Labyrinths

Drawing of psychological labyrinth by Robert Jarrell

The symbol, structure, and utilitarian purpose of labyrinths have been with us for a long time. In fact, the labyrinth is one of the first structures created and can be found in many cultures throughout the world, both ancient and modern. What is intriguing about ancient labyrinths from varying cultures is how they came to exist without those cultures having contact with each other. This concept is called convergence, a term created by James Frazier in his book The Golden Bough. The concept suggest that existence is formed by a universal psychic template that stirs humans to create and act in specific ways. Our psychic template consist of what Carl Jung termed archetypes and the collective unconscious, primal material made up of innate and unstructured psychological conditions that defy cultural boundaries. In other words, human nature has a universal foundation, and in the case of labyrinths, it is a powerful symbol regardless of where we live or what culture we belong to.

Archetypes are difficult to apply to today’s world. Many sociologists and psychoanalyst argue that contemporary societies have broken or lost connection to the collective unconscious and this is why many people feel spiritually empty or have psychological issues. Dreams, in many ways, have supplanted the experiences we no longer have in our daily lives as a means to provide the psychic information we need to be whole.

About ten years ago I recall hanging out with some friends in a bar in San Francisco. We were discussing various topics when everyone became interested in a graphic novel I was working on (one that I never completed) when another friend said he was also working on a novel, even though he wasn’t a writer per se. I asked him what the novel was about. He wasn’t too specific, but in a general way he described it as being set in the future with an underground world that was a kind of labyrinth. The odd thing was that my graphic novel had a similar setting of an underground world and it was also set in the future, but I had never mentioned that to anyone as I was trying to protect it, keep it a secret. At the time I thought it was interesting that we had similar ideas, a convergence, and that our analogous vision of a future underground labyrinth may be a kind of archetypal symbol. Neither I nor my friend were professional writers or artists, but we were both in tune with something that called for this concept of an underground labyrinth to be expressed and I imagine that other people must have had similar visions. I’ve since seen this labyrinthine symbol in many facets of the arts and realize now that my unfinished graphic novel was not so original. In one form or another, physically or figuratively, the labyrinth appears in many films such as Delicatessen, Cube, Slaughterhouse Five, Satyricon, and even Aliens; it is present in many novels such as Alice in Wonderland and Kafka’s The Castle, and artworks by Francesco Clemente and Anselm Keifer. The labyrinth was an important symbol in ancient times and remains a powerful symbol in many contemporary cultures today.

From ancient history to our present time various forms of labyrinths have reflected what is most essential about existence: the inexplicable mysteriousness of life, death, and transcendent experience. In ancient Greek culture the labyrinth manifested itself as sacrifice with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In underground Egyptian tombs it was a method to confuse intruders and keep the tomb intact, even though it never really worked, except in the case of King Tutankhamen. In The Aenid the labyrinth is an entrance to the underworld. In many African cultures it is a strategy game. In contemporary culture is can either be a religious experience by traversing a labyrinth inside a church (a tradition going back to the Chemin de Jerusalem of Medieval times in Europe), a way to pleasantly pass the time by taking a stroll in a garden labyrinth, or it can be used as a fictional device in literature.


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For some, indeed, the techno labyrinth must be masturbatory, replacing TV videos and adult magazines, as brains register with pixels that send erotic messages to loins, all with the simple click of a mouse. To say this labyrinth is beneficial or dangerous is debatable, but what is certain is that it has changed us.


