Dictionary.com

Lexical Investigations: Labyrinth

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

Labyrinth

According to Greek mythology, the sea god Poseidon gave a bull to King Minos of Crete. Poseidon expected the King to sacrifice the bull and was furious when the King chose to keep the bull instead. As punishment, he made Minos’s wife fall in love with the bull, and the two had a child, half-man and half-bull, called the Minotaur. The Minotaur grew up to be quite the man-eater (literally), and so King Minos had an impenetrable maze built called the labyrinth to contain the beast. The word labyrinth originally came from an unknown, pre-Greek language, but was later absorbed by Greek and Latin. It has long been used to refer to the structure allegedly located in Crete as well as other physical mazes. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was used figuratively as well, as when Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida in 1609, “How now, Thersites? What lost in the Labyrinth of thy furie?”

Popular References:

Labyrinth, Movie, David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, 1986. A teenage girl must travel through the Goblin King’s maze to rescue her baby brother.

House of Leaves,  Mark Danielewski, 2000. The story of a labyrinthine and supernatural house, told with an unconventional structure that mirrors the twists and turns and blind alleys of the house itself. The story of Minotaur is woven throughout.

Myths & Legends: Stories Gods Heroes Monsters, by Philip Wilkinson, 2009.

Relevant Quotations:

“Now if he does not look to himself, they will put him in a labyrinth from which he will hardly escape.”

—Henry VIII, Letters and papers, foreign and domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII (1537)

‘And when thou hast on foot the purblind hare,

Mark the poor wretch, to overshoot his troubles

How he outruns the winds, and with what care

He cranks and crosses with a thousand doubles:

The many musits through the which he goes

Are like a labyrinth to amaze his foes.

—William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, lines 679-684 (1593)

“But that we must seek a way through the labyrinth to whatever destiny awaits us is inescapable.”

—Richard W. Wilson, Labyrinth: an Essay on the Political Philosophy of Change (1988)

Read our previous post in our on-going series Lexical Investigations about the head-covering hat balaclava.

48 Comments

  1. sam E. -  November 23, 2015 - 5:48 pm

    “Labyrinth” is the Minoan word for “the house of the double ax” and was used to refer to the palace by Minoans themselves. It developed into meaning “maze” by westerners.

    Reply
  2. Soraya -  October 18, 2015 - 9:52 am

    ‘How will i ever get out of this labyrinth!’

    - Simon Bolivar

    I find this quote quite life changing, i will admit i did not go searching for such last words. I was simply reading a novel when it struck me, life is not the labyrinth. Death is not the labyrinth. The suffering in between the two is the labyrinth. Soon after Alaska discovered this too which only made me love this quote even more. Life and death are words, simply words. Words that WE created. Love, happiness, sadness are also words, the world is made of words created by us. We have created this perception in our heads of what the world should be and not looked around to see what it really is. Soon we will all be gone, then our kids will be gone then their kids and so on. Until nobody is left, most of feel as if the best way out of labyrinth is straight and fast. But we bypass all the good in the world and only see the bad. The world, just like the people in it, have both good and bad. So we associate the word ‘suffering’ with bad things and pain and we don’t see the good in it. So, yes the labyrinth represents suffering but is all suffering bad? Suffering and pain make us who we are. This message may seem very deep for a 13 year old but i simply opened my mind to the bigger picture. We created this world that we think is a big mess, and because we think it a mess we don’t stop to look and take in everything. Soon everything will be gone then the world really will be a mess and will having nothing but runes of old buildings and nobody to remember the truly good of the world. We go on hating people, blaming them for the problems in our life but what does it matter? Is someone knocks you down there’s only yourself to blame if you don’t pick yourself back up and dust yourself off.

    Reply
  3. Annabel Katherine -  April 5, 2013 - 4:14 pm

    I have heard and read a similar version of this post; labyrinth was said to be the wife of Satan and the hater of all children. Is this true?

    Reply
    • Soraya -  October 18, 2015 - 9:55 am

      we have come to think the labyrinth is all the bad in the world, it is not however. It is the suffering of the world which is definitely not all the bad and horrible things off the world. Remember also that myths like that were created by us therefor we are the only ones with the answers.

