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What’s the difference between a maze and a labyrinth?

Posted:
28 June 2016
Posted By:
Franziska Wittenstein
Categories:
History Uncovered, Things To Do

Do you know difference between these two types of puzzling pathway? Franziska Wittenstein, a Trainee Gardener at Wrest Park – who has helped recreate a 300 year old maze for visitors to explore this summer – explains the difference between mazes and labyrinths.

The difference between mazes and labyrinths is that labyrinths have a single continuous path which leads to the centre, and as long as you keep going forward, you will get there eventually. Mazes have multiple paths which branch off and will not necessarily lead to the centre.

In a maze, you can get lost, but in a labyrinth, you can’t. Mazes arguably derived from labyrinths, slowly evolving into more elaborate forms featuring multiple (branching) paths, and then to having dead ends, and even, in some cases, traps.

Famous labyrinths and mazes in history

Historically, the terms ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ appear to have often been used interchangeably although in the present day they are considered to be distinct terms.

The oldest known mazes are Egyptian, and largely served the purpose of keeping looters away from the tombs of the important and wealthy. The Egyptian maze at Faiyum, beside Amenemhet III’s tomb (which sadly no longer exists) was hailed by some as a wonder of the world, and was said to be comprised of over 3,000 chambers. Pliny, the Roman author and philosopher, wrote in his book Natural History that the maze at Faiyum had ‘laborious windings with their baffling intricacy’.

The most famous early labyrinth, which housed the mythical Minotaur on the island of Crete, was reportedly based upon the Faiyum maze. Confusingly, though the Cretan labyrinth is called a ‘labyrinth’, historically it has been often depicted in artistic interpretation as either a labyrinth or a maze. This confusion of the two terms is widespread.

Labyrinths and Mazes in Europe and England

Turf labyrinths (colloquially known as ‘mizmazes’) have a long history in Europe – they’re recorded as early as the 15th century in Germany. For a while they were scorned by the Church as a pagan symbol. However, during the Crusades when passage to the Holy Land became dangerous, labyrinths were encouraged for symbolic, spiritual pilgrimages. Traditionally, mizmazes were one mile (about 1.6km) long.

Labyrinth mown into the grass at Whitby Abbey, June 2016

Labyrinth mown into the grass at Whitby Abbey, June 2016

In English gardens, mazes began to be introduced in the middle of the 16th century, but they continued to be popular throughout the 17th century. The famous maze at Hampton Court was created in the 1690s for William III, for example. The design of formal geometric gardens in this period often included mazes laid out in blocks. The tradition continued into the early 18th century, and Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening, published in 1728, included several designs for mazes.

Many English labyrinths and mazes were lost in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries either through later garden design or ploughing. However, some have been restored or recreated for modern visitors – including the new maze at Wrest Park, and a temporary labyrinth at Whitby Abbey.

Recreating a Maze at Wrest Park

We know from plans of the gardens at Wrest Park published in 1707 that the areas which were historically referred to as ‘the wildernesses,’ were in fact hedge mazes. The term ‘wildernesses’ is thought to refer to their propensity to bewilder people, rather than because they were actually wild.

These mazes at Wrest Park are interesting because they are a great example early mazes, which are a sort of hybrid of both mazes and labyrinths. They are not labyrinths, because the paths branch, but unlike most modern mazes, they have no dead ends.  We decided to recreate these mazes in the Kitchen Garden at Wrest Park this summer.

Kip and Knyff plan for Wrest Park circa 1704, but published in 1707 in Britannia Illustrata showing the mazes known as 'wildernesses'.

Kip and Knyff plan for Wrest Park circa 1704, but published in 1707 in Britannia Illustrata showing the mazes known as ‘wildernesses’.

As the house was relocated in the early 19th century, it wasn’t practical to fit the mazes into their historic position as they no longer fit in with the design of the garden in that area. But the new position does allow them to be easily accessible to all visitors, while also creating a place to highlight their significance in the history of the gardens.

Working with a high resolution copy of the 1704 Kip and Knyff plan (pictured above), the layouts of the two mazes were first traced onto graph paper and then translated onto the lawn of the Kitchen Garden.

The laying out of the first maze proved how tricky it is to transfer a sketch from a plan to the ground, and this led to a few mistakes – a few areas were mown which should not have been! Thankfully, the advantage of using grass is that it will soon grow up to cover any mistakes.

It is incredibly exciting that after more than three centuries of absence we are able to recreate these mazes at Wrest Park for visitors to enjoy this summer.

Visiting Wrest Park

Wrest Park is in Bedfordshire. The house and gardens are open 10am – 6pm, 7 days a week. It’s accessible by car, bus and is also on the National Cycle Network.

Swan at Wrest Park
Prices*

  • English Heritage Members – free
  • Adults – £10.80
  • Child (5-15 years) – £6.50
  • Concession – £9.70
  • Family (2 adults, 3 children) – £28.10

You can also use your Overseas Visitor Pass (9 or 16 days unlimited) at this property

(*including optional Gift Aid)

About the author

Franziska Wittenstein is a Trainee Gardener in the Historic and Botanic Garden Training Programme at Wrest Park.  The programme is run in partnership with English Heritage and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The HBGTP scheme represents a truly exceptional opportunity for committed and enthusiastic horticulturists to progress their careers. By working alongside the professional teams within exceptional British gardens, trainees build a solid technical knowledge and acquire high-level practical skills.

Header image from Mark Turner via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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  • About the Author

    Franziska Wittenstein
    Trainee Gardener in the Historic and Botanic Garden Training Programme at Wrest Park

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  1. Pingback: The Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine » What’s the difference between a maze and a labyrinth?

  2. I was at Wrest Park last Wednesday but no one mentioned the maze. I will look out for it on my next visit