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p664 Labyrinthus

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp664‑665 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LABYRINTHUS (λαβύρινθος). This word appears to be of Greek origin, and not of Egyptian as has generally been supposed; it is probably a derivative form of λάβιρος, and etymologically connected with λαῦραι. Accordingly, the proper definition of labyrinth is a large and complicated subterraneous cavern with numerous and intricate passages, similar to those of a mine (Welcker, Aeschyl. Trilog. p212, &c.). Hence the caverns near Nauplia in Argolis were called labyrinths (Strabo, VIII.6 p369). And this is indeed the characteristic feature of all the structures to which the ancients apply the name labyrinth, for they are always described as either entirely or partially under ground.

The earliest and most renowned labyrinth was that of Egypt, which lay beyond lake Moeris, at a short distance from the city of Crocodiles (Arsinoë), in the province now called Faioum. Herodotus (II.148) ascribes its construction to the dodecarchs (about 650 B.C.), and Mela (I.9) to Psammetichus alone. But other and more probable accounts refer its construction to a much earlier age (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.13; Diod. Sic. I.61, 89; Strabo, XVII p811). This edifice, which in grandeur excelled even the pyramids, is described by Herodotus and Pliny (ll.cc.) It had 3000 apartments, 1500 under ground, and the same number above it, and the whole was surrounded by a wall. it was divided into courts, each of which was surrounded by colonnades of white marble. At the time of Diodorus and of Pliny the Egyptian labyrinth was still extant. But the ruins which modern travellers describe as relics of the ancient labyrinth, as well as the place where they saw them, do not agree with what we know from the best ancient authorities respecting its architecture and its site (British Mus. Egyptian Antiq. vol. I p54, and more especially Bunsen, Aegyptens Stelle in der Weltgesch. vol. II p324, &c.). The purpose which this labyrinth was intended to serve, can only be matter of conjecture. It has been supposed by some writers that the whole arrangement of the edifice was a symbolical representation of the zodiac and the solar system. Herodotus, who saw the upper part of this labyrinth, and went through it, was not permitted by the keepers to enter the subterranean part, and he was told by them that here were buried the kings by whom the labyrinth had been built, and the sacred crocodiles.

The second labyrinth mentioned by the ancients was that of Crete, in the neighbourhood of Cnossus: Daedalus was said to have built it after the model of the Egyptian, and at the command of king Minos (Plin. Diod. ll.cc.). This labyrinth is said to have been only one hundredth part the size of the Egyptian, and to have been the habitation of the monster Minotaurus. Although the Cretan labyrinth is very frequently mentioned by ancient authors, yet none of them speaks of it as an eyewitness; and Diodorus and Pliny expressly state that not a trace of it was to be seen in their days. These circumstances, together with the impossibility of accounting for the objects which a Cretan king could have had in view in raising such a building, have induced almost all modern writers to deny altogether the existence of the Cretan labyrinth. This opinion is not only supported by some testimonies of the ancients themselves, but by the peculiar nature of some parts of the island of Crete. The author of the Etymologicum Magn. calls the Cretan labyrinth "a mountain with a cavern," and Eustathius (ad Odyss. XI p1688) calls it "a subterraneous cavern;" and similar statements are made by several other writers quoted by Meursius (Creta, pp67 and 69). Such large caverns actually exist in some parts of Crete, especially in the neighbourhood of Cnossus that gave rise to the story of a labyrinth built in the reign of Minos (see Walpole's Travels, p402, &c.; Höckh, Kreta, I p56, &c., and p447, &c.).

A third labyrinth, the construction of which belongs to a more historical age, was that in the island of Lemnos, It was commenced by Smilis, an Aeginetan architect, and completed by Rhoecus and Diodorus of Samos, about the time of the first Olympiadº (Plin. l.c.). It was in its construction similar to the Egyptian, and was only distinguished from it by a greater number of columns. Remains of it were still extant in the time of Pliny. It is uncertain whether this labyrinth was intended as a temple of the Cabeiri, or whether it had any connection with the art of mining (Welcker, Aeschyl. Tril. l.c.)

Samos had likewise a labyrinth, which was built by Theodorus, the same who assisted in building that of Lemnos; but no particulars are known (Plin. H. N. XXXIV.83).º

Lastly, we have to mention a fabulous edifice in Etruria, to which Pliny applies the name of labyrinth. It is described as being in the neighbourhood of Clusium, and as the tomb of Lar Porsena. But no writer says that he ever saw it, or remains of it; and Pliny, who thought the description which p665he found of it too fabulous, did not venture to give it in his own words, but quoted those of Varro, who had probably taken the account from the popular stories of the Etruscans themselves. It was said to have been built partly under and partly above ground, whence the name labyrinth is correctly applied to it. But a building like this, says Niebuhr (History of Rome, vol. I p130, note 405), is absolutely impossible, and belongs to the Arabian Nights (comp. Abeken, Mittelitalien, p243).a


Thayer's Note:

a Opinions have diverged widely. For my part, I believe that the labyrinth existed; it may well have been the tomb complex at Poggio Gajella, for a first approach to which the student can see Chapter 52 of George Dennis's Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, which includes detailed coverage of the site and the entire labyrinth question, with a plan. Also, an underground complex under the principal church in the modern upper town of Chiusi is locally proposed as an alternate candidate: I regret very much that in my one brief visit of Chiusi I was unable to see it for myself, and therefore I haven't yet looked into the question; something on my to‑do list for my next trip to Italy.


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