the design may look complicated, but with a little practice a child could scratch it on a wall in seconds: the long arcs to the left and right, the sudden reversals in direction, a path that leads back and forth, inward and outward, until it finally reaches the center. It seems complex, with each side mirroring the other, but you can trace it freehand in the bare earth or on a sandy beach in just the time it takes to drag a stick across the ground. Or you could use a trick, a mnemonic device. Draw a plus sign, and put a dot in each of the four corners. Different people might see this image differently, as basic geometry or a magical device or an emblematic representation of the cross of Christ defended by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Or perhaps it is a compass rose, indicating north, south, east and west as well as the four corners of the earth. Now, starting at the top of the upright arm of the plus sign, draw a curving line to the dot on the left. Then, from the dot on the upper right, draw a curving line to the end of the arm on the left. Continue on around the image—connecting arm to dot, dot to arm—until it is complete, the simplest possible labyrinth.*
The labyrinth design is far older than most of the myths and stories about it that we now remember. An image cut into the wall of a tomb in Sardinia may date back to 2500 b.c. Another, in the Val Camonica, near Brescia on the Italian mainland, may date to 1800 b.c. Some think a labyrinth painted in red on the roof of a small cave near Trapani in Sicily may even have been made in 3000 b.c. And although all these dates can be challenged (as indeed they have been), similar designs are found on Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Spain, Ireland and North Africa and on ancient rock faces in the American Southwest. Sometimes square or rectangular, sometimes round, oval or simply lopsided, the image is always basically the same. Never a simple, elegant spiral sweeping steadily inward, it is always a single meandering path with no branches or dead ends that weaves and circles—usually seven times—before reaching the center. Now usually called the classic, or Cretan, design (from the labyrinth’s later association with the Minotaur legend and with coins imprinted with a similar labyrinth design minted in fourth- and fifth-century b.c. Crete), it is self-contained, complex and built around an undeniable center.
Its meaning is one of our oldest mysteries, but clues to the origins of the labyrinth design can be seen in Neolithic and Bronze Age rock carvings on rugged hillsides throughout Europe. One of the best examples is in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland, at a place called Achnabreck (“Rock of the Host” in Gaelic). It is a cluster of three large, curved outcroppings covered with man-made Stone Age markings. As with the sites of similar markings in northern England and Spain, the setting is spectacular, a high, wooded ridge between the Sound of Jura and Loch Fyne, with the glint of light reflecting off water far in the distance and a steep hillside dropping through stands of trees and open fields to the valley far below. Although visible in full daylight, the carvings are best seen during the hour or so before sunset as the receding light catches the grooves and incisions to cast deepening patterns of shadows. Observers over the centuries have suspected the carving to be a map either of the landscape below or the heavens overhead. The gray rocks are marked with round, hollowed-out depressions the size of halved golf and tennis balls. Archaeologists call them “cups” and most—but not all—are surrounded by concentric circles, or “rings,” often as many as seven of them, just as there are seven circuits to the Cretan labyrinth. There are also targetlike clusters of concentric rings without cups, and many of the cup-and-rings are joined together by straight lines that resemble gutters. Also carved into the rocks are spirals, even double and triple spirals that resemble smaller versions of the much-photographed spirals at Newgrange, the fourth-millennium b.c. passage grave in the Boyne Valley of Ireland.
Four or five millennia after the fact, it is impossible for us to know what those seemingly random designs may have meant to their carvers. But this—luckily—has not stopped anyone from trying to guess. Over the years the map theories have been the most popular, partially because the same images appear on outcroppings hundreds, even thousands of miles apart, as though Neolithic travelers had common symbols to guide them from place to place or to orient them under the stars. One of the earliest nineteenth-century theories was that the cup-and-rings were models of the circular hill forts that stood close by many of the carvings. Other suggestions have been that they were molds for making weapons and artifacts, or that they were grooves in which sticks were placed to ground tents or larger structures, or that they were primitive artistic expressions or “Kilroy Was Here” signatures. A particularly melodramatic theory—and one that reflects the popular notion that our ancestors were very gory folk indeed—was that the outcroppings marked sacrificial sites and that the cups, rings and spirals were to catch and display blood, even though most sites slope far too much to hold blood—or support tents—for long.