      Reply
  4. katzarai -  March 19, 2013 - 10:11 am

    The many musits through the which he goes

    —William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, lines 679-684 (1593)

    I find it interesting indeed, that the word ‘musits’ should appear on Dictionary.com, and yet there be not a hint of definition for same. I did however, find elsewhere on the internet, these two (more or less,) helpful items:

    Fashion Then and Now: Illustrated by Anecdotes, Social, Political, Military by Lord William Pitt Lennox (1878)
    “Cranks : winds. t musits. The term is explained in Markham’s ‘ Gentleman’s Academy, 1595. ” We term the place where she (the hare) sitteth, …”

    and:

    musit (ˈmjuːzɪt)

    Definitions
    noun

    (East Anglia, dialect) a hole or gap in a fence or hedge through which animals pass; also muset (Collins Online)

    Reply
  5. @Prairiespride -  March 17, 2013 - 11:18 am

    Victoria Bergesen,
    I hope you write again when you find that book.

    Reply
  6. @Prairiespride -  March 17, 2013 - 11:16 am

    Well, I see it.
    It’s “Dr. OutreAmour” after all.
    Now, it’s I who blush!

    Reply
  7. @Prairiespride -  March 17, 2013 - 11:15 am

    I apologize ~ I see it’s “Dr. Amour Outre.”
    Thanks for a satisfying discussion.

    Reply
  8. @Prairiespride -  March 17, 2013 - 11:14 am

    Adrian, I appreciate your learned, wise outline for thinking this through.
    Thank you, Dr. Outre Amour for resolving this question.
    The labyrinth, in the sense of arduous path with a certain end, is useful to people in my community. They use it for meditation, and to reflect on their lives and choices.
    In no sense would the maze be useful for this; it’s too much like real life! Unlike real life mazes, labyrinths may be fun only for adults.
    Children still delight in mazes.

    Reply
  9. nadine -  March 11, 2013 - 6:59 pm

    @ Samuel Goodman

    Think about it, the Percy Jackson series are based incredibly closely on Greek Myths, The labyrinth in the books is based exclusively on the Greek labyrinth. Why do you expect people to mention something like this, when the writer of the Percy Jackson series has literally taken Greek Mythology and given it a modern twist?

    Reply
  10. Graeme Heaqp -  March 11, 2013 - 5:48 pm

    What a splendid word!

    I thank all contributors for giving the common reader so much interest and pleasure.

    Reply
  11. The original John -  March 11, 2013 - 5:45 pm

    What pre-Greek language did it come from, that is what was promised and what was not delivered. “Some” is not an answer, not an acceptable answer anyway.

    Reply
  12. Samuel Goodman -  March 11, 2013 - 8:42 am

    yes. Thank you, Hunter

    Reply
  13. Samuel Goodman -  March 11, 2013 - 8:41 am

    Wow. And the Labyrinth in the book “Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth” doesn’t get any mention? It’s practically the epitome of the word labyrinth. It’s a never ending maze where time runs faster and where you could pop up anywhere in the U.S.

    Reply
  14. TychaBrahe -  March 10, 2013 - 10:45 am

    @Dr. AmourOutre on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    The inability of the general public to distinguish between a labyrinth and a maze does not imply that they are the same thing, nor does the fact that they are synonyms. “Big” and “tall” are generally considered synonyms, but tall means outsized in the vertical direction only, while big can mean outsized in any or multiple directions.

    The public is notoriously uneducated. They think that “hopefully” means “I hope that” and “surprised” means “astonished.”

    Reply
  15. Jason -  March 10, 2013 - 9:24 am

    Although he calls it The Pattern (and The Logrus), the construct walked by the characters in Roger Zelazny’s “The Chronicles of Amber” is clearly a labyrinth. The characters walk this construct, and its reflections, with great difficulty but gain control over the shadow worlds by completing the Pattern.

    Reply
  16. Alex R. -  March 10, 2013 - 9:12 am

    How can we trust that the word Labyrinth does in fact, come from a language unkown and previous to Latin and Greek? Is there no source for this kind of knowledge?

