published on 02 September 2009
Labyrinth of Knossos ()

The word 'labyrinth’ comes from the Greek 'labyrinthos’ and describes any maze-like structure. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan 'labrys' for 'double axe', the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete.

The most famous labyrinth is found in Greek mythology: Designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Knossos to contain the ferocious Minotaur (a half-man and half-bull monster). Daedelaus' labyrinth was so complex that he, himself, could barely navigate it and, having successfully done so, Minos imprisoned him and his son, Icarus, in a high tower to prevent him from ever revealing the secret of the maze. In one of the most famous Greek myths, Daedelus and Icarus escape using the feathers of birds bound together by wax to form wings and fly from the tower. Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax of his wings and falling into the sea, was drowned. Another Greek myth relates that the Minotaur was killed by Prince Theseus of Athens with the help of Minos' daughter Ariadne and the labyrinth is supposed to have fallen out of use afterwards. The archaeologist Arthur Evans uncovered the labyrinth at Knossos,Crete in his excavations early in the 20th century and the myth of the Minotaur in the labyrinth was explained by the Minoan sport of bull jumping (shown in frescoes on the walls) in which, by grabbing the bull's horns and leaping back over the animal, man and bull appeared to be one creature.

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The other famed labyrinth of antiquity was the Egyptian temple precinct of a pyramid complex of many courts, built at Hawara by Amenemhet III of the 12th Dynasty (c.1860-1815 BCE). There were twelve separate courts of considerable size all facing one another throughout this labyrinth and all connected by corridors and colonnades and shafts. Criss-crossing alleys and false doors sealed by stone plugs all protected the central burial chamber of the pyramid of the king. This chamber is said to have been cut from a single block of granite and to have weighed 110 tons.

Labyrinth, Knossos Silver Tetradrachm

The labyrinth at Hawara was described by the historian Herodotus, who claimed it rivaled any of the ancient wonders of the world of the time:

The upper chambers I saw with my own eyes, and found them to excel all other human productions; for the passages through the houses, and the varied windings of the paths across the courts excited in me infinite admiration as I passed from the courts into chambers, and from the chambers into colonnades, and from the colonnades into fresh houses, and again from these into courts unseen before.” The historian Strabo described it as “a great palace composed of many palaces.

The great labyrinth of Egypt fell into decay at some unknown point and was dismantled and the parts used in other building projects. So great was the site as a source of building materials that a small town grew up around the ruins. Nothing remains of this great architectural wonder today save the ravaged pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawara by the oasis of Faiyum.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2009, September 02). Labyrinth. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Labyrinth." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 02, 2009.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Labyrinth." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 25 Feb 2018.

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