Type or Style / 2

Types of Labyrinths in Kern’s Book

Kern basically distinguishes between the Cretan type and all other types of labyrinths. For him, the Cretan type is a one-arm alternating labyrinth with seven circuits and the exact level sequence of 3-2-1-4-7-6-5 (see Kern°, fig. 5, p. 34).


Level Sequence of the Cretan Type Labyrinth in Kern°, fig. 5, p. 34

Labyrinths with such a level sequence of the pathway, irrespective of whether these rotate clock- or anticlockwise, show classical or concentric or other forms of layout, appear as petroglyphs, built of stone, drawings in manuscripts or else, are referred to as Cretan type labyrinths.

In all other labyrinths Kern sees variations or re-interpretations of the Cretan type Kern°, p. 27 and table pp. 28, 29). This refers not only to one-arm labyrinths with other numbers of circuits or level sequences of the pathway (such as e.g. Jericho type, Otfrid type), but also includes all labyrinths with multiple arms (e.g. roman mosaic labyrinths, Chartres type, Reims type labyrinths etc.). To summarize, we can find the following types of labyrinths in Kern’s book (Kern°, pp. 107 – 109).

  • Cretan; Cretan modified; Cretan (Jericho); Cretan modified, 6 circuits (Jericho); Cretan, 6 circuits
  • Chartres; Chartres modified; Chartres (Jericho); Chartres modified, 6 Umgänge
  • Otfrid
  • Reims

So, he differentiates between pure and modified types of labyrinths.

However, Kern’s claim was not to elaborate a typology. But for him the meaning of type was defined by the level sequence of the pathway. This particularly applies to his pure types. All labyrinths Kern had identified as being of the Cretan type, e.g. in the legends to the images, had the same level sequence. The same applies for the Chartres type labyrinths too. However in the modified types it is less clear.

It is fascinating to read how Kern in the first chapters of his book investigates the various leads of a possible genesis of the labyrinth. How he tries to fix a first historically documented appearance of the labyrinth. He does not find it in the „Cretan Labyrinth“ handed down by Plutarch, that has never existed as a building (chap. II). Nor can he find it in the buildings that have been named labyrinths in ancient times (chap. 3: the Egyptian Labyrinth, the Labyrinth of Lemnos / Samos, the Italian Labyrinth, Didyma, the Labyrinth of Nauplion). However, Kern states that the fundament of the Tholos of Epidauros is the only one historical building that can be justifiably referred to as a labyrinth.

Kern identifies other leads in the dances (chap. 2). However, he has to let it open, whether these have been danced in any labyrinthine form at all or even in the precise form of the Cretan type labyrinth.

But why then Kern gives the name „Cretan Labyrinth“ to this type identified by himself as the basic type?

He calls this type „Cretan“ after its presumed origin (p. 24), despite this presumption is in clear contradiction with the results of his own thorough research of the historical evidence. There is little doubt that this was the first type of labyrinth that can be documented reliably in history. Therefore it is absolutely justified to refer to it as the basic labyrinth. The first known historical examples of this type are not from Crete but from Pylos (Greece) or Galicia (Spain).

Kern, thus, has correctly identified the original type of labyrinth, but gave a name to this type that is against the results of his own research. To me it is a complete mystery why he did this.

Related posts:

°Kern, Hermann. Through the Labyrinth – Designs and Meanings over 5000 Years. Munich: Prestel 2000.

7 thoughts on “Type or Style / 2

  1. Dear Andreas, I would like to use the term Minoan labyrinth. I don’t find the widely used term classical labyrinth instead of Cretan labyrinth particularly good in German, although I use it myself. Could we propagate Minoan labyrinth instead?


    • Dear Erwin,
      I don’t quite understand, why you want to term this type “Minoan”. There is no better justification for this than for the term “Cretan”. Therefore I would still prefer “Classical”.


      • Dear Andreas, if you see it that way, I’ll take it back. I thought the origin of the labyrinth was in the time of the Minoan civilization?


      • Erwin,
        I can understand your concerns. The earliest safely dated example of this type is from Pylos, the palace of Nestor from Mykenian times. If we choose this as a reference, we could term it “Mykenian”. “Cretan” with reference to the place of origin is certainly wrong. “Classical” with reference to the classical Greek times is wrong as well. If we refer more globally to labyrinths as such, I think the term “classical” is better than “Cretan”.


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