08 January 2015

A labyrinth is not the same as a maze

You learn something every day.  At least I do, researching and writing this blog.  For the past 5-6 decades I have interchangeably used the words "labyrinth" and "maze."  After recently re-watching The Name of the Rose, and doing a quick search, I find that a distinction can be made between the terms:
In colloquial English, labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two: maze refers to a complex branching (multicursal) puzzle with choices of path and direction; while a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single path to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not difficult to navigate.

Although early Cretan coins occasionally exhibit multicursal patterns, the unicursal seven-course "Classical" design became associated with the Labyrinth on coins as early as 430 BC, and became widely used to represent the Labyrinth – even though both logic and literary descriptions make it clear that the Minotaur was trapped in a complex branching maze. Even as the designs became more elaborate, visual depictions of the Labyrinth from Roman times until the Renaissance are almost invariably unicursal. Branching mazes were reintroduced only when garden mazes became popular during the Renaissance.

There are examples of labyrinths in many disparate cultures. The symbol has appeared in various forms and media (petroglyphs, classic-form, medieval-form, pavement, turf, and basketry) at some time throughout most parts of the world, from Native North and South America to Australia, Java, India, and Nepal.

One can think of labyrinths as symbolic of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Many people could not afford to travel to holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Later, the religious significance of labyrinths faded, and they served primarily for entertainment, though recently their spiritual aspect has seen a resurgence.

Many newly made labyrinths exist today, in churches and parks. Modern mystics use labyrinths to help them achieve a contemplative state.[citation needed] Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind. The Labyrinth Society provides a locator for modern labyrinths all over the world. [below: the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral].


  1. Well, the two terms might have different meanings in modern English, but throughout the centuries (even in the 19th century, see here) they were just synonyms for each other. As Paolo Santarcangeli points out in his great Il Libro dei Labirinti (1984), in the Middle Ages the figure of the labyrinth reached the British Isles sooner than its Greek name, so the old English word “maze” (bewilderment) was applied to it. After the Renaissance also brought the other term, the two were used for it without any distinction.

  2. I suppose the distinction is for scientific purposes (on mathematics, etc). In portuguese we use "labirinto" and "dédalo" (after Dedalus, the mythical inventor of the Minotaur's labyrinth).


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