Mazes: a journey into history

maze at Puesto Viejo Estancia Argentina
Mazes can be made of hedges –like the one at Puesto Viejo Estancia–, corn, wood or mirrors. They can be spiritually calming or visually stimulating, and they can incite feelings of panic, excitement or serenity. Mazes have been a part of human culture for thousands of years.

There are two forms of mazes: unicursal and multicursal. Unicursal mazes have no blind alleys and therefore do not pose much of a puzzle to those that negotiate them. A multicursal design, however, has blind alleys and branches and finding the “goal” of the maze presents a challenge.

Although the true origins of the maze probably go back to neolithic times, the earliest mazes we know of were actually parts of architectural monuments built in Egypt and on Crete about 4000 years ago.

The first recorded maze in history was the Egyptian Labyrinth. A vast palace complex located on the shores of a lake seven days journey up the Nile from the pyramids, the Labyrinth was built by pharaoh Amenemhet III in the 19th century BC. It consisted of thousands of rooms and twelve large maze-like courtyards, which were probably intended to keep out unwelcome visitors.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, most labyrinths took on a decidedly religious nature. No longer were they three-dimensional walled structures; instead, they could be found painted on the floors and walls of religious enclaves. The meaning of these labyrinths remains mysterious, though several theories exist. Some believe that the winding path was meant to symbolize the difficult life of an early Christian. Others feel that the labyrinths were meant to depict the entangling nature of sin. Still others believe that the labyrinths were used to create a sort of “mini-pilgrimage” that a parishioner would take if they committed a small sin.

During the Middle Ages, labyrinths evolved from spiritual journeys to amusing pastimes. As kings and queens built up elaborate gardens, they would often include some sort of hedge maze as a diversion for themselves and guests. Mazes have retained their close relationship with gardens ever since—today, most public mazes exist in the form of hedge mazes or corn mazes, the latter being a distinctly American invention.

There have been many guesses as to what mazes were for. Certainly many people feel the fascination of mazes, especially branching mazes where you can get lost, and there are myths and stories about them from Theseus to the modern day.

DID YOU KNOW?

Many people believe that walking a labyrinth can produce a calming effect on the brain by balancing the logical and artistic centers.