photo of Knossos ruins: Image by Bigfoot from Pixabay
by Ingrid Wilson
For this week’s challenge, let’s see if the figure of the labyrinth can help us perplex ways out of the Anthropocene predicament we are now in.
The labyrinth which famously housed the Minotaur is mentioned in a 1st-century AD encyclopedia of mythology titled Bibliotheca and attributed to Pseuo-Apollodorus:
Now the Labyrinth which Daedalus constructed was a chamber “that with its tangled windings perplexed the outward way.” (Pseudo-Apollodorus, The Library, III.I.4, translated by James G. Frazer)
Note the quotation marks: this phrase is attributed to an earlier poem, possibly by Sophocles, now lost to time, but evidently well known at the time the author was writing.
The Labyrinth was constructed by Daedalus, according to the most famous legend, to contain the monstrous Minotaur: half beast and half man, born out of an unnatural coupling between King Minos’ wife Pasiphae, and the prized bull of the god Poseidon.
There are, however, other descriptions of the Labyrinth. Its prototype was that of Crocodopolis in Egypt, according to Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who writes:
I have seen this building, and it is beyond my power to describe… It has twelve covered courts – six in a row facing north, six south – the gates of one range exactly fronting the gates of the other, with a continuous wall round the outside of the whole. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I went through the rooms in the upper storey… and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me, as we passed from courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms, and thence into yet more courtyards. (Herodotus, The Histories, 2.148, Penguin Classics 1954 translation)
Homer, in Book 18 of the Iliad, describes how “Daedalus in Cnossos once contrived/A dancing-floor for fair-haired Ariadne” (Lines 592-3).
The labyrinth may also have been a formal dance, performed in an outdoor arena on just such a dancing floor. Plutarch, in his Life of Theseus, describes how, on his return voyage from Crete having slain the Minotaur, Theseus calls at Delos “and danced with his youths a dance…being an imitation of the circling passages in the Labyrinth, and consisting of certain rhythmic involutions and evolutions” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus, Chapter 21).
Origins of the Labyrinth
Most archaeologists and historians of the Late Bronze Age identify the palace of Knossos on Crete with the Labyrinth of Minos. Hard not to, when its discoverer, Sir Arthur Evans, named it “The Palace of Minos at Knossos.” He even named the pre-Greek civilisation he discovered there “Minoan.”
I have visited Knossos several times, and there is certainly something labyrinthine, not only in its construction, but in its layers of construction. During the Minoan period, the palace at Knossos was rebuilt at least three times, following a series of destructions by earthquake and fire. The resultant archaeological picture at the site is so complex that Knossos has been referred to by scholars as ‘”A Labyrinth of History.”*
Delving deeper into these layers of history, we discover that Knossos, and the other Minoan palaces on Crete, have a more fundamental connection to the labyrinth. The labrys is the Minoan double-axe, which in a stylised form, is the symbol for the letter ‘A’ in the Cretan Linear A and B scripts. It is also the key to drawing a formal labyrinth pattern, as shown below:
How to draw a labyrinth (Costis Davaras, Guide to the Cretan Antiquities, Noyes Press, 1976 p. 173-4)
No one knows exactly who, or what, brought about the final downfall of the Minoan civilisation. There are many theories, and the topic is hotly debated by scholars of the Aegean Bronze Age. Perhaps the ravages of Poseidon, the Earthshaker eventually broke the spirit of this highly advanced and artistic civilisation, causing them to abandon their gods and run to the hills. The natural cataclysm which was the Thera (Santorini) eruption may have shaken the Minoan psyche to its core. There is also evidence that the Mycenaeans took over the Minoan administration, but adopted its artistic and orthographic practices. The final blow to the resultant Minoan-Mycenaean civilisation came from outside invasion, possibly by the mysterious “Sea Peoples.”
The Anthropocene Labyrinth
The Minoan-Mycenaean civilization came to an end abruptly in around 1100 BC. The labyrinth crumbled to ruins, out of the dust of which the legend of the Minotaur was born. Human society does not adapt well to sudden environmental changes, leading us to question our fundamental beliefs about ourselves and our place on earth. Is that not the situation we find ourselves in now, as the Anthropocene madness begins to move in the direction of a disastrous conclusion? It is said that Daedalus constructed the labyrinth so well that even he struggled to find his way out. Is there any way out of this labyrinth of destruction that we appear to be building for ourselves?
Finding our way out
In my reading for this essay, I found out the following from Wikipedia, which may turn out to be pertinent:
In English, the term labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze. As a result of the long history of unicursal representation of the mythological Labyrinth, however, many contemporary scholars and enthusiasts observe a distinction between the two. In this specialized usage maze refers to a complex branching multicursal puzzle with choices of path and direction, while a unicursal labyrinth has only a single path to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and presents no navigational challenge. (Source: Wikipedia)
We are perplexed and bewildered by the “tangled windings” of the labyrinth, but here we have before our eyes a labyrinth which presents no navigational challenge.” In Brendan’s notes to his poem ‘Wheelhouse By the Sea,’ he remarks:
It is said that by flying over the Labyrinth Daedalus is able to “read” its pattern, a confusing maze at ground level. The vantage is all. Also, victims could escape the Labyrinth by making a decisive turn at the center — a lurch counter to the downward draw.
Let us not forget Ariadne’s clue of thread neither, with which Theseus is said to have escaped the labyrinth after having slain the beastly Minotaur. Are we able to make a “decisive turn” off our current course of self-destruction? Are we able to “perplex the outward way’” by looking within? And what clues do we have to guide us on this journey?
For this week’s challenge, let’s examine the possibility of rhyming, or perhaps even dancing our way out of the Anthropocene labyrinth.
*The book Knossos: A Labyrinth of History (Edited by Don Everly, Helen Hughes-Brock and Nicoletta Momigliano, BSA 1994) examines the site from pre-history to the present day, and attempts to piece together its archaeology, layer-by-layer.
**Tablet KN Gg 702, which reads ‘da-pu-ri-to/po-ti-ni-ja,’ which has the possible translation ‘To the Lady of the Labyrinth.’ The Linear B script was a syllabary adapted from Minoan Linear A to write an early form of Greek. (See Ventris and Chadwick, Documents in Mycenean Greek, Cambridge University Press, 1959)