What is a Labyrinth?

or, freely adapted from a song by Herbert Grönemeyer (German musician):

When is a Labyrinth a Labyrinth?

My researches on Wikipedia about the labyrinth have inspired me once again to try an own definition of the labyrinth. This is my proposal:

The labyrinth is (at first sight) a confusing, nevertheless unique, purposeful, artful and meaningful system of lines. The labyrinth, strictly spoken, leads (as a rule) on an unbranched, winding path to the aim, mostly in the middle. The labyrinth, broadly defined, has a branched system of lines with more options, dead ends and loops and is called a maze. The labyrinth as a metaphor signifies confusing and mostly difficult facts and circumstances.

Classical 7-circuit labyrinth with a larger centre

Knidos Labyrinth

Ariadne's Thread (path) in a classical 7-circuit labyrinth

Ariadne’s Thread

Hedge Maze Schönbusch (Germany)


Classical 3-circuit labyrinth

Simple Labyrinth

Classical labyrinth with 4 circuits and an additional path

Type Baltic Wheel

Type Gossembrot with 5 axes and 7 circuits

Type Gossembrot

Schwanberg Labyrinth (4 divisions)

Type Schwanberg

Calligraphic Labyrinth by Ingeborg E. Müller

Calligraphic Labyrinth

Crossing Labyrinth by Alana Forest

Crossing Labyrinth
















This is probably too long, sounds to complex and looks, hence, quite labyrinthine. Maybe the first sentence would be enough, because it does not exclude the maze and admits the exceptions.

A labyrinth is not always unbranched and totally without every option. Otherwise, the type Baltic wheel (such as the Rad in der Eilenriede at Hannover) would not be a labyrinth. The aim also is not always the middle, especially the geometrical middle or the centre. The Wunderkreis of Kaufbeuren with branching paths is without a real middle and is rather a passageway labyrinth, hence, very well suitable for pageants.

Also the change of course in the movement belongs not necessarily to the labyrinth, because, otherwise, a 3 circuit labyrinth or some modern forms would not be a labyrinth. One can even accept crossroads, like in the Crossing labyrinth of Alana Forest from Australia, because the alignment is unequivocal. One may neither turn left nor right, but always go straight ahead.

Labyrinths and mazes have a lot in common and are related. In colloquial English, labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze. A maze is also a labyrinth (in the broader sense), but a labyrinth (strictly spoken) is not a maze. Since one cannot get lost in it. But it can be bewildering and irritating (at first sight).
I believe, the confusion also comes along that we speak of the labyrinth in the strict sense from a single path free of crossroads and branches and then we show the boundary lines of the labyrinth. Besides, the information refers to the path, Ariadne’s thread, which lies between the boundary lines and is not visible in this form of expression. Just this happened to me at the beginning of my acquaintance with the labyrinth. Only the second and more exact look makes clear the right correlations.

It is the fascination of the labyrinth that it is an ancient, archaic human symbol to be found in different cultures, religions and time epochs and that is open for many interpretations and approaches. This is why it is also qualified for our current time and world as a universal symbol. However, nobody should claim for himself the interpretational sovereignty.

Does the Chartres Labyrinth hide a Troy Town and if so, what does it look like?

Is there a relationship between the 11-circuit Chartres labyrinth and the mostly 11-circuit Troy Towns in Scandinavia?
What for relations, resemblances or differences exist there?

The Chartres Labyrinth

The Chartres Labyrinth

The Troy Town of Visby

The Troy Town of Visby

The Chartres labyrinth was built about 1200 in the cathedral of Chartres. The Troy Towns presumably came up between the 13th and 15th century, maybe there are even prehistoric examples. Most have 11 circuits; however, there are also some with 7 or 15 circuits.
The Troy Towns are related to the Turf mazes (better: turf labyrinths). Most of the still preserved British turf labyrinths are from the type Chartres with 11 circuits, only two are classical ones with 7, respectively 15 circuits. Two German historical turf labyrinths have 11 circuits and are from the classical type. The type Chartres can hardly ever be found among the Scandinavian Troy Towns.