    Reply
  17. Choo -  March 9, 2013 - 7:41 pm

    Wow! How interesting! Another version of how the “labyrinth” came to be. I always was taught that Daedalas had to make the labyrinth in order to contain the Minotaur that Queen Pasiphae fell in love with because she mocked Aphrodite’s existence.

    Reply
  18. K.D. Borcoman -  March 9, 2013 - 3:45 pm

    To OutreAmour
    Funny–the term “labyrinth” is defined as: an intricate combination of paths or passages in which it is difficult to find one’s way or to reach the exit. Synonyms: maze, network, web. This seems to parallel with the ancient Greek.

    Reply
  19. Adrian -  March 8, 2013 - 10:12 pm

    Interestingly, this topic and its responses bring up an interesting subject: My Lakota grandfather (who was Lakota and spoke before the United Nations as the representative of all native people in the Americas) always said that the English language is very dangerous because its roots are in anglo-saxon, latin and german and so on. He was perturbed by words like “and”, “but”, “if” etc, but what he really meant is that it is entirely philosophical to exchange views on whether or not a “labyrinth” and a “maze” are essentially the same; now suppose you need to get from here to there, a half-man half-bull enraged beast meaning to kill you somewhere in between, and the question whether or not “labyrinth” and “maze” are the same thing in the English language is no longer philosophical. Because if one was to find themselves in such a situation and would need to know whether the way through a labyrinth is by strictly and only following the path, or if it is a maze where straying is strongly encouraged and every mistake is a step closer to success, the Greek person will know the difference and tell you. If he says “labyrinth”, that’s what he means.
    Probably not an educated person, but most any English speaking person will just tell you not to worry about it because it’s “essentially” the same thing.
    It is? Essentially? Really?

    Apparently, it’s up for debate so sadly yes, “really”. But as for “essentially”, how can you refine the essence of something that is, essentially, a strawberry pineapple banana something? Thank God for Dictionary.com where at least, if people “choose” to add or take away meaning from a word, they’ll at least let us know that much so that next time we poor mortals are up against a Minotaur on a bad day, they’ll let us know!

    Reply
  20. ItsallGreektoMe -  March 8, 2013 - 11:56 am

    had a conversation about the differences between a maze and labyrinth in school a few weeks back.

    it ended with me in bed with a migraine

    professors please refrain from screaming

    Thanks

    Reply
  21. Helen -  March 7, 2013 - 7:19 pm

    Greek mythology always interested me. I have any friends that are Greek and have theories about this article, but I found it necessary to look it up myself.
    So what did I do?
    I woke up in the morning, slapped my alarm oclock (how many other people make his mistake) excuseme *cough cough* alarm CLOCK, and did some internet searching. The dictionary? How would that help me?
    I thank you, dictionary.com
    God bless you all
    And to all a good night
    And… scene

    Reply
  22. Dr. AmourOutre -  March 7, 2013 - 6:00 pm

    @Dr. OutreAmour on March 5, 2013 at 9:31 am

    You are the one who is confused about the definitions. I assume you have heard of the context where people walk along labyrinths as part of meditative exercises. Thus, you must share your inaccurate “knowledge” for all to hear. People use the words maze and labyrinth interchangeably because they are synonyms. Your argument is invalid.

    Reply
  23. Joy -  March 7, 2013 - 1:04 pm

    The first unicursal labyrinth, not a maze pattern is thought to be about 4000 years old, founld on the isle of Crete, called the classical 7 circuit labyrinth and sometimes called the Cretan labyrinth. Many different patterns have been found throughout the world over the ages including the Hopi Native Americans “man in the basket” that shares the most ancient pattern. The second most famous pattern was built into the stone floor of the Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral around 1100 AD. Ironically, I own a large canvas replica which I bring to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, NY, every Lent–where I am this very minute. We will take it down at 7 this evening

    Reply
  24. Jest -  March 7, 2013 - 8:31 am

    Being Greek myself,i can assure you that “labyrinth” was of uncertain origin until absorbed into the language through the above Myth,thus giving it the definition of an intricate structure where entrance and exit are vague and hardly discovered.One must consider that in Greek,”Labyrinth”has not one synonym,whereas in English it has at least one of profound connection(maze).
    Nevertheless,the word took it’s route through history to come to the meaning we all are aware of,I don’t believe there’s any reason of usage with disregard to that.

