Is there any difference between a maze and a labarynth or are the two terms synonymous?
November 15, 2004 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Is there any difference between a maze and a labarynth or are the two terms synonymous?
posted by Fupped Duck to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
They're the same, except that only a labarynth has David Bowie.
posted by falconred at 7:48 AM on November 15, 2004

I always think of a maze as something outdoors and made from organic things (shrubs, corn stalks), while I think of a labyrinth as something man-made, and usually underground.
posted by iconomy at 8:10 AM on November 15, 2004

I'm pretty sure that a maze has a centre while a labyrinth has a route through from one side to the other.
posted by twine42 at 8:32 AM on November 15, 2004

In common usage both terms have converged on the meaning of maze. In its original meaning a labyrinth does not have branching paths and isn't intended to get you lost, rather it was a twisty path, often without even walls, that was walked as a religious meditative/devotional activity.
posted by bradhill at 8:34 AM on November 15, 2004

I'm pretty sure that historically, "labyrinth" has had more sinister connotations, which makes sense, given that the term itself very likely derives from the Greek labrus, a double-headed axe used for sacrifices, and the mythological story of the Minotaur, etc.

As I've seen it/used it, a "labyrinth" is something that's more meant to trap or deceive anyone who enters, where "maze" is a bit more value-neutral term for a confusingly designed space.

That being said, they _are_ pretty much synonymous, and both terms are used in both connotations very frequently.
posted by LairBob at 8:36 AM on November 15, 2004

This site seems to imply that (at least originally) a maze had multiple paths and blind alleys while a labyrinth has just one path through it and is used more as a method of meditation than as a puzzle. That would make this a labyrinth and this a maze.

On preview: like bradhill said...
posted by twine42 at 8:43 AM on November 15, 2004

"Labyrinthine" is a much better word than "maze-like". (Although I really thought it was spelled "labyrinthian", to be honest.)
posted by smackfu at 10:01 AM on November 15, 2004

Question: if labyrinths originally had just one path and did not necessarily have walls and were not intended to get you lost, then why did Ariadne have to give Theseus a string so he could find his way out? If people back then thought of labyrinths as tools for meditation and not puzzles, then why did the Greeks attribute the Labyrinth to their archetypical creative genius/artisan? If ancient labyrinths didn't even have walls, then why would the Greeks tell a story that only makes sense if there were physical barriers keeping the minotaur trapped inside? It makes perfect sense with a modern perspective (that it's all allegory), but was the common man in ancient Greece so sophisticated? And if not, then, every time they told the Cretan myths, were there hecklers asking how come the minotaur didn't just step over the lines and walk out, and how could Thesus be so stupid he couldn't follow a one-way path without a trail? For that matter, if labyrinths didn't traditionally have a center, but instead took you in one side and out the other, then why did Theseus have to backtrack at all?

A quick perseus search found a few 'grafs from Pliny the Elder on labyrinths, and he seemed to use the word more like LairBob and less like twine42 and bradhill: "there was an inextricable labyrinth, into which if any one entered without a clew of thread, he could never find his way out." Pliny uses the words "the walls of the Labyrinth" which would seem to imply that the ancients meant a place with walls when they used the word. Pliny claims Daedalus copied parts of an Egyptian palace to create the Minos Labyrinth: "That D├Ždalus took this for the model of the Labyrinth which he constructed in Crete, there can be no doubt; though he only reproduced the hundredth part of it, that portion, namely, which encloses circuitous passages, windings, and inextricable galleries which lead to and fro. We must not, comparing this last to what we see delineated on our mosaic pavements, or to the mazes formed in the fields for the amusement of children, suppose it to be a narrow promenade along which we may walk for many miles together; but we must picture to ourselves a building filled with numerous doors, and galleries which continually mislead the visitor, bringing him back, after all his wanderings, to the spot from which he first set out. "

Apollodorus quoted a fragment of poetry to describe Daedalus' creation: "Now the Labyrinth which Daedalus constructed was a chamber 'that with its tangled windings perplexed the outward way.'" Apollodorus refers to the outward way again: "Now the Minotaur was confined [p. 121] in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way." That seems to imply that to the Greeks, a labyrinth did have more than one path--otherwise, how could the way out be secret?
posted by jbrjake at 10:08 AM on November 15, 2004

I think the confusion here is that the Labyrinth of Greek myth really was like a maze, and that's how the term is usually used, but some more recent labyrinths (using that name) serve a meditative purpose like what bradhill and Twin42 describe. For the most part, the terms labyrinth and maze are interchangeable, but be aware of the possible alternate meaning of labyrinth.
posted by stopgap at 10:21 AM on November 15, 2004


(Disclaimer: I have no rationale for this belief.)
posted by skryche at 12:30 PM on November 15, 2004

...labyrinths are catholic whereas mazes aren't necessarily?
posted by juv3nal at 7:27 PM on November 15, 2004

The OED seems to think the appropriate senses of maze and labyrinth are synonyms:

labyrinth: "1. 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."

maze: "II. A labyrinth, and related senses. 4. a. A structure designed as a puzzle, consisting of a complicated network of winding and interconnecting paths or passages, only one of which is the correct route through; a labyrinth; (occas. in pl.) the windings of a labyrinth. Also (as in quot. 1903): a structure comprising two points joined by a single winding line much greater in length than the direct line between the two points."

The difference is that maze originally had another meaning:

"I. A state of mental confusion, and related senses.

1. With the. [Cf. THE dem. a. 8a.] a. Delirium; delusion; disappointment. Obs.

c1300 Judas Iscariot 14 in F. J. Furnivall Early Eng. Poems & Lives Saints (1862) 107 {Ygh}e..hit is {th}e mase, and also hit wole gon."
posted by grouse at 5:19 AM on November 16, 2004

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