Can one compare both nevertheless very different types generally with each other?
In addition one must transform both a little. Chartres has some special qualities that distinguish it from the other medieval types to which it belongs. These are the six circular elements in the centre, and the circumference  with the 113 lunations. Typically for the medieval types are the “barriers”  in the pathways to force a U-turn. In the Chartres type they are arranged along the horizontal and the vertical axis. We can save the speculations whether this means the crucifixion or Christianisation of the labyrinth. This can be, but it doesn’t to. Because the axes could be also arranged in other angles or it could exist more axes and, nevertheless, it would produce the same path sequence.
The 11 circuits are not an invention for the Chartres type, because the basic pattern of the classical 7-circuit labyrinth generates easily 11 circuits as the Troy Towns prove.

Especially typically for all labyrinth types is the alignment of the circuits that is revealed in the path sequence: this is the order in which the single circuits are walked successively. It determines the quality of a labyrinth. For this shows the rhythm or the melody, or even the dramaturgy of the path guidance of a labyrinth.

Can we leave out the barriers and do we than still have a labyrinth? Or differently expressed: Can we make from a labyrinth with four axes one with only one?
Yes, it is possible in the type Chartres. This doesn’t succeed with every medieval labyrinth (e.g., with the type Reims, Sens, Bayeux, Auxerre). This already points to the high quality of the Chartres type.
What path sequence results?
The following graphic makes it clear. Simultaneously the seed pattern for the walls contained in the labyrinth is marked with black lines. So we can compare the Chartres labyrinth with the Troy Town.
Path sequence Chartres: 5-4-3-2-1-6-11-10-9-8-7-12

Graphic Chartres

Graphic Chartres

To make the Troy Town comparable with Chartres, it has been transformed into a circular form. In the graphic of the Troy Town the seed pattern contained in it is also emphasised in black. The transformation doesn’t change the path sequence. As well as it makes no difference whether the labyrinth is right- or left-handed or whether it is circular or angular, briefly: which form it has.
Path sequence Troy Town: 5-2-3-4-1-6-11-8-9-10-7-12

Graphic Troy Town

Graphic Troy Town

The comparison shows that in both types the first turn to left arises in lane 5. Chartres continues with 4-3-2, the Troy Town with 2-3-4, so in reverse order. Than the order is 1-6-11 in both types. Than Chartres 10-9-8, the Troy Town 8-9-10, so again reverse. At the end both types turn into the middle from lane 7.
Some passages are identical, at two places the order is alternated. By now a certain resemblance is to be found between both types.

Now we develop from the seed pattern in the Chartres type (without barriers) a classical 11-circuit labyrinth (just a Troy Town) in usual manner. The seed pattern is brought into an angular form and the right parts are lowered down a pathways width. Now it is not quadratic as we are habituated, but rectangular (twice as high as broad), and the central cross emerges. We transformed the circular model with a large centre into a round model with a small centre.
The path sequence in this Troy Town is identical of those in the Chartres labyrinth:

Graphic Troy Town type Chartres

Graphic Troy Town type Chartres

To my knowledge such a labyrinth never turned up so far.
Whether the master builders at that time knew about these correlations between the Troy Towns and the Chartres labyrinth, I do not know.
I rather believe they did not. It is remarkable that the Chartres type apparently not influenced the Scandinavian Troy Towns, surely the British turf labyrinths. For me is clear, nevertheless: There is a bigger relationship between the classical labyrinths and the medieval types than some up to now have accepted. And it shows the extraordinary quality and originality of the Chartres of type.