    Reply
  25. Bubba -  March 7, 2013 - 8:23 am

    Amaz!ng

    Reply
  26. wordsmith -  March 7, 2013 - 7:09 am

    from the online OED:
    Explains the double-headed ax reference as a possible origin of the word labyrinth:

    labyrinth (n.)
    c.1400, laberynthe (late 14c. in Latinate form laborintus) “labyrinth, maze,” figuratively “bewildering arguments,” from Latin labyrinthus, from Greek labyrinthos “maze, large building with intricate passages,” especially the structure built by Daedelus to hold the Minotaur near Knossos in Crete, from a pre-Greek language; perhaps related to Lydian labrys “double-edged axe,” symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace on Crete and meant “palace of the double-axe.” Used in English for “maze” early 15c., and in figurative sense of “confusing state of affairs” (1540s).

    Reply
  27. Mrs. Livingston -  March 7, 2013 - 5:00 am

    It was always my understanding that a maze has portions where there are dead ends, and is for a game of fun. A labyrinth has no dead ends, and is a test of skill often with codes inside or messages and is more of a punishment or tourture, so no landmarks can be set up since there are no dead ends. I have never heard of it for meditation. It sounds like the word has been adapted to have this modern meaning for a meditative labyrinth, perhaps for landscaping purposes? In Greek Mythology, however, there was no escape from the labyrinith and it was always called a labyrinth. Since Shakespear uses myths, like most scholars and educated people in his time, he used that word to mean tourture, not meditative.

    Reply
  28. BERNADETTE/BENNIE -  March 7, 2013 - 12:44 am

    HI…LOVE WORDS…THANKS FOR ALL THAT. AS FOR LABYRINTH AND ITS VARIOUS MEANINGS..I CAN’T EVEN MAKE UP MY MIND ABOUT MY NAME!

    Reply
  29. Polaris Castillo -  March 6, 2013 - 10:11 pm

    What about “Pan’s Labyrinth”? It’s the most beautiful film in pop culture about a labyrinth!

    Reply
  30. Robin Turner -  March 6, 2013 - 10:10 pm

    Sorry, I just wrote “it’s” instead of “its” and there is no edit feature in this forum. I blush.

    Reply
  31. Robin Turner -  March 6, 2013 - 10:08 pm

    It is wrong to assume that a technical definition is somehow more correct than the popular one. Here, if anything, the reverse is true, since Theseus would not have needed a ball of yarn to find his way out of a labyrinth that had only one possible route! The OED regards the terms “labyrinth” and “maze” as synonyms, giving as it’s definition of “labyrinth” “A structure consisting of a number of intercommunicating passages arranged in bewildering complexity, through which it is difficult or impossible to find one’s way without guidance; a maze.”

    Reply
  32. Sergio Moreno -  March 6, 2013 - 3:24 pm

    I just watched a cooking show where I heard that the idea of a labyrinth most likely comes from dealing with intestines.

    Reply
  33. Hunter -  March 6, 2013 - 2:49 pm

    do investigation on pegasus

    Reply
  34. Khoi -  March 6, 2013 - 2:47 pm

    I love reading these articles about the history of words and the world itself.

    Reply
  35. Hunter -  March 6, 2013 - 2:46 pm

    Labryinth is also used in the Percy Jackson series

    Reply
  36. jiberish -  March 6, 2013 - 1:38 pm

    @Dr. OutreAmour. Modern, or at least post-twelfth to fourteenth century, definitions of labyrinth are generally consistent with your definition. However the traditional definition dates back to antiquity where it quite literally meant maze, in which the ancient Greek λαβύρινθος (which is surprisingly close to the modern day spelling) refers to a convoluted structure much like that in the palace of Knosos which is largely understood to be the basis of the Minotaur tale. The palace of Knosos contained in it an intricate array of passageways, chambers and antechambers which produce an abundance of dead ends and no “singular path”. You can probably thank the Christian church for the dual meaning, they popularized the meditation paths in the West, referring to them primarily as “labyrinths”. However they only resemble a labyrinth in the traditional sense, really they are meant to symbolize the long and arduous path to god/enlightenment/fulfillment.

