The earliest known written account of the existence of labyrinths appears in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus in approximately 450 B.C.E. He describes a great labyrinth located in Egypt at the ancient site of Arsinoe on the eastern bank of a large body of water, Lake Moeris. The labyrinth was constructed in the style of a great compartmental palace with 3000 different chambers, 1500 of which were above ground and 1500 were below ground. The foundation was approximately 1000 feet long x 800 feet long. It was built by Amenemhe III in the twelfth dynasty of the Old Kingdom in approximately 2300 B.C.E. Herodotus claimed that its primary intent was for sepulchral purposes, and many kings were buried there. Pliny The Elder, a great Roman historian, also verifies Herodotus' account in his writings on the four famous labyrinths of antiquity in approximately 50 C.E. The remains of city of Arsinoe have been excavated, but a great labyrinth to the extent of Herodotus' description has never been found.
Scholars are in agreement that maze culture clearly originated in Egypt. The work of one in particular, C.N. Deedes, has led to many interesting theories. The remains of many palace seals have been unearthed, the earliest of which has been dated around 3000 B.C.E. These seals contain a variety of labyrinthine symbols. Deedes believes these seals are sepulchral in nature, and many of them represent the plans of the royal tombs themselves. These seals became more complex as time went on, and Deedes believes this is due to the increasing complexity of the royal tombs. He also believes that the labyrinth was created due to the advent of graverobbing. As graverobbers became more skilled so did the complexity of both the tombs and the seals. The culmination of this technology must have been this great labyrinth at Arsinoe. Professor Flinders Petrie did extensive excavation of the city of Arsinoe in 1888, but as fantastic a site that Herodotus describes was not found. Petrie found only a great bed of fragments which he believes is surely the labyrinth. The body of Amenehe III was unearthed corroborating Herodotus' prose. A sufficient quantity of the original foundation was found which allowed it to be measured at 1000 feet X 800 feet which is exactly the dimension quoted by Herodotus! The labyrinthine qualities of this structure could not be determined as alterations and demolition over the years prevented such. Lake Moeris has never been discovered either, but scholars think Herodotus probably tells a fantastic account of the massive, periodic flooding of the Nile river.
The second great labyrinth mentioned by Pliny The Elder is that of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. Many other ancient writers such as Plutarch and Bacchylides corroborate Pliny's account, but strangely Herodotus never mentions it in his history. Every school child is familiar with this story of Theseus and the Minotaur from their ancient history course. Crete was ruled by King Minos, and his palace had a giant labyrinth as the foundation that no one had ever emerged from. The palace was built by Daedalus, a brilliant Greek architect that Minos had captured. Pliny says that there is no doubt that Daedalus took the pattern for the labyrinth from the temple of Amenehe 3. There is well known cultural communication between Crete and Egypt, and Daedalus is said to have spent much time in Egypt. A creature called the Minotaur that was half man and half bull roamed the labyrinth. The King had had a son, Androgeos, and who during his travels in Attica was killed. Minos became infuriated by this and exacted upon the Greeks a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to be handed over every nine years as retribution. Minos was the most powerful maritime ruler in the Mediterraen at the time so the Athenian king, Aegeus, was powerless to resist. Aegeus had an estranged son, Theseus, who upon hearing of this tribute insisted upon being one of the fourteen. The Greeks were to be thrown into the labyrinth and sacrificed to the Minotaur upon their arrival in Crete. Theseus struck the eye of Minos' daughter, Ariadne, upon entering the palace of Knossos. Ariadne immediately fell in love with the handsome Greek youth, and she decided to help him out. She gave Theseus a sword and the end of a giant ball of string right before he was thrust into the labyrinth. She waited at the entrance to the maze holding the ball of string as it unwound. Theseus roamed the labyrinth in search of the Minotaur. He came upon him and slew him with the sword thus saving the lives of many future Greek youngsters. Theseus then followed the string back to the entrance, and leapt into the awaiting arms of Ariadne. Theseus escaped Crete with Ariadne and eventually abandoned her in the isle of Naxos. The ancient city of Knossos was found in the late nineteenth century, but unfortunately little evidence of a massive labyrinthine structure was.
The city of Knossos was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans starting in 1900 C.E. He found a five-acre marvelous palace laden with frescoes, artifacts, and inscriptions. The oldest of the remains dated around 3000 B.C.E. Among these artifacts were many coins with small, labyrinthine structures on the faces. Evans equates the construction of the grand palace with an approximate date of 1900 B.C.E. The scholar, W.H. Matthews, speaks about the palace design at some length, "The palace was certainly of sufficient complexity to render it difficult for the uninitiated to find their way about it, but the plan of it bears no resemblance to a designed labyrinth of the conventional type." Evans also discovered two large pits underneath the palace whose purpose was unclear. The notion that huge dungeons from which there was no escape existed underneath the palace was first propounded by the Greek historian Philochorus in around 280 B.C.E. The existence of these dungeons is definitely a starting point for the myth of the labyrinth. Evans also found abundant evidence of a massive earthquake occuring about 1600 B.C.E on the island. There was also a series of three steps located about thirty feet beneath the surface of the palace. No further downward excavation at the base of these steps was possible. Writing on nearby walls warned that a great beast lived there. Evans spoke of this and said, "But here, perhaps... it is better for imagination to draw rein." There was also a curious symbol that kept turning up carved into many of the palace structures and in pure artifact form as well. The symbol was that of a double axe. This double axe is called labrys by the Greeks, and this is clearly the etymology of our modern word labyrinth. The double axe is widely associated with the Greek Goddess, Rhea, in Greek lore. Rhea is the goddess of the earth, and she is also well known as being connected with caves. The Cretan mainland is also speckled with caves which must have had cultural influence on Minoan civilization.
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