Taking a Different Kind of Walk: the maze in history

Although restrictions on going out for a walk have been relaxed somewhat, must of us won’t be able to visit a maze. But when, in the future, the opportunity arises, a maze is a great way to spend an afternoon.

What is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth?

The first mazes weren’t actually mazes but labyrinths, with a single winding path rather than lots of dead ends, which lead the walker from the start to the centre. As such, they’re described as unicursal (a one-way route) compared with the multicursal maze, which provides more of a puzzle for visitors to solve.

A unicursal Classical style labyrinth

The most ancient and widespread form of the labyrinth, known as the Classical type has seven rings, although today we see many variations on that form and many different types of mazes. Labyrinth designs were seen on pottery as early as around 1300 BC.

And, in the 5th century BC, Herodotus,  the Greek historian visited an an Egyptian labyrinth. ‘All the works and buildings of the Greeks put together would certainly be inferior to this labyrinth as regards labour and expense.’

The labyrinth symbol was popular with the Romans, and the labyrinth symbol  was often seen on their streets or above their doors. Roman labyrinths were more complex than the Classical type and were designed to please the eye. After the fall of the Roman Empire many labyrinths took on more religious significance, becoming, for example, a path through the challenges of life to death and then salvation. One well known example is the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, built in the thirteenth century.

From Chartres Cathedral. Photo taken by Maksim,(amended)

In Britain, the earliest labyrinths were probably of the seven-ring Classical design, either as stone-lined paths or cut in turf but such labyrinths are easily damaged and therefore weren’t easy to date. The oldest datable labyrinths are of Roman mosaic – around fifty have been found from 100 BC to 400 AD, six of which are in this country. Turf mazes were still in use in Shakespeare’s time as can be seen in this extract from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

‘The nine-men’s-morris is fill’d up with mud.
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.’

Early mazes often had royal connections. According to one legend, Henry II kept his woman, Rosamund Clifford (the Fair Rosamund) in a barriered labyrinth at Woodstock Park. When Queen Eleanor (of Aquitaine) finally located her, she offered her a choice between a dagger and poison (not much of a choice really…). Rosamund took the poison and died, and according to the legend, the king never smiled again.  Such stories, of course, make history more interesting. Today, the site is marked by a well and fountain at Blenheim Palace.

Map of Blenheim Palace grounds, 1835

More recently, mazes have been seen as a source of enjoyment or entertainment. The well-known hedge maze at Hampton Court has inspired many other hedge mazes and when the Italianate style of gardening became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, gardens often included a maze.

Bridge End Garden, Saffron Walden

Hedge mazes were also created in public parks and gardens in the Victorian era: examples include the Crystal Palace, Saltwell Park Gateshead and Vauxhall Gardens in London.

The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens by Canaletto, circa 1751 (before the maze)

Today we also see labyrinths and mazes in schools and health centres and the maze has become a part of popular culture. When Stephen King wrote The Shining, the location was based on a hotel he’d visited. The book didn’t include a maze, unlike the film which followed. The hotel didn’t have a maze either. Until they created one.

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