The Labyrinth of Crete

IN THE LAST BLOG I looked at the myth of Theseus, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth of Crete. If there was such a Labyrinth, where could it have been?  Its mythical position was Knossos and the finding of many basement rooms at the site by Sir Arthur Evans appeared to have been its origin. However, there is a collection of ‘underground’ passages or caves similar to a labyrinth cut into a hill near Gortyns in the Messara, south of Mount Ida, mid-Crete. This has been a ‘tourist spot’ for several centuries but up until relatively recently (pre-20th century). The labyrinth and its association with a maze held fast during the ancient Greek world and the earliest pictorial example of a maze appears on the reverse of a Linear B tablet (remember linear B? see a prev. blog) from 15th century BC Pylos, presumably a doodle by an idle scribe since the drawing has nothing to do with the list on the reverse (see pic below).


Linear B tablet with labyrinth ‘doodle’

Several non-British individuals have visited the ‘caves’, including Buondelmonti (1415), Belon (1585), Tournefort (1700), Bonneval and Dumas (1783), Sieber (1817). They have all pondered on its use, the favourite being a quarry, although Tournefort considered there was no evidence for a quarry. Some have made plans of its intricate passages but all were different.

 British visitors

In 1596, Fynes Moryson visited the labyrinth and shortly afterwards, in 1611, George Sandys was there. He believed it was a quarry supplying stone for both Knossos and Gortyns.


The entrance to the Gortyn’s labyrinth – in the ground by the tree – not that you will ever find it (the hillside that is)

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Scot William Lithgow (1582-c.1654) saw the entrance into ‘the labyrinth of Daedalus’ in the foothills of Mount Ida but did not venture into the cavern: “… I would gladly have better viewed, but because we had no candle-light we durst not enter, for there are many hollow places within it. So that if a man stumble or fall he can hardly be rescued.”


Thomas Waldman going into the SE ‘entrance’ of the labyrinth at Gortyns – he has a smile on his face because he knows I am to follow …

So what was this mass of passages at Gortyns actually built for? The most likely purpose was a quarry. But there have been other suggestions. Thomas Spratt (1843/51) speculated that it was more likely use was that of a prison for the youths of Athens as tributes for the death of Minos’ son. They would be detained and cultivated as teachers of Minos’ law to the inhabitants of Crete rather than food for the Minotaur (but he didn’t say when). He concluded that the myth had developed from that aspect of fact.


inside the Gortyns’ labyrinth – rather unstable roof!

At the end of the 19th century both Charles Edwardes and R.A.H. Bickford-Smith believed the labyrinth to be both a quarry and prison. Around the same time, Charles Cockerell dismissed it as a mine due to its insufficient mineral in the walls, but concluded that “this wonderful excavation was as a secure storehouse for corn and valuables from attack of robbers in the day of Minos.” In true Thesian style he said he “brought a quantity of string for a clue, which we rolled on two long sticks, then lit torches and went in.” He was quite descriptive of the interior:

“At first one enters a vestibule out of which lead several openings. Two of the three, perhaps four, dark entrances are blocked up, but one remains open. This we followed, and for three mortal hours and more we groped about among intricate passages and in spacious halls. The windings bewildered us at once, and my compass being broken I was quite ignorant as to where I was. The clearly intentional intricacy and apparently endless number of galleries impressed me with a sense of horror and fascination I cannot decide. Every few steps one rested, and had to turn to right or left, sometimes to choose one of three or four roads. What if one should lose the clue [the string]!”

Its date is uncertain although most likely to be of Roman origin which would put pay to any ideas that it was the labyrinth of King Minos (who, if he did exist, would have been in the Bronze Age c3000-1250 BC). For dating and use purposes it may be interesting to compare the structure with the Beer Quarry Caves in East Devon which date back to the Roman period in Britain (click here)

lab map

Thomas Waldman’s plan of the labyrinth (see link below)

The cave structure is some 2.5 km in length and certainly of ‘labyrinthian’ style (see plan above). The southwest entrance was used by the previously mentioned travellers. However, during the last war, the Germans abandoned this and made the southeast entrance but it is now rather more of a pot-hole (3rd pic above). This entrance area was used for ammunition storage and, on their departure, the Germans blew it up, destabilizing the whole of the underground structure (my guide, Thomas, did not tell me this until we were inside the cave structure!). Shortly afterwards the Greek army built a tunnel into this entrance and removed some of remaining ammunition. Some shells were left and are still there today (see pic below), as are the labyrithian tunnels themselves (2nd pic above).


 ammunition shells scattered in the labyrinth – not very safe!

Recent activity

The cave was explored by the Speleological Exploring Group in 1982, and then the Hellenic Speleological Society, led by Anna Petrohilou, in 1984.  In 1999 the Cretan department of the Hellenic Speleological Society recorded all the signatures on the walls of the cave. In 2004, following a major investigation of the underground structure at Gortyns, Yiorgios Patroudakis prudently commented:

“From ancient times until now, many guessed and argued the position of the labyrinth, but none ever proved his/her theory. The labyrinth of Gortyne became the biggest tourist scene for 600 years, exactly because it was assumed that it was the ‘true’ labyrinth. Furthermore, from our knowledge, a clue to prove that this was the labyrinth never appeared. However, a clue to prove the opposite never arose either.”



SW entrance isn’t much better

Certainly the most comprehensive and more recent investigations of the site have been by Thomas M. Waldmann – to whom I owe eternal thanks for showing me around the site in 2010. It has now been closed to the public due to its dangers (but you won’t find it anyway!). However, if you are interested in more information on it, see Thomas’ very extensive findings and photos click here.


Next week: Crete: the island that tipped

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

Today I gave a talk at my club, the ‘Wig & Trowel’, regarding my truly remarkable discovery in respect of the actual existence of Adam and possibly Eve.  I came across an inscription on clay tablet of a conversation between Adam and God, which I have translated as follows:

 ‘And the Lord did approach Adam and sayeth: “I’ll give you woman, and she will attend to your every need.”

“That sounds fantastic, God, what’s the catch?” sayeth Adam in response.

“Well, she will be expensive,” replieth God unto Adam, “she will cost you an arm and a leg,”

“Hmmm,” Adam did think and replieth unto God, “What have you got for a rib?”






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