Tuesday 21 May 2019

Labyrinths and initiations by Elisabeth Storrs

Labyrinths have always been a source of fascination to me. None more so than the famous lair of the Minotaur in ancient Crete. According to Greek myth, this bewildering structure was designed by the inventor Daedalus (father of the doomed Icarus) at the behest of King Minos. The maze was built in the city of Knossos to hold the half man/half bull monster to whom 7 youths and 7 maidens were sacrificed each year as tribute owed by the Athenian King Aegeus to Minos for killing the Cretan king’s son. The minotaur was ultimately slain by Aegeus’ son, Theseus, who was sent as one of the sacrificial youths to Knossos. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with the prince and assisted him to kill the monster and then escape the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread to enable him to retrace his path.

Classical pattern, medieval pattern, modern walking labyrinth and hedge maze

A seven course single path design known as ‘unicursal’ became associated with the labyrinth on Cretan coins as early as 430 BC, and became common as a visual depiction of the legendary labyrinth from Roman times onwards. In later religious tradition, large labyrinth designs set into floors were walked and used for private meditation or for therapeutic purposes based on the concept of a pilgrimage from the entrance to the centre where God awaits. In comparison, a maze is a complex pattern with branches and dead ends known as ‘multicursal’ which require a series of choices to be made in order to safely navigate. Medieval garden hedges are a fine example of these.

In the ancient world, the feat of escaping a labyrinth was associated with a triumph of life over death. In some cases, navigating one was seen as a form of initiation where a boy was required to enter as a child and emerge as a man after surviving danger. One such initiation ritual was known as ‘The City of Troy’ in Rome and Etruria.

The City of Troy was a reference to the labyrinth of Crete. Yet what was the connection between the legendary cities of Troy and Knossos? An explanation comes from both archaeological evidence and the poetry of the Roman poet, Vergil.

Tragliatella Vase
In his great epic, The Aeneid, the Roman poet Vergil tells of the wanderings of Aeneas, the son of Anchises and Venus, following the fall of Troy. After fighting to defend the besieged city, Aeneas escaped carrying his father on his shoulders while leading his young son Ascanius (who later came to be called Iulus) to safety. According to Roman tradition, during the funeral games for his grandfather, Ascanius took part in a processional parade or dance called the Game of Troy (Lusus Trojae) while mounted on a horse given to him by the Carthaginian queen Dido. The young prince and his companions performed a complex weaving pattern by riding between and around each other as though threading their way through a labyrinth. Vergil drew a comparison between the tortuous convolutions of the rite to the twisting pathways within the Minotaur’s den at Knossos. He also referred to the manoeuvres of the game as mimicking the ‘Crane Dance’ performed by the youths Theseus saved from the Minotaur. From Vergil’s description it is clear that completing the game involved great skill to avoid injury or death.

The column split apart
As files in the three squadrons all in line
Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled
They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.
They entered then on parades and counter-parades,
The two detachments, matched in the arena,
Winding in and out of one another,
And whipped into sham cavalry skirmishes
By baring backs in flight, then whirling round
With leveled points, then patching up a truce
And riding side by side. So intricate
In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say
The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,
Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways
Devised by guile, a maze insoluable,
Breaking down every clue to the way out.
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses,
Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes        
(Aeneid, V. 5.580–593 Translation by Robert Fitzgerald)

Vergil conjured the image of the Lusus Trojae when writing in the 1st century CE, but there is archaeological evidence of its existence dating from the late C7th BCE. The Tragliatella Vase discovered near the Etruscan city of Caere (modern Cerveteri) depicts two horsemen emerging from a spiral marked with the word ‘Truia’. A line of marching warriors is also displayed on the wine jug which seems to suggest that the vase portrays a military ceremony similar to the one of legend. As the Romans were heavily influenced by the Etruscans, it is plausible that the equestrian ceremony that was later referred to by Vergil was in fact an Etruscan tradition.

Detail Tragliatella Vase City of Troy design
The Game of Troy was ‘revived’ by Julius Caesar who claimed to be a descendant of Iulus (Ascanius) and was performed by the young sons of high ranking families. It was not associated with any particular religious festival and was conducted at funeral games and in military triumphs. Suetonius and Tacitus also wrote of the Lusus Trojae which appears to have become more of a military review by the time of Nero.

With my love of all things Etruscan, I found the etchings on the humble Tragliatella Vase intriguing enough to inspire me to include an episode in my book The Golden Dice: A Tale of Ancient Rome involving the Troy Game. Yet what strikes me most about the Lusus Trojae is how legend, poetry and history are intertwined and held fast by a strong thread from two epic stories that inspired three great civilisations: Etruria, Greece and Rome. 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com  
Images are courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Ruan Peat said...

Always loved going to Longleat park and running around like a wild thing safe in the maze, always getting lost and being beaten to the middle and finish by my little brother! but running through endless seeming hedges over my head height, turning left or right or just round in circles, always trying to get to the bridges and the towers and never managing to get to them all. Many years later I found out my parents could have bought me a map, but they never would spend 'wasted' money on things and while I would have bought it they didn't tell me it was available. I still have a love of mazes and puzzles!

Elisabeth Storrs said...

Sounds like your parents figured a good way to keep the kids occupied even though they might have needed to send out a search party after having a break:) Longleat Park sounds amazing.