The Babylonian Visceral Labyrinth, Part 1

This fading artwork of Denny Dyke on the beach of Bandon, Oregon shows double spirals, knots and a walk through labyrinth with a meander in the middle.
Is this something new or are there some historical ancestors?

Dream-Field from Denny Dyke on the beach of Bandon, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Amber Shelley-Harris

Dream-Field from Denny Dyke on the beach of Bandon, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Amber Shelley-Harris

One of the first pictures in Hermann Kern’s book “Labyrinths” shows the so-called . It is on a clay tablet from presumably Middle- to Neo-Babylonian time (from 1100 to 600 B.C.) in the Near East Museum of Berlin (Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin) under the number VAT 744. It shows the intestines of a sacrificial animal with the drawing as a pattern for the ancient practice of extispicy.
For Hermann Kern this is not a labyrinth, but a double spiral with changing direction in the middle. Also spirals, meanders and knots are no labyrinths. These are not in the strict sense, but they are elements in labyrinths.

The Berlin Labyrinth

The Berlin Labyrinth

The Near East archeologist and Assyriologist Ernst Friedrich Weidner has 1917 written about that in an article under the title “Zur babylonischen Eingeweideschau, zugleich ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Labyrinths” (translated: “About the Babylonian extispicy; at same time a contribution to the history of the labyrinth”) in the “Orientalistische Studien” (see link below, on the pages 191-198).

Diagram tablet of intestines VAT 984

Diagram tablet of intestines VAT 984

He sees in these intestinal drawings an extraordinary close relationship to the labyrinth drawings of the Aegean culture (as on the jug of Tragliatella) and the Troy Towns of Northern Europe.

The jug of Tragliatella

The jug of Tragliatella

But he didn’t prove this relationship. However, thus is not done so easily. Therefore a closer look to the tablets in Weidner’s writ is worthwhile. Only an analysis of the alignment of the paths shows the resemblance.

First the double spiral:

A double spiral

A double spiral

There are two entrances / exits. Both paths (colourfully marked) meet in the center where the direction of the movement changes. The alignment corresponds to a meander.

The alignment of the >Berlin Labyrinth<:

The path in the Berlin Labyrinth

The path in the Berlin Labyrinth

Entrance and exit are placed side by side. There are three turning points where the path changes direction. But it is not a double spiral, because there would the direction change only once.

Following a drawing with the original, Ariadne’s thread and the walls in geometrical correct shape:

Drawing of the Berlin Labyrinth

Drawing of the Berlin Labyrinth

By the way, the labyrinth can be quite simply drawn, even if the description sounds complex. It refers to the right lower drawing.

  • I draw two straight inclined lines, meeting in a center point (in blue, dashed)
  • Inside the left half  I draw around this center point in steady distances eight semicircles (in black), the both outside only partially
  • Now the right side:
  • I connect the 3rd and 5th curve end (counted from above on the left) with the 4th curve end as a center with a semicircle (in cyan)
  • I connect the 1st and 3rd curve end (counted from the middle) with the 2nd curve end as a center with a semicircle (in green)
  • I continue with three other semicircles (in green) in parallel distance
  • The last three semicircles (in brown) have as center the first curve end below the intersection of the two blue auxiliary lines
  • Three semicircles have in common an already “occupied” curve end point: the 3rd and 5th from the left on top, the 3rd from the right below
  • Eight arcs on the left side of a common line and seven arcs on the right side of it generate the “Berlin Labyrinth”
  • The “fontanel” as an empty space is relatively big

The relationship to a classical labyrinth is yet not so good to recognize. But you may still guess that it could be a labyrinth.

Another figure from Weidner’s script fits better:

The Near East clay tablet VAT 9560

The Near East clay tablet VAT 9560

There are two entrances / exits and four turning points.

In the graphic we look at every way separately:

Graphics of the Near-East clay tablet VAT 9560

Graphics of the Near-East clay tablet VAT 9560

Though the alignment of the turning path is spiral-shaped, nevertheless, it is no double spiral. The circuits swing about two turning points. One time directly and another time embedded around the turning point of the other way. Two circuits of a path thereby also run side by side. In the middle the paths meet and are connected through a meander with each other. One path is leading in and one out.
Every path for itself looks like a labyrinth. Hence, we have two labyrinths intertwined together who are connected through a meander. The paths are unequivocal and purposeful, change commuting the direction and have no branchings or dead ends. They fill out the whole interior and must be followed entirely. All that what Hermann Kern demands for a labyrinth.

Following the path in a Babylonian visceral labyrinth in a geometrically correct shape:

Ariadne's thread in a Babylonian visceral labyrinth

Ariadne’s thread in a Babylonian visceral labyrinth

Following the “walls” in a geometrically correct drawing:

The Babylonian visceral labyrinth

The Babylonian visceral labyrinth

This labyrinth has even a seed pattern. Who finds it? (More about that in a later posting).

There is no end of the path in a clearly defined center as we now (in the Western world) are accustomed. It is a path not leading to a center, but through it. It shows a quite different meaning of the labyrinth. It comes from a quite different culture and served other purposes. It matches rather the motto: The way is the aim.
Even if we do not recognize that as a “full-value” labyrinth, one must see it as a precursor of the “true” labyrinth.
We have two paths in the Baltic Wheel. The Wunderkreis of Kaufbeuren has even a branching and a meander in the middle. We accept, in the meantime, also other creations as walk-through or processional labyrinths.

However, I have found in Weidner’s script something else very interesting: A visceral labyrinth with only one way ending in a center. It can be drawn with a already known seed pattern. More about that in a later posting.

… To be continued

Further Links

More information about the Babylonian clay tablets can be found in an excellent article from Richard Myers Shelton in Jeff Sawards Caerdroia 42 (March 2014).

14 thoughts on “The Babylonian Visceral Labyrinth, Part 1

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  12. Thanks, dear Friends, for this very interesting paper (as are all your others, some of which I still have some comments for in the mill: interesting texts always spawn some thoughts to share… patience please…).
    I use to call those very early (Archimedean) spirals ‘protolabyrinths’ as, like labyrinths, they are packing long paths into small areas… Aren’t they also, this explaining that somehow perhaps, quite natural (doodle) drawings by man hands, even by toddlers, remarkably ?

    Liked by 1 person

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