There are two general types of labyrinths: unicursal and multicursal. Unicursal labyrinths have no forks, and thus no choices to make; they lead directly to the center. A standard example of the unicursal labyrinth is the “minoan labyrinth” found on ancient Greek, Minoan, and Mycenaean coins. Multicursal labyrinths are just the opposite; they are more complex and contain multiple paths and choices to make. They often cause one to get lost or confused. Examples of multicursal labyrinths are found in Egyptian tombs, or are most often used as symbols or literary devices in contemporary fiction. In Kafka’s The Castle, for example, it represents how the bureaucracy has created a labyrinth in dealing with human relationships and how they have hindered it difficult to achieve one’s personal goals. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the modern urban environment of Dublin, Ireland, is presented as a sprawling maze, but also Joyce’s treatment of narrative and character achieves a multicursal form throughout the novel. Probably the most direct example in fiction of the multicursal labyrinth can be found in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, not only with its metafiction (story as found disposition that analyzes a novel that doesn’t really exist), but also as the underlying theme of pathways in time, not physical space. Borges analyzes the fiction within the fiction as a breakdown of man’s choices in his life. Traditionally man makes a choice and all others cease to be, but in The Garden of Forking Paths, all choices are available and all are made so that diverse futures, times, and lives coexist. Not only is this multicursal, but also multidimensional. Borges regarding his forking paths:

In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork…In the work of Ts’ui Pen, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge; for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend.

One of the oldest labyrinths is located on the island Crete in present day Greece and is mainly known as the Knossos Labyrinth. It was built sometime around 1930 to 1380 BCE (before common era). It was once considered to be the palace of King Minos while others theorized it was possibly a bath house or burial site. Present day research, however, argues that it was most likely a temple run by woman priestess. It is a massive site with an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 mazelike rooms and was originally five stories high with some structures underground. It has a large central courtyard and four entrances. The main entrance is from the west, which is unusual if the site was truly a temple because entering buildings from the west in the ancient world deemed them as burial or funeral sites. Some have speculated that the site could be the physical location of the Theseus and Minotaur myth as archaeologist discovered hundreds of children’s corpses nearby. This is significant because the myth of Theseus involved the sacrifice of children who were chosen by lottery from Athens to enter the labyrinth and fight the Minotaur. The corpses could be the lottery children from Athens.

Plato once described such a place similar to the Knossos Labyrinth in his works Timaeus and Critias in reference to the lost mythical city of Atlantis. Many scholars believe that Plato’s descriptions of Atlantis closely resemble the physical appearance and location of the Knossos Labyrinth, yet there is no conclusive evidence. If the site was where Theseus battled the Minotaur the labyrinth makes since, otherwise if it was a temple, burial site, or simply a pleasure palace it remains inexplicable.

In our modern world of computers, information, and technology it can be said that the Internet in many ways resembles a very complex labyrinth. We surf the web, sometimes getting snagged with pages deleted from servers, only to click our browser’s back button and google another pathway. Instead of battling a minotaur we battle information, downloads, speed, icons and content. We send and receive messages. Others search the maze for things to buy. Some play games. Pleasure seekers surf for explicit images. For some, indeed, the techno labyrinth must be masturbatory, replacing TV videos and adult magazines, as brains register with pixels that send erotic messages to loins, all with the simple click of a mouse. To say this labyrinth is beneficial or dangerous is debatable, but what is certain is it has changed us.

Sometimes looking at a city is like looking a labyrinth. View Manhattan from a plane, or traverse through Tokyo’s backstreets and you get this feeling. How often I’ve looked at San Francisco (where I live) as a complex labyrinth in similar ways as Borges. I look at its history, but also my own direct experience of it over time. This one restaurant use to be on this corner but is no longer there, yet it remains in my memory. I fell in love with a girl in this bar that Jack Kerouac use to hang out in, and fifteen years later I’m in that same bar, but now I’m with another woman, my wife, but where is Jack? Jack is dead, yet On the Road is in my coat pocket and his words are as alive as the old Jazz music that still play from the bar’s stereo. I’m a boy in the backseat of my parent’s car and they drive lost through the unfamiliar city—bridge tops, skyscrapers, the ocean and hills at angles and curves—the fog like a blanket of magic luring me so that a decade later I will move here. And now my adult dreams of the city … the recurring image of San Francisco as labyrinth, fog like breath, sky vanishing, city underground, am I awake or sleeping as I float like a character in a Darren Aronofsky movie through a maze of Victorian houses searching for the end or center? This labyrinth is endless and in my dreams I venture like Jung has pointed out, a universal archetype of Theseus striking down a Minotaur that exist only within myself, or maybe I’m searching for Atlantis, which somehow, somewhere, is kind of like the source code of a web page universally accessible by all.