The Babylonian Labyrinth

I have already written about the Babylonian visceral divination labyrinths and tried to prove their relationship with the labyrinth. They date to the Middle Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian time (ca. 1500 to 500 BC).

However, there are even older labyrinth representations from Old Babylonian time (ca. 2000  to 1700 BC) which look quite differently than the visceral labyrinths and which can probably be taken for the ancestors of the labyrinth.

The Swedish historian of Babylonian mathematics and cuneiform script expert Jöran Friberg has studied the Babylonian mathematical  tablets of the Norwegian Schøyen Collection in detail and has documented that in 2007. He calls the following figures labyrinths and tries to prove that.

In the journal Caerdroia 42 Richard Myers Shelton has written extensively on the subject of the Babylonian Labyrinths. Most of my information I got from him. Here it is a matter for me of founding in what the relationship with the labyrinth consists.

One must take therefore the following representations as the oldest labyrinths known so far.

Here a rectangular labyrinth labelled MS 3194 in the Schøyen Collection:

The rectangular labyrinth MS 3194

The rectangular labyrinth MS 3194, source: Schøyen Collection

We do not know anything about the purpose of this figure. It could have served quite philosophical or mathematical considerations.

In what does the relationship with the labyrinth exist now?

We must look at it more exactly. Richard Myers Shelton could reconstruct the lines on the clay tablet perfectly and therefore I can present a colored drawing of the entire figure.

The rectangular Babylonian labyrinth

The rectangular Babylonian labyrinth

The thin black lines limit the ways. These are the free space between the lines. There are two open entries to the rectangle. One entrance lies roughly in the middle of the left side, the other one opposite on the right. The way from the left is highlighted in ochre, from the right in green. In the middle they meet and change the direction. The one way is leading in, so to speak, and the other out.

There are no forks or dead ends. The whole, long and winding path must be accomplished. The entire rectangle is crossed.

The layout shows a certain, but not quite successful symmetry. The last laps round the center remind a double spiral. The other circuits are intertwined in the shape of meanders.

We have thus an unambiguous, doubtless and purposeful way through a closed figure, as we know it from a “true” labyrinth.

Then there is still a square labyrinth labelled MS 4515. Here the colored drawing:

The square Babylonian labyrinth

The square Babylonian labyrinth

Maybe it should represent a town? As we know that from other labyrinths. With gates, bastions, walls?


Amongst the Babylonian tablets is another one with geometrical illustrations. Jöran Friberg calls them mazes. They are quite sure not.

One could consider these lines as labyrinthine finger exercises. Some are difficulty to reconstruct. So, Friberg and Shelton come to different results.

There are two rows with four fields in which a rotationally symmetric closed path runs without beginning and end through four sectors. All areas are mostly touched, sometimes there are inaccessible places. One is reminded of the Roman sector labyrinths many centuries later.

The tablet MS 4516

The tablet MS 4516, source: Schøyen Collection

Here the drawings of two fields:
The first field on top left

The first field on top left

The fourth field on bottom left (reconstructed)

The fourth field on bottom left (reconstructed)

Clearly one recognises the meander, the symmetrical arrangement and the alignment of the paths between the black lines.

Much later similar representations on the silver coins of Knossos are found:

Swastika meander

Swastika meander on a coin, 431-350 BC / source: Hermann Kern, Labyrinthe, 1982, fig. 49 (German edition)

The right “ingredients” for a labyrinth, namely meander and spiral were already known in Old Babylonian times. The idea of a confusing, winding, nevertheless unequivocal way in a restricted space with rhythmical movement changes can have originated from there.

We can push back the time for the origin of the labyrinth some hundred years later to the time about 1800 BC. At first it was the idea of a walk through labyrinth. The further development happened in Middle to New-Babylonian times in the intestinal labyrinths with also two entries, yet unambiguous way.

Since 1200 BC we know the Cretan labyrinth with only one entry and the end of the path in the center. We could call this a way in labyrinth whereas the Babylonian labyrinth is a way through labyrinth.

Till this day have remained walk through labyrinths in the type of the  Baltic wheel and the Wunderkreis (wonder circle). We recognise them as real labyrinths, although they also have two entrances and do not end in the middle.

The Kaufbeuren Wunderkreis

The Kaufbeuren Wunderkreis

More information is to find about the Babylonian labyrinths in an excellent article by Richard Myers Shelton in Jeff Sawards Caerdroia 42 (March 2014), and in a new article from him in Caerdroia 44 (April 2015) about the Transylvanian Wunderkreis.

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6 thoughts on “The Babylonian Labyrinth

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