Maze and Labyrinth Gardens in History
are an important part of many cultural heritages and mythologies.
Unicursal labyrinths — a labyrinth which consists
of a path which twists and turns, but which has no dead
ends — can be found as rock paintings dating back
thousands of years, while the earliest coin found in the
world has on its face a labyrinth. Mazes also form a rich
part of our history (mazes differ from labyrinths in that
they do have dead ends; a person will get lost within
a maze but never within a labyrinth), and both have influenced
garden design and structure within western culture for
at least a thousand years. Many European countries have
turf and stone labyrinths cut into hillsides that are
thousands of years old, and even Shakespeare mentions
that 'treading the maze' was a well-established folk custom
very idea of labyrinths and mazes incorporates a great
deal of symbolism. They offer the curious a means to become
lost, and then find oneself again. They suggest danger
lurking behind every twist and turn, and redemption for
the true and brave of heart. They represent blindness
and light, temptation and chaos, and satisfaction and
serenity for those who brave the perils of the unknown,
and who win though.
the medieval period many churches incorporated unicursal
labyrinths into their floors — you can still see
them today in some of the larger and older cathedrals.
A man or woman's journey through the labyrinth represented
his or her journey through life towards, hopefully, redemption.
Sometimes people crawled through these labyrinths on their
knees, murmuring prayers, hoping to find at the heart
of the labyrinth a similar redemption as if they had gone
on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In fact, the cathedral floor
labyrinths offered a metaphorical pilgrimage into the
heart of Jerusalem, and its subsequent spiritual redemption,
for those who could not dare or afford the actual physical
in cathedrals, so also in medieval gardens, although the
symbolism in secular gardens was not so high-minded as
that within the cathedrals. There has long been conjecture
that one of the most important ideas associated with labyrinths
is that of fertility (this somewhat allied with the idea
of spiritual rebirth that the Church promoted); the long
winding canal of the unicursal labyrinth, the emergence
from the dark heart into the light of day, clearly has
connotations with giving birth. May-pole dances reflect
the labyrinth and the unwinding into life and birth again
— May dances being not only danced versions of the
labyrinth, but also a spring rite.
It should be noted that
many ancient labyrinthine games were in fact dances,
whether danced on foot by lines of men and women,
or by youths on horseback - modern-day dressage
was founded three thousand years ago in the games
and sports of Aegean horsemen. This became known
as The Troy Game, and the dances had both fertility
and protective qualities to them. They were often
danced in order to secure protection for a city
and its peoples.
the medieval period garden labyrinths became very much
associated with love — they were, after all, the
perfect place for secret dalliances. According to legend,
Henry II built a labyrinth in his garden at Woodstock
to hide his mistress Rosamund from his jealous wife, Eleanor
of Acquitaine – the original 'summerhouse of sin'.
Legend only, for it cannot be substantiated and, after
all, a unicursal labyrinth is not the most perfect of
places to hide a mistress. In France the garden labyrinths
were known as Houses of Daedalus (after the legendary
figure who first constructed a labyrinth in which to hide
the Minotaur). Some of these labyrinths were true garden
hedge labyrinths, others buildings secreted deep within
a garden, still others curious twisting mazes of tunnel
arbors, some were three dimensional, incorporating staircases
leading to upper levels. Whatever shape or form they took,
these labyrinths of love were the perfect place for forbidden
and Jericho are both examples of cities which
were destroyed by 'unwinding their labyrinths'.
In the ancient Aegean cities were often protected
by what was called the Game of Troy —
a protective enchantment woven either by dancers
on foot or by men on horseback (Ariadne's
'thread' is the line of the dance). Troy and
Jericho had their protective labyrinthine
enchantments unwound by warriors circling
their walls and playing music to a set pattern.
the sixteenth century hedge mazes and/or labyrinths were
features of many noble gardens, as also communal gardens.
Hedges could completely obscure the view, or they might
only be waist height, enabling people to see more clearly
where they were going, as also to display fine pieces
of statuary within the twisting paths. Garden mazes or
labyrinths were perfect for a garden – they enabled
people to mix socially (perhaps a little too much, sometimes!),
to have fun, to get some exercise, and to participate
in nature. Some of these maze gardens were enormous –
in one Italian example the most direct route to the heart
of the maze took two miles; if you became lost you travelled
much greater distances.
gardens proliferated during the sixteenth to eighteenth
centuries. They took not only the traditional hedge form,
but could also be incorporated into herbaceous borders.
Their popularity began to decline in the late eighteenth
century, however, and many were removed and destroyed,
or simply allowed to become overgrown masses of hedge
and tree. They were highly labour intensive to maintain,
and authorities often facilitated their removal as maze
gardens, ever the summerhouses of sin, 'served purposes
not permitted in public spaces'.
and unicursal labyrinth gardens continue to be built and
remain popular today, most being found in public parks,
or the few which remain in vast private estate gardens.
While few suburban gardens can incorporate a large maze
garden, it is perfectly possible to build one from pebbles,
stones, pavers or low box hedging. The symbolism of the
labyrinth, of travail and rebirth, of danger and redemption,
is powerful indeed, and a labyrinth can be one of the
finest pieces of design you can incorporate into your
you aware that, when as a child you played hopscotch,
or that when even now you avoid the cracks in
the pavement, you are playing the ancient labyrinthine
Game of Troy — avoiding the monster in the
dark heart of the labyrinth? Both the game and
the superstition date from thousands of years
in our past — they are games of lines, of
not crossing lines, and of avoiding the evil that
lurks for the unwary.
also visit Old London Maps
on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.
© Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd 2006
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