Alexander Thom has contributed much to modern understanding of Stone Age archaeology, astronomy and architecture with his contention that the builders of Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments used a basic unit of measure called the megalithic yard (2.72 feet). His calculations show that straight lines in many of these carvings can be sighted along to make astronomical observations. In fact, he suggested that the carved spirals might encode information on the proper astronomic use of standing stones and circles. But, then, Professor Thom’s critics have noted his uncanny ability to line up just about any megalithic site with something in the night sky.
Whatever their purpose or meaning, circles and spirals were clearly the basic elements of these early inscriptions. Throughout history (and before), circles and spirals have been attributed considerable power, be it in geometry, theology or magic. The circle, without beginning or end, has symbolized infinity or perfection in many cultures, and the spiral—a coiled serpent that renews itself by shedding its skin—has been a common and reoccurring sign of rebirth and regeneration. A vivid representation of the link between spiral and snake can be seen in a petroglyph at Gila Bend, Arizona. Much of the carving would not look out of place at Achnabreck. A ring-and-cup-like target of concentric circles is linked by a straight line to a tightly wound spiral. Next to the spiral is carved a fairly realistic snake.
Separated by thousands of years, two different sacred sanctuaries in the British Isles, for surely very different reasons, saw fit to honor the spiral. In the megalithic circle called Temple Wood, just a few miles north of Achnabreck, a carved spiral unwinds on one side of a standing stone, turns the corner to the broader front and rewinds there. The stone may have been carved where it stands or may have been brought from an even older monument. Having endured millennia of foul Scottish weather, the double spiral is difficult to see, but it survives. Hundreds of miles south in Llanbedr, a small seacoast town in Wales, is another ancient rock spiral. The village, once famous for its seashells, contains two ancient dolmens and several standing stones, and in a place of honor in the local church is a granite stone with spiral ornamentation that someone found years ago up in the hills and, recognizing it as something sacred, brought it into the church. A coiling spiral venerated in a Christian sanctuary, in spite of God’s curse on Eden’s serpent? Clearly it evokes a faith older than the current creed.
A labyrinth, of course, is not made of concentric circles with a cup at its heart, and it is not a graceful spiral. But if those two basic petroglyphic images—the circles and the spiral—are placed one on top of the other, the result is something that with very little modification looks a lot like a labyrinth, a complex, self-contained image that is not found in nature. That the labyrinth is a created and not a natural shape is important. The circles, spiral, lines and dots that cover the outcroppings at Achnabreck are all shapes observable in the world around the stone outcropping, either in the landscape or the sky or the bones and entrails of slaughtered animals. At times the line between what was man-made and what was natural on the carved stones is downright confusing. One of the memorable flaps in modern paleontology came when geologists pointed out that some of the markings being studied and interpreted (sometimes quite fancifully) were in fact natural pockmarks. A particularly memorable case was when what had been interpreted as scenes of a battle between two warring tribes chipped onto a boulder at Clonfinlough in Ireland turned out to be a matter of ordinary weathering. A turning point in the evolution of culture came at the moment when somewhere an anonymous rock carver or wall painter combined and elaborated on the simple images he—or maybe it was a she—saw in nature to create a new, unique and utterly human-made image, a labyrinth.
Part of the appeal of the cathedral at Chartres, home of one of the oldest church labyrinths in Europe, is the tension—amidst the beauty of the medieval stained-glass windows—in the sometimes bizarre jumble of rounded Romanesque and pointed Gothic arches. The Gothic spirit prevails, but there is the excitement of observing the moment in history when the rounded arch reaches up to become an arrow pointed toward heaven. There is something of the same tension at Achnabreck—a place that may be no less sacred than Chartres—as the cup-and-rings sometimes overlap one another and the multiarmed spirals curve to comply with the irregularity of the stone. Sometimes they almost—but never quite—become labyrinths. Among the similar carvings at Ballygowan, a much smaller and less spectacular outcropping a few miles away, the historian Nigel Pennick has identified an image that might, charitably, be called labyrinthine, but few others have seen it that way. Some cup-and-rings turning into labyrinths can be found in more recent (900–500 b.c.) petroglyphs at Pontevedra, in Galicia, Spain, but the time is not quite right at Achnabreck. The final step to the invented image is yet to come.
