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The labyrinth as a universal symbol


In all probability, the word labyrinth is derived from the Greek word labrys, which refers to the two-blazed axe symbol in Cretan culture. The various representations of the myth generally depict the struggle between Theseus and the Minotaur.

Other explanations suggest that the word labyrinth is derived from the expression labrum, i.e., cavity, or laura, an underground passageway.

The labyrinth symbolises the life passage of a person riddled with difficulties and obstacles. It may concurrently refer to the unknown place where people get lost, and lose themselves in a symbolic sense, however, may eventually find themselves, if they manage to find their own and right path. Perhaps this is why there is a mirror in the middle of so many paintings depicting labyrinths.

Labyrinths were the burial sites of ancient Egyptian kings, and, besides their symbolical use similar to that of the Greeks (the underworld, re-birth), they also played a practical role, namely, to lead grave robbers astray.

Besides the Cretan and Egyptian civilisations, the main characteristics of the labyrinth motif equally surface in the Epic of Gilgamesh, namely, obstructed pilgrimages, straying towards the realm of death, fighting monsters or descending to the waters beneath the earth.

Labyrinths are key motifs in the Mediterranean region; however, labyrinths are equally depicted in caves by other civilisations flourishing in the same era as the ones mentioned above, such as on the cave paintings in Val Camonica.

Cave paintings dating back to ancient civilisations reinforce the assumption that the labyrinth symbol is directly connected to worship rituals. Some researchers believe that there is a direct link between fertility rituals and the labyrinth, since certain researchers assert that the winding maze of the labyrinth symbolises a mother’s womb. Others, however, claim that the labyrinth is associated with the basic motifs of the Greek myth and suggest that the labyrinth represents a religious initiation ritual symbolising the transition from the underworld to after-life. The centre of the labyrinth is the symbolic turning point; heading through the centre symbolises the rebirth of the person taking part in the ritual.

In Roman culture, the labyrinth is detached from the world of myths and serves as a decoration. Mosaic labyrinths were above-all wide-spread in the Roman Empire. The most famous one is the house of labyrinths preserved in Pompeii. Contrary to the circular motifs used by the Greeks, the Romans preferred to depict labyrinths in a square; at the same time, they kept the main characters of the labyrinth, generally depicting the struggle of Theseus and the Minotaur in the middle. The collapse of the Roman Empire equally engendered the downfall of labyrinths.

Labyrinths only resurfaced in the 1100s; however, this time, with an entirely new meaning. In medieval Europe, the labyrinth is always a Christian allegory and symbolises meandering in the midst of sins. The multi-faceted Minotaur is no longer present in the middle of the labyrinth, but is instead generally replaced by the devil. From the 12th-13th century on, labyrinths were often painted on the floors of cathedrals everywhere around Europe and devout believers had to go down on their knees to proceed through these sections. From among cathedrals built in France around the 12th century, large-size circular labyrinths can, among others, be found in the Cathedral of Chartres or Amiens, and pilgrims and sinners had to go down on their knees and pray as a sign of penitence to cross these sections. The winding maze of the labyrinth symbolises the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, i.e., the path of a person riddled with difficulties, where truth and salvation can be reached through penitence and prayer.

The labyrinth’s direct reference to religion declines from the 16th century and its primary place of depiction also gradually changes from cathedrals to gardens. Labyrinths made from plants have three typical forms: mazes demarcated by flowers, mazes aligned with small shrubs and maze routes bordered by tall trees. These labyrinths flourish in the 17th century and reach their peak with the park in Versailles designed by Mansard and the labyrinth inside this park. Similarly to Roman culture, labyrinths primarily had an aesthetic function in this particular era.

At the eave of modernity, i.e., from the 18th century, the decorative function of labyrinths was once again set aside and took on a new meaning, above-all, in works of art (Arp, Picasso) or philosophical works (especially in Nietzsche’s philosophy).

Today, various types of labyrinths are a popular attraction in theme and amusement parks (magic mirror, rollercoaster, etc.). Their popularity is rooted in the ancient sensation of wandering, getting lost and finding one’s way out, which, however, in amusements parks today has been tamed to a form of entertainment that can be easily experienced.

The Buda Castle Labyrinth is not a geometrically symmetric maze of tunnels. It is a combination of tunnels and chambers fathomed by nature and the tides of history, where the fundamental sensation of meandering can also be experienced and the original, deeper meaning of labyrinths can equally be discovered.