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The Labyrinth between history and mythology

The term “labyrinth” certainly comes from the Greek labýrinthos (λαβύρινθος), also derived from Labrys, a particular axe with a double blade. This weapon symbolized the government of the King of Crete, Minos. Hence, in ancient times the “labyrinth” was considered the majestic palace of Knossos. This building was famous for its countless rooms and complex architecture: from this descends the modern meaning of the term.

 

labyrinth

  Labyrinth engraved on one of the entrance pillars of the Lucca Cathedral.

 

The legend of the Minotaur 

The legend tells that Minos, king of Crete, was not so loved by his citizens. For this reason he prayed Poseidon to send a gift to him, in order to legitimate his scepter. The God of the sea, satisfying his insistent request, send to Minos a strong white bull, with the condition that the animal was sacrificed in his honor. Nonetheless the king of Crete, estimating the big value of the precious white bull, sacrificed another animal. This action caused the anger of Poseidon, who decided to punish Minos. However the king’s wife, after seing the bull, fell in love with the animal. The sexual union between them led to the birth of the Minotaur (minos, king and taurus, bull).

When the Minotaur became an adult, Minos was obliged to close him inside the complex labyrinth of Knossos, so that he would have harmed anyone. In fact, the monster was dominated by the brutality of an animal, since he had a bull head and the body of a man. 

After a while, Minos defeated the city of Athens, which was obliged to send seven young girls and boys each nine years, in order to feed the Minotaur.

The prince of the Ionian city, Theseus, offered to defeat the monster and put an end to that slaughter of human lives. As soon as he had arrived in Crete, the King Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell in love with him and revealed a stratagem to exit the labyrinth. She gave to Theseus a ball of thread that, gradually unrolled, could have allowed him to find his way out of the Labyrinth. By a poisoned sword, Theseus defeated the Minotaur and came back home.

 

Historical background and symbology 

Since ancient times the symbol of the labyrinth, always represented in a unicursal way, has been widely used as a decoration. 

Romans diffusely used it, especially for compositions of floor mosaics. 

More recently, Christians revisited the labyrinth as a symbolism linked to the path that the human being have to fulfill towards God and himself. According to this interpretation, the labyrinth would represent a knowledge and conversion path: it is a synonim of life. 

During the Middle Age the symbolism of the labyrinth was particularly spread, especially along the main pilgrimage routes. In Italy there are many specimens in the main stages of the Via Francigena and the via Micaelica. Representative examples are the circular labyrinths found in the St. Martin’s Lucca Cathedral, San Michele Maggiore in Pavia and Alatri.

It is so interesting the double representation of the symbolism: in the first two specimens the Minotaur is at the center of the labyrinth, instead in the last one we find the figure of Christ. 

 

labyrinth
San Michele Maggiore in Pavia

 

 

Reconstruction of the Pavia labyrinth, Maurizio Costa (1982)

 

The double nature of the human being

Why does a duality of people exist, that seems to be totally contradictory? 

The answer is inside the myth and is well related to the Christian and Christocentric context. The Minotaur was dominated by its brutality, that is a perfect metaphor of the human condition. In fact, man is endowed of spirit and intellect, but at the same time he has an animal nature from which he cannot escape. According to the Christian theology, the temptation and the sin lead to the centre of the insurmountable Knossos Labyrinth. This is the natural condition of the Minotaur: every man is allocated to the prison of his carnality, of his primordial instincts. Who else can free him from this slavery, if not Christ who abolished death and has a human and even divine nature?

 

The labyrinth of Alatri

 

Definetely, man decides his path. If he follows his brutality and enter into a labyrinth he will meet the monster (himself or the evil too). However, if man looks for God, the labyrinth will become a path of elevation. Over here is Christ, the savior, where we can listen to his words: “I am the way and the truth and the life”

 

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

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