At once it documents that the medieval types were “generated” after other points of view and methods than with a seed pattern. I find substantially the introduction of the “barriers” to attain more U-turns and segments with the same number of circuits in a labyrinth. Or differently expressed: To change the path sequence.
It would be interesting to find out; when for the first time the barriers appeared in the labyrinth. Since they are crucial for the advancement of the classical labyrinths, and are decisive for the origin of the medieval types.

Possible further posts

  • How does the Troy Town look like developed from the Otfrid labyrinth?
  • How the Chartres Labyrinth hides 7 classical 7-circuit labyrinths
  • The relationship of the 7-circuit Chartres labyrinth (type Greys Court) with the classical 7-circuit labyrinth
  • How to transform a classical 7-circuit labyrinth into a Chartres labyrinth
  • The path sequence in the Chartres labyrinth

Related posts

The Canterbury Labyrinth at the University of Kent

The University of Kent in south-east England owns a permanent labyrinth since October 2008. So it is the first University in England which has beside two canvas labyrinths indoors a permanent labyrinth on the campus, on-site and outdoors. 

On Youtube you can watch a short video which is classified in the category Comedy. Let us suppose that as expression of the British humor. One can catch the centre in record-breaking 36 seconds.

Dr Jan Sellers led the Labyrinth Project as part of the University’s Creative Campus Initiative. She says:

We are using labyrinths as quiet, structured time and place for reflection, contributing to the student and staff experience, and as part of a creative approach to teaching and learning.

An example for working across disciplines was a workshop by labyrinth facilitator Jay Edge together with poet and lecturer Patricia Debney, Canterbury’s first Poet Laureate.

The design of the turf labyrinth (a 7-circuit Creys Court type) is from Jeff Saward and Andrew Wiggins.

It was put into practice by  The Labyrinth Builders with their gardening services Haywood Landscapes Ltd.

The labyrinth seen on the website of  Labyrinth Builders.

The labyrinth seen on the website of the University of Kent.

All in all, a high quality work with high claim.

Source: Labyrinth Pathways, 3rd edition, July 2009

Spring Festivity at Steigra

One of the four historical labyrinths in Germany is situated at Steigra in the Burgenlandkreis district in Saxony-Anhalt. It is also named Sweden Ring or Troy Town.

The layout is the classical type with 11 circuits. The exact time of origin is uncertain. Much points to the 17th century, in addition, an older origin would be conceivable. It lies beside a hill grave.

In the neighborhood one made world-wide unique archaeologically finds in the last years: The 7000 years old sun observatory of Goseck, the 3600 years old sky disk of Nebra.

The turf labyrinth of Steigra kept over centuries. Nowadays it is maintained annually by the confirmands of the locality. The patron saint of the parish church is St George, and there is even a tavern St George.

Annually on Saturday after April 23, the day of St George, takes place a spring celebration at the labyrinth. This year that was on April 26, 2008.

Caught in the labyrinth

Caught in the labyrinth

The citizens of Steigra accomplished this spring celebration for the first time 1995 according to own conceptions and with own texts. The whole village takes active part in it.

The dragon is beaten

The dragon is beaten

But the main part is thereby a ritual in the labyrinth. A young woman represents the winter sun virgin, which is caught in the labyrinth and has to be released from a knight.

The sun virgin

The sun virgin

Each year another virgin is selected. The knight is determined before in a kind of knight tournament among several young men.

The liberation

The liberation

Before the freeing of the sun virgin the knight must solve still further tasks and kill also a dragon, which guards the labyrinth.

Virgin and knight

Virgin and knight

On a board at the labyrinth you can read the following poem (translated to English):

From the chains of hard winters, I, knight, liberated you;
whereon on us and our children the sun’s blessing is shining.
You lovely virgin gives me strength, warmth, and fertility;
the bad, dark powers of the night avoid our togetherness.

In the year 2008 Sophie Kaiser were the virgin and Ronnie Sobirai the knight.

Here a short video from the ceremony:

More photos of the labyrinth in the photo gallery on mymaze.

Here you can read a post about archaeoastronomy for the labyrinth of Steigra.