The Labyrinth between history and mythology

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The etymon of the word ‘labyrinth’ has that particular expressive force that derives from the mixture of myth and reality, legend and history. From the Greek labýrinthos (λαβύρινθος), it is possible to trace the term back to Labrys, a characteristic double-bladed axe of antiquity. This was a weapon of mythical and symbolic power, which identified the rule of the King Minos of Crete and thus the majestic palace of Knossos was also called a labyrinth. During the Minoan period, the palace was more than just a monument; it represented the sacred centre of an entire civilisation that recognised itself in it. The architecture of Knossos was famous for its countless rooms, arranged along a path of intricate tunnels; hence we have the modern conception of the term labyrinth.

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

The myth of the Minotaur

A legend tells that Minos, king of the island of Crete, was not well-liked by his subjects. For this reason, he constantly prayed to Poseidon for sending him a divine sign to prove his royal power. So the god of the sea sent Minos a mighty white bull, under the condition that the animal was sacrificed in his honour. However, the king of Crete, estimating the animal received as a gift to be of great value, sacrificed another one. Poseidon firmly insisted on giving the ruler an exemplary punishment. So Minos’ wife, upon seeing the bull, fell in love with it. As a result of their sexual union, a monster was born, and its name, Minotaur, gives reason to how it was generated, since minos means king, and taurus means bull.

Theseus and the Labyrinth of Knossos

According to the myth, when the Minotaur became an adult, Minos had to imprison him inside an intricate labyrinth in Knossos, so that he could not harm anyone. In fact, the monster was dominated by the bestiality of the animal being, since he possessed the head of a bull and only the body with human features.

Nevertheless, the Minotaur was a royal child and the king was concerned about his survival. So, once the city of Athens was defeated in a battle, Minos forced the losers to send, every nine years, seven maidens and seven boys to feed the monster. But then a hero arose who brought justice: Theseus, prince of Athens, offered to kill the Minotaur to end the slaughter.

By fate, the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, fell in love with him. The princess revealed to Theseus an ingenious stratagem to get out of the labyrinth. Ariadne handed him a ball of thread that, unrolled as he went, could allow him to get back on his feet. Aided by a poisoned sword, Theseus defeated the Minotaur and was able to return home victorious.

Historical background and symbolism of the labyrinth

Since ancient times, the labyrinth symbol has fascinated for its legendary significance, for its reference to human events in which everyone could recognise himself. It was often depicted in a unicursal direction and used as a decoration. Romans, for instance, reproduced it in the floor mosaics. In early Christian times, the symbol of the labyrinth gained new meanings, in accordance with Christian theology. It became a metaphor for the path that man has to take towards God and towards himself, the path of knowledge and conversion for eternal life. 

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San Michele Maggiore in Pavia

During the Middle Ages, the symbolism of the labyrinth spread along pilgrimage and prayer routes. In Italy, numerous examples can be found along the Via Francigena and the Via Micaelica. These include, for instance, the circular artefacts in the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, San Michele Maggiore in Pavia and Alatri. The Medieval representation of the labyrinth reveals a double meaning: a Minotaur sometimes appears within it, while in Alatri the figure of Christ dominates.

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Reconstruction of the Pavia labyrinth, Maurizio Costa (1982)

The dual nature of the human being

This antithetical duality of individuals is still found in the myth, which over the centuries remains and conforms to changing cults and cultures. The Minotaur was a being dominated by bestiality, a metaphor for the human condition. Indeed, the human being is endowed with spirit and intellect, but likewise has an animal nature from which he cannot escape; it is the sin that leads him to the centre of the Labyrinth of Knossos. There is the natural location of the Minotaur: every man is condemned to the prison of his carnal nature, of his primal instincts.

However, salvation can also be found here: in the deepest darkness of the human soul, Christ appears, because he only is responsible for redemption. Who can free man from the slavery of sin, if not Christ, who has defeated death, who has a human and also a divine nature?

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The labyrinth of Alatri

If human beings seek God during their existence, then the labyrinth becomes a path of elevation, where at the centre is no longer the bestiality of the flesh, but salvation in Christ: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’. 

Samuele Corrente Naso

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