Cretan Labyrinth investigation

Since the late nineteenth century, archaeologists, documentary-makers and novelists have asserted that the Cretan Labyrinth – the lair of the terrifying Minotaur – was a real place. But now a major paper suggests that the legendary maze was just that – legend, a figment of collective imagination.

The labyrinth is popularly held to have been in the Palace of Knossos, built around 1950 BCE, the ruins of which stand near the city of Heraklion on the north coast of Crete.

This is wrong, according to Antonis Kotsonas, a classical archaeologist from the University of Cincinnati, US. In a paper published in the American Journal of Archaeology, the researcher, using a cross-disciplinary study, points to the absence of any actual evidence that Cretans built any form of monumental labyrinth in Knossos.

Kotsonas suggests the Cretan Labyrinth is a monument only in memory, regardless of it being “considered a monument that once actually existed”. Yet the search for a maze under or the near the very real Bronze Age Knossos site has taken on legendary proportions.

As myth has it, Daedalus, the head architect of the tyrannical King Minos of Crete, built a complex maze under his palace. The maze housed the Minotaur, the monstrous half-man-half-bull that fed on seven virgin men and seven virgin girls from Athens every three years. Minos’ terrible tribune for peace was payback for Aegeus – the king of Athens – sending Minos’ son Androgeus to his death by challenging him to conquer the deadly Marathonian Bull.

Theseus, an archetypal Greek hero and Aegeus’ lost son born of incest, kills the Minotaur. He uses, literally and metaphorically, Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, her twine ball and thread. Ariadne’s Thread guided Theseus’ and the young Athenians out of the Labyrinth after he vanquished the beast.

Kotsonas notes that the earliest surviving versions of the story – from Homer, Herodotus and Pherecydes – make no mention of a Cretan Labyrinth. For Plato and beyond, the term labyrinth is used only to describe “structures and metaphorically situations that are hard to escape”.

Callimachus, a third century BCE writer from Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt, is the first source Kotsonas cites that specifically links the Minotaur with the Cretan Labyrinth. He suggests that the Callimachus know of the Egyptian labyrinth – an undoubtedly real structure built by King Amenemhet III sometime before his death in 1770 BCE – and simply “spread … the term in Cretan mythology”.  

Two later Hellenistic references to the Cretan Labyrinth also come from scholars in Ptolemaic Egypt.

The real currency of the Cretan Labyrinth rose after the Roman annexation of Crete around 66 BCE. The Romans treated its existence as real, and placed its location explicitly in Knossos.

It was essentially a political decision. Romans anchored their imperial power on their own re-imagined vision of themselves as inheritors of Classical Greece.

They also became great marketers of cultural tourism to the mythological Greek sites, be it a labyrinth or a hidden Troy. The Second Sophists, members of a literary movement that peaked around 230 CE, viewed the Minotaur as a metaphor of the natural corruption of Minos the tyrant.

Kotsonas, in his own labyrinthine detective work, reveals how the idea of a Cretan Labyrinth was progressively reinvigorated during the Roman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Victorian periods. The process was continued  by the mid-twentieth century Hellenists and Antiquarians – completing, he says, its “metamorphosis from the abstract memory to a physical monument”.

The ruins of the palace of knossos in crete, mistakenly believed to be the site of the labyrinth.

The ruins of the Palace of Knossos in Crete, mistakenly believed to be the site of the Labyrinth.

Credit: Banet12/Getty Images

The transition from story to alleged reality took on national importance in the nineteenth century when Greece, emerging from the collapse of the Ottoman empire, began to frame a new sense of national identity based on Western values. The Cretan Labyrinth was cast as a “real” monument, in a re-interpretation of an otherwise little known Bronze Age Minoan culture.

Kotsonas notes how up until the fifth century BCE, during the Classical period, when parts of the large structure of the actual Minoan Palace may have still been very apparent to locals, there was no mention of a labyrinth.

He writes: “Classicists and prehistorians began engaging systematically with the social or collective memory only after the turn of the present millennium and they typically focus on monuments that are spatially anchored.”

However, there are real labyrinthine cave structures carved out of limestone near the ancient Roman city of Gortyn, in the heartland of Crete, which also add to speculation.

The Byzantine historian Nikephoros Gregoras, (ca. 1295 –1360 CE), in his 37-volume collection known as Roman Histories, reflects on the visit of a former student, Agathangelos, who told him that the “labyrinth is a vast man-made cave. The Bedrock of this cave seems not to be vey hard and can be easily carved by anyone.” He goes on to describe the rock-carved pillars, “houses and courtyards and fountains”.

Possibly pre-Hellenic mines, the caves were used as hiding places for Christians during various Ottoman Turkish massacres – a fact frequently ignored by classicists and antiquarians determined to place the labyrinth in Knossos.

In 1878, American journalist William James Stillman, then US Consul to Crete, visited the Knossos site that had been partially excavated by the Cretan antiquarian, Minos Kalokairinos.

Stillman had contacted the Archaeological Institute of America, seeking support to lead an excavation team with the view of finding the “real” labyrinth. The maze figures on Knossian coins, and seals found at the site added to his zeal to locate it at the site.

Stillman published the antiquarian’s findings, explicitly linking them with the labyrinth of legend, firmly establishing the idea in the English-speaking world.

In 1900, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the first non-Cretan to excavate the area, initially negated the idea that a labyrinth existed. However, writes Kotsonas, at some “indeterminate later point added, ‘No, on further examination I think it must be so’”.

His change of heart was based, Kotsonas writes, on the “architectural plans and rich bull iconography” he found at Knossos.

By 1905, the idea that Knossos had housed an actual labyrinth was so common that its truth was taken for granted. Further evidence was claimed in the mid-twentieth century when tablets written in the language known as Linear-B were found at the site.

The tablets featured designs that clearly represented mazes. However, Kotsonas suggests, these were not representations of a specific place, but part of “the long history of maze depictions in earlier Aegean and Mediterranean art”.

One can also add the work of US scholar and critic Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013), who linked Ancient Greek art and philosophy with classical Indian thought, and wrote about how trademark early Greek designs – the maze, meander and swastika – were imported from India during the late Bronze Age.

An ancient greek vase, showing theseus killing the minotaur.

An ancient Greek vase, showing Theseus killing the Minotaur.

Credit: Ultima_Gaina/Getty images

Kotsonas conveys how late nineteenth century political desire to affirm – like the Romans – a “western” view of ancient Greek histories ignored local Cretan knowledge.

Of importance is his revelation of how Renaissance and later Victorian Hellenists and antiquarians largely dismissed or “scorned” Cretan experts, who had possibly more precise understandings of the concept of labyrinth in Minoan thought.

When the first Cretan rebellion against Venetian rule erupted in 1360, the labyrinthine caves of Gortyn were seen as safe havens – and symbolic of Cretan resistance. Gradually, the notion of the “impenetrable” Cretan Labyrinth as a “repository of ancient wisdom and a bastion against Ottoman expansion” took hold in a modernising European psyche.

In the end, though, there is no conclusive evidence that a labyrinth, much less the fearsome bull-hybrid, ever existed in Knossos. Kotsonas weaves a detailed account of how Western anxieties, values, and politics, melded with a newly created Greek national identity in the battle against Ottoman imperialism, may have given birth to a monument that lives only in memory.

However, despite the fact that it never existed, the Cretan Labyrinth will no doubt maintain its role as a place of fear and dread, wonder and enlightenment – as a reference in popular culture from Disney to Coke, featuring the Minotaur and his lair.

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