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The Labyrinth

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Picture for a moment the Greek hero Theseus, in the heart of the great labyrinth of Crete. [onscreen] The Labyrinth With Historian Eli Hunt He’s just killed the fearsome Minotaur. He turns and slowly, carefully, retraces his steps, following the ball of string he has laid out along his path through the labyrinth. It’s one of the oldest and best-known Greek myths. But I believe the story of the Cretan labyrinth has been misunderstood for centuries. It may be the most famous story about a labyrinth, but it is by no means a complete or necessarily accurate account of the labyrinth’s true design and purpose in ancient Greek culture. I’m Eli Hunt, and this is the true story of the labyrinth. The main source of confusion about the Cretan labyrinth is that few people realize the difference between mazes, which were invented several hundred years ago, and labyrinths, which were invented several thousand years ago. A modern maze is made up of many branching and intersecting paths, leading to dead ends and wrong turns. Its purpose is to create confusion. A classical labyrinth on the other hand, consists of just one unbroken path twisted into impossibly complex shapes. You cannot get lost in a labyrinth. As long as you keep moving forward, eventually you reach its center. However, you may very well find yourself extremely disoriented as you follow its twists and turns. You might believe yourself lost, but you are not. Historians today are perplexed by the fact that the Cretan myth appears to describe a maze, not a labyrinth – even though there is no evidence that the Greeks ever built, or even drew, a single maze. The single-path labyrinth design, however, is a familiar symbol on ancient coins, stones, and even graffiti throughout the entire Hellenic world. It can be found on literally thousands of recovered artifacts. In fact, every single piece of historical evidence found to date shows that the Ancient Greeks built labyrinths, not mazes. As a result, some historians, including myself, believe that modern audiences have fundamentally misunderstood the intended message of the Cretan myth. If the Cretan labyrinth was not what we call a maze today, but rather a single winding path to the center, then perhaps the myth of Theseus is not a tale of courage and cleverness. Instead, we can better understand it as a practical lesson in how to design the sacred path that was so central to ancient Greek life. It was true then and it is true today that it is incredibly difficult to design a human-scale labyrinth from scratch. It is essential to measure out the sacred patterns in a very particular way – otherwise, you wind up with dead ends, unused space, or other imperfections. We know that the Greeks developed a trick for laying out the walls of the labyrinth in a particular order. And some researchers believe that a ball of string, or clew, just like that of Theseus, was used as a part of that process. Is it possible that the Cretan myth was intended to teach us their trick – to pass on the wisdom of using string to lay out the sacred patterns? If so, then the idea that Theseus “solved” the labyrinth with a ball of string may have been a metaphor for the true puzzle posed by labyrinths: the difficult feat of creating a labyrinth from scratch. For this reason, I have come to believe that the true challenge faced by the ancient Greeks was not how to navigate a labyrinth, but rather how to build one. We know that labyrinths were hugely important to ancient life because of the sheer quantity of labyrinth designs that we have found. But what, exactly, did the Greeks do with their labyrinths? Why was it so important to pass on the lesson of how to build one? We know that labyrinths were used in religious rituals. The walk to the center of a labyrinth and back out again was believed to represent a journey into one world and then a return, much as Orpheus went into the Underworld to retrieve his true love Euridice. This may explain why labyrinths were so often used as a symbol for an omphalos. We know that the Greeks believed an omphalos could serve as a portal to another world. Perhaps labyrinths were seen as being another important part of that journey. Finally, we also know that labyrinths were used in healing services. One of the few Greek labyrinths discovered intact by archaeologists was found beneath the temple of Asclepius the healer. This labyrinth, in the city of Epidaurus, is believed to have been used as a treatment for the most critically ill patients, who were encouraged to crawl through the labyrinth in the dark. And some patients, it is said, would actually sleep in the center of the labyrinth in the hope of receiving a visitation from the healing God who would miraculously cure them while they dreamt. If the Cretan myth’s true purpose was to illustrate the design of a labyrinth, then the story would also have been seen as a key to these great powers – and perhaps other powers we have yet to learn about. The story of the labyrinth has endured for millennia, kept alive by mythology perhaps because those powers continue to be important today, even as we struggle to understand what they are. [onscreen]

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 5 seconds
Country: UK
Language: English
Producer: Eli Hunt
Director: Eli Hunt
Views: 2,600
Posted by: ehunt on Feb 27, 2008

I believe the story of the Cretan labyrinth has been misunderstood for centuries

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