    Reply
  37. LABYRINTH | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  March 6, 2013 - 9:56 am

    [...] ‘Labyrinth’ of lexical Investigations — Round and round she goes — Whether balaclava and forth — Neither Saussure he knows — The incoming, outgoing — Awesome awfully shows — It’s still all Greek to US. — Baby in a Maze or puzzle — Running from Minotaur’s muzzle — First to wash and later to the labyrinth. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme, RLTR and tagged LT, LTRhyme, RLTR, the HOT WORD on March 6, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

    Reply
  38. Linda Herrick -  March 6, 2013 - 9:16 am

    Yes, Keith. In my studies, the double-headed ax or labrys was prevalent in the Minoan culture. I’ve never clearly understood the connection between the maze and the ax, but I like your idea of a word for power. Words evolve.

    Reply
  39. Victoria Bergesen -  March 6, 2013 - 7:53 am

    I teach the history of landscape design. In the field of landscape architecture a labyrinth is for meditation, a walkway offering no choices leading to a center and then out again. A maze offers choices, most of which lead to dead ends.

    I agree that labyrinth and maze are confused, but we can not blame English language speakers. The confusion lies deeper. My English dictionaries give maze and labyrinth as synonyms. The French have resorted to borrowing a word from the Germans (Irrgarten) to distinguish a maze from a labyrinth. For the French to borrow a German word speaks of desperation to me!

    Excuse my French, but Jardins, Potagers et Labyrinthes by Lucia Impelluso says, “Le labyrinthe présuppose un parcours difficile et tortueux, mais d’une issue favorable; l’Irrgarten (“labyrinthe”) met l’accent sur l’irrationalité du cheminement et sur le sens du désarroi qui en découle.” p. 163

    My translation: “The labyrinth presupposes a difficult and tortuous path, but with a favorable outcome. The Irrgarten places the stress on the irrationality of the road and on the sense of disorientation which results.”

    I have a book about about mazes and labyrinths, but can’t lay my hands on it at the moment. Will write again when I find it.

    Reply
  40. Steve -  March 6, 2013 - 3:15 am

    Since sugestions had been made from different personels.What then is correct about the word Labyrinth?

    Reply
  41. Ashley -  March 5, 2013 - 8:50 pm

    Oh what, Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t even get a mention?

    Reply
  42. Andrew -  March 5, 2013 - 4:12 pm

    Don’t forget about Pan’s Labyrinth…

    Reply
  43. Lesieli -  March 5, 2013 - 1:10 pm

    Love thesarus on dictionary……

    Reply
  44. Keith -  March 5, 2013 - 12:01 pm

    The article is most probably right in arguing that Labyrinth is identifiable with a maze and comes from an unknown language and was absorbed by the Greeks.

    But another version is that it originally meant something quite different from maze. It could have been double-headed axe, laby meaning two or double (think human lips) and rinth for an axe. The double headed axe would have been some sort of symbol for royal power; there are several examples of frescoes showing Cretan double headed axes.

    Somewhere along the line of history the word for a symbol for royal power became the word for another symbol for royal power. Might be far-fetched but interesting nonetheless how the meanings and concepts of words can change over time.

    Reply
  45. tayten lierle -  March 5, 2013 - 11:18 am

    I like the story about the tree. Keep up the good work

    Reply
  46. Dr. OutreAmour -  March 5, 2013 - 9:31 am

    A labyrinth is very different from a maze and I get annoyed when the words are used interchangeably. A labyrinth is a single, continuous path on which no one can get lost or confused. A maze has walls that make it impossible to see the exit and contains many dead-end paths intended to confuse. A person in a maze has to concentrate on finding the correct path out; a walker in a labyrinth has no such concerns. That distinction is, in fact, why people walk along labyrinths as part of meditative exercises.

    Reply
  47. Ostara Hollyoak -  March 5, 2013 - 6:05 am

    I presume “labyrinth” is connected, etymologically, to the word, “labrys”–?

    Reply

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