a bull sculpture from Minoan times

The Labyrinth of Minos — Mysteries of Ancient Crete

Ancient Greek History, That's History | 0 comments

From Laura: I’m pleased to present another post from Ingrid of Experiments in Fiction. Today, she’s discussing the mythical labyrinth of Minos and the significance of the labyrinth in Minoan and Mycenaean times. The Minoans and Mycenaeans inhabited the Aegean island of Crete. The Minoans dominated from c. 3000 B.C. to c. 1450 B.C., the Mycenaeans from c. 1450 B.C. to c. 1100 B.C., when both groups vanished amid the Bronze Age Collapse. 

the architectural layout of the palace at Knossos
ruins of the Palace of Knossos

Left: An archaeological layout of the palace of Knossos, linked to the mythical Labyrinth of Minos. Note its labyrinthine construction. Right: Ruins from the palace of Knossos.

Archaeology and myth

If you read Laura’s recent post about the Minoan civilization, you’ll know that the legend of the Minotaur most likely originated in Minoan Crete. Both ancient Greeks and present-day archaeologists have identified the Palace of Knossos with the Labyrinth in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur — the Labyrinth of Minos — due to its complex layout and the fact that it was rebuilt several times over the centuries. The rebuilding occurred following various earthquakes which hit the island.

The Palace of Knossos is indeed labyrinthine in its complexity, as the archaeologists who discovered it realized quickly. See the images above.

There’s been a lot of debate about the age of certain finds in the palace, none more controversial than the find-places of Linear A and B tablets.

You can learn more about Linear A and B, as well as other scripts, in my article on the ancient scripts of Crete.

The controversy stems from the fact that Linear A tablets indicate a Minoan administration, whereas Linear B tablets indicate a Mycenaean administration writing in an early form of Greek. Scholars debate when exactly the Mycenaeans took control of Crete and how strong an influence they exerted over the Minoans. But that is another story!

Throughout the Palace of Knossos, the frescoes depicting “bull-leaping,” many votive offerings in the form of bulls, and the ritual bull’s horns which adorned altars give us some clue as to how the legend of the Minotaur might have taken shape.

Perhaps there was even a ritual in which a man wore the mask of a bull’s head. But this is pure speculation.

Concerning the labyrinth, however, if we delve deeper into the world of Minoan archaeology, we find that the labyrinth was an actual place of huge ritual significance both to the palace of Knossos and to the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations on the whole.

a labrys, or votive double-headed axe
the first character in Linear A and B

Left: A votive double-axe (labrys) dating to Minoan times. Right: The first character in both the Linear A and B syllabaries, representing the double-axe.

The ritual significance of the “labyrinth”

The word “labyrinth” has the literal meaning “place of the double-axe.” The double-axe is the labrys, a sacred symbol of the Minoans. Votive double-axes belonging to the Minoan period, like the one pictured, were found all over Crete, not only at Knossos. So we could describe each and every of the Minoan palaces as a “labyrinth,” in this sense.

But the connection goes even deeper. The formal symbol of the double-axe in fact represents the letter “A” in the Linear A and B syllabaries. This symbol has been found carved into the foundation blocks of the Minoan palaces and on sacred ritual columns within the palace buildings. Not only the double-axe but the symbolic first letter of the Linear A script had ritual significance to both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, this formal double-axe symbol is the key to drawing a formal, uniform labyrinth pattern. So we can see that the labrys is literally the keystone of the Minoan palaces — not that they were built as formal labyrinths, but perhaps the architects had this perfect design in mind as an archetype while drawing their plans. 

As I said already, it seems that the ritual importance of the double-axe continued into the Mycenaean period. The Mycenaeans decorated their vases, altars, and other ritual objects with these symbols. And in one Linear B inscription there is what may be a dedication to “The Lady of the Labyrinth”: da-pu-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-a. Some academics reject this interpretation, and without more Mycenaean Greek documents we may never know, but that doesn’t stop us from searching for the Labyrinth of Minos, the Minotaur, and even Ariadne among the ruins of the Bronze Age past. 

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