No one knows what tongue these early rock carvers spoke, but whatever it was no one was calling their images labyrinths. Labyrintus is a Roman word, although no one is confident about its origin. The multivolume Oxford English Dictionary, the great arbiter of English word origins, throws up its hands and even in the most recent updating sticks to “unknown” when it comes to the word’s roots, although it does add that they were probably non-Hellenic. Sir Arthur Evans, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century excavator (and rebuilder) of the ruins at Knossos, came up with a very tidy solution that—for a time, at least—enjoyed considerable popularity. He observed that one of the most common decorations in the palace, either as sculpture or as wall painting, was the image of the double-headed ax called labrys. Early Greek visitors to the ruins, he reasoned, saw the ax images, which were much more obvious than they were when Evans unearthed them, and called the site a labyrinth, a place of the double-headed axes, and the word then became confused with the legend of the im-prisoned Minotaur and the maze. Most etymologists no longer accept this, but they have yet to advance a more convenient solution. In any case, labyrinth seems to have entered the English language in the late fourteenth century, referring to a confusing structure with many hallways (a reference from 1387 mentions “wyndyngs and wrynkelyngs”). Nearly fifty years later the word appeared in French, meaning an intricate wooden palisade used for military defense. Later, the French would also adopt le dédale (after Daedalus, the legendary maze maker) as a synonym.
If labyrinth has its murky roots in the classical world, maze is a thoroughly northern word. As an abbreviation of amaze, from its very beginnings in Old English it meant to “confuse,” “confound” or “astonish.” It also came to refer to a trick, as when, in Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer wrote, “All this was but a mase.” Variations of the same word with the same meaning pop up in many of the Scandinavian languages, although oddly enough in one Norwegian dialect it came to mean not “to confuse” but “to lose consciousness.”
Throughout most of their histories, the words labyrinth and maze have been synonyms, but in the last twenty-five years or so an effort has been made to reduce confusion and see them as two distinct concepts. Accordingly, a labyrinth is now said to have a single path that weaves its way around a central point until it reaches its goal in the center. There are no forks in the road, no dead ends, no choices to be made. It is unicursal, one course, one-way. A maze is multicursal. There are many possible ways to go, but only one that will reach the center. It is a puzzle and—as it was with Chaucer—a trick in which there are many choices to be made, many incorrect possibilities and dead ends to avoid before reaching the goal. As an actual design, however, the puzzle maze is far younger than the labyrinth, appearing first in sixteenth-century books and gardens.
But in other parts of the world there are other names for the almost identical classical seven-circuit labyrinth image. In the American Southwest, the Hopi have the tapu’at (or “mother and child”). In Wales, there is caerdroia (probably a variation of the Welsh caer y troiau, “City of Turnings,” which some read as “City of Troy”). In India, it is kota (“fort” or “city” in Hindi). As for Scandinavia, the Swedish labyrinth expert John Kraft has noted that many of the stone labyrinths there are named for cities famous as ruins: Troy (the most frequently used name), Jericho, Nineveh, Babylon, even Lisbon (destroyed, as readers of Candide know, by an earthquake in 1755).
The archaeologist Colin Renfrew has written about the phenomenon of nearly identical features of prehistoric architecture appearing in different cultures in different parts of the world. Corbeling, for instance, in which each upward course of stone extends out a little farther until it forms half of an arch or, even more complexly, part of a dome, is a common Stone Age building technique. Since it is found both at Newgrange, in Ireland, and in the Greek islands, popular belief once held that an ancient Mycenaean (or perhaps Irish) master builder had traveled about the known world constructing—Daedalus-like—stone wonders as he went.
Excerpted from The Unending Mystery by David Willis McCullough. Copyright © 2005 by David W. McCullough. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.