Curious Questions: What’s the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?

You may never have thought to ponder what distinguishes a labyrinth from a maze. But as Martin Fone explains, it's something of a minefield.

In case it has escaped your notice, Saturday May 6th is World Labyrinth Day, an opportunity to celebrate these complex, often maddening marriages of geometry, architecture, and horticulture. According to Labyrinths in Britain, there are around five hundred labyrinths and mazes around the United Kingdom, each of which they have lovingly recorded on an interactive map. They do not claim the list to be exhaustive and welcome details of any egregious omissions.

The map’s preface makes clear that the distinction between labyrinths and mazes is a sensitive subject for those who care, one into which the unwary wander at their peril. The group agonised over whether their map should include mazes, finally deciding it should because of their similar lineages and many crossovers in design.

To the purist the distinction between the two is perfectly straightforward: a labyrinth is ‘unicursal’, having just one path that leads you from the entrance to the centre, no matter how windy its passages are. A maze, though, is ‘multicursal’, with several paths, most of which lead to dead ends and, usually, only one which takes you to the centre. Mazes test the explorer’s ability to solve problems, while a labyrinth lends itself to a slow, contemplative meander.

Terminological inexactitude bedevils much of the literature surrounding labyrinths and mazes and that is not surprising. Labyrinth is much the older word, first found on a clay tablet from 1400 BC in Knossos which bore the legend ‘one jar of honey to all the gods, one jar of honey to the Mistress of the Labyrinth’, and passed via Greek and Latin into most European languages.

Maze, derived from the Middle English ‘maes’ meaning delirium or delusion, dates from the 13th century and probably emerged to help distinguish multicursal labyrinths from unicursal. Today the two terms are used interchangeably, other than amongst the cognoscenti; it’s a trend likely to continue as, adjectivally, labyrinthine is more expressive of intricacy and confusion than the more anodyne mazy.

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Labyrinths and mazes have fascinated mankind for millennia, with early examples found throughout Europe, in North Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Indonesia, the American southwest and, occasionally, South America. Until the early centuries BC the principal design was a single pathway that looped backwards and forwards to complete seven circuits of diminishing size, bounded by eight walls that guarded the central point or goal.

One of the greatest labyrinths in the ancient world, the Egyptian labyrinth, situated just above Lake Moeris and opposite Crocodopolis, so impressed Herodotus that he wrote in was one of the most impressive labyrinths of the ancient world. Herodotus was so taken by the Egyptian labyrinth that he ‘found it greater than words could tell’, opining that ‘all the works and buildings of the Greeks put together would certainly be inferior to this labyrinth as regards labour and expense’ (Histories Book 2). Little remains now but the foundations, one thousand feet long and 800 wide, bear testimony to the size, if not the splendour, of the structure.

As Geoffrey Chaucer related in The Legend of Good Women, Theseus was able to penetrate the recesses of the labyrinth at Knossos, slay the fearsome Minotaur, and return safely back to the arms of Ariadne by laying down and following ‘a clewe of twyn as he hath gon/ the same weye he may returne a-non/ ffolwynge alwey the thred as he hath come’. A clew was a ball of yarn, from which the sense of a clue as a figurative unravelling of enigmatic information was derived.

The Theseus myth is not without enigmas of its own: if it was truly a labyrinth, why did Theseus need help to get out and how was the Minotaur kept in the centre? Archaeology is unable to assist as no remains of a labyrinth-like structure have been found in Knossos, even though the city capitalised upon its mythological status by issuing coinage bearing its labyrinthine image in the fourth and third centuries BC.

An Escher labyrinth made real? The step well at Amber Fort — or Amer Fort — in Jaipur, India.

Early and mediaeval Christians adopted two-dimensional labyrinths in their iconography, usually in the form of wall or floor decorations, the oldest known, at the Basilica of Reparatus in Orleansville in Algeria, dating from the 4th century AD. Their purpose is unclear, some suggesting that they depict the twists and turns that beset the Christian life, others that they map out a penitential journey that could be undertaken by genuflecting in one’s own church.

Labyrinths were especially popular features during the church building boom of the 13th century in France and Italy, a fashion not followed in England, the only examples from the period being the tiny labyrinth symbol on the Mappa Mundi and the gilded roof boss at St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol. Most labyrinths found in churches in southern and eastern England date to the late 19th century, although there has been a recent wave of new constructions, for example at Norwich and Wakefield cathedrals, in 1985 and 2013 respectively.

A familiar sight in or just outside late mediaeval British villages was a turf maze. Cut about six inches into the turf and ranging from twenty-five to just over 80 feet in diameter, the path was traditionally a mile long. They had a long legacy, Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis historia warning his readers not to compare the Egyptian labyrinth with ‘the mazes formed in the fields for the entertainment of children’. Colloquially, they were known as ‘mizmazes’ or ‘Troy town’, an allusion to the legend that Troy was fortified with seven walls arranged as a maze, or ‘Shepherd’s Race’, echoing a reference in Theophilus Evans’ Drych y Prif Oesedd (1740) to shepherds cutting turf into the shape of a labyrinth.

Hedge mazes, a natural development from the rustic turf maze, were first constructed in the 16th century. Initially, they were not intended to confuse, consisting simply of a unicursal path that meandered along low hedges made of evergreen herbs or dwarf box. Puzzle hedge mazes with their fiendish multicursal path design, dead ends, and hedges taller than eye-level, were introduced in the late 17th century. The oldest surviving example is to be found in Hampton Court, planted for William of Orange in 1690 using hornbeam and containing half a mile of paths. Replacing an earlier maze, it was boxed in by pre-existing paths which gives its peculiar trapezoid shape.

Hedge mazes continued to be a feature of the fashionable English garden well into the 18th century, the wonderfully named Batty Langley including several designs for them in his New Principles of Gardening (1728). Over time, though, new gardening styles, not least the trend towards more ‘naturalistic’ designs, coupled with the sheer cost of maintaining them, led to many being rooted out and ploughed over. What remain today are a fraction of the number of mazes in Britain in the early 18th century.

Nevertheless, they are still being constructed. The hedge maze at Longleat in Wiltshire, consisting of more than 16,000 English yew trees and with over a mile and a half of pathways, eventually leading to the central observation tower, it is the biggest in Britain. It was only added to the estate in 1978.

The maze at Longleat, Wiltshire. No using this picture to cheat…

Whatever we call them, we should celebrate their long historical legacy, their architectural and geometric complexity, and the fun they give. Vivant labyrinths and mazes!

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