it containing passages that wind, advance and retreat in a bewilderingly intricate manner. It is not just a narrow strip of ground comprising many miles 'walks' or 'rides,' such as we see exemplified in our tessellated floors or in the ceremonial game played by our boys in the Campus Martius but doors are let into the walls at frequent intervals to suggest deceptively the way ahead and to force the visitor to go back upon the very same tracks that he has already followed in his wanderings. This Cretan labyrinth was the next in succession after the Egyptian, and there was a third in Lemnos and a fourth in Italy, all alike being roofed with vaults of carefully worked stone.

This is rather a complicated passage, so here is an explanation. Pliny says there are four puzzle mazes (Egyptian, Crete, Lemnos, Italy). They are buildings. They are different to the unicursal mazes, the "tessellated floors" (Roman mosaics), and "the ceremonial game played by our boys in the Campus Martius". These were called Trojan games and seem from other accounts to have been cavalry exercises. Perhaps the horses were guided by their riders round complicated patterns marked out on the ground, to show horsemanship. There wouldn't be any divergences of paths needed for such an exercise.

There are two words for mazes in English, "maze" and "labyrinth". There are also two words in French: "labyrinthe" and "dédale". Presumably the second word comes from Daedalus, who built the original Labyrinth. I don't know if the two words are used differently. I found the second word in the French version of Asterix, as he is being chased round the streets of Paris. The Romans can't find him because of the maze of streets.

What are mazes for?

There have been many guesses as to what mazes were for. Certainly many people feel the fascination of mazes, especially branching mazes where you can get lost, and there are myths and stories about them from Theseus to the modern day. Unicursal myths are great fun to walk as well, and watching children (who usually run them rather than walking them!) it's interesting that they rarely 'cheat' but follow the path to the centre, even if they could easily hop a wall and get there quicker. The journey itself is important. These mazes seem to persist over time as well. So it's tempting to think that they were always used or thought about in the same way, or that we can think our way back to how our ancestors thought. I am not too sure that we can. I prefer not to know what the mazes are for. In fact, I don't think they are for anything. There they are, and we can use them as we please, for anything, from profound spiritual insight to frivolous fun. Every type of use adds something more to all the ways they have been used in the past, which makes them more interesting, not less. I have given some of the maze myths in this website.

One difference that I have seen is between people who use mazes, and those who design them. It is very simple to design a maze, and reasonable easy to design a good one, so I try to encourage people to try it for themselves. It means that you look at mazes in an entirely different way.

Useful maze websites

Finding mazes

Websites about maze and labyrinths

Specific mazes and labyrinths, and people

Computer mazes

Some branching online mazes for you to solve or make


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