The Difference 

What is the difference between a labyrinth and maze?

First off, you are sure to have seen both types without necessarily being aware they are cordoned off linguistically. In modern culture the selection is often made according to context. The 1986 David Bowie film, which features a very Cretan maze, is called Labyrinth because the name suggests something much more complex, inescapable and consuming –the archetypal fear of getting lost because reality is greater than the tools we have for navigation.


The nutshell difference is that labyrinths do not contain choices. They are a unicursal path from the outside to the center. They can represent a spiritual journey, a fortification or a return from death . The maze is a thirteenth century invention which found its epitome in the formal garden maze of the seventeenth century and while the labyrinth has close ties to ritual, the maze is much closer in form to a game.


Mazes represent the development of the concept into an architectural design that can be enjoyed as a puzzle but one that taps into our basest fears. The maze is a small area, but once inside we are haunted by its strange distortions of time and space. The maze limits our horizon; seen from above we can find a solution, but on a ground level we cannot reconstruct the labyrinth in our mind and must solve it one turn at a time.

The mishmash of terms is also due to symbols being a means to compress complex ideas into a holographic signature. While the Minotaur could only safely be contained in a maze, the first representations come to us as the classic labyrinth in circular or square form. Coins minted in Knossos by the Greeks bore this symbol and it represented the myth in full, with its richer, psychological depths. In Ancient Greek and Roman design the meander is a common decorative border comprising a linear labyrinth. The line is the basis of geometry, but what is a line? We associate the line with order, but taking it through a simple series of turns it begins to juggle disorder and here the labyrinth emerges. The meander mimics the twists and turns of a river and in Ancient Greece these patterns may have represented both infinity and unity: forces that extend and continue against boundaries that control.


Once the meander evolved into more labyrinthine designs the human mind began to imagine it as some kind of ground plan: a path you could walk. Finally, the complexity grew and decision-making, frustration and a way to win created a better game. The garden maze has stayed with us, and has many modern permutations such as the corn maze, mirror maze and even in modern art such as the work of Richard Serra. Early video games were essentially mazes filled with monsters –Pacman’s arena is both maze and labyrinth– and video game design, for many genres, still rests on a choice-based path-structure.


Labyrinths are more symbolic than real. They were walked as a ritual-game to help us transcend the embodiment of life: only from above, or after death, can we escape our physical immanence. God hands us the key. The maze is the concrete realisation of our bodily limits on earth and the boundaries that limit our freedom and obscure the horizon. If you find the centre of the maze you win a game, but there is always another maze waiting for you outside.


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