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“Summerhouses of Sin” Maze and Labyrinth Gardens in History

“Summerhouses of Sin” Maze and Labyrinth Gardens in History

Labyrinths are an important part of many cultural heritages and mythologies. Unicursal labyrinths — a labyrinth which consists of a path which twists and turns, but which has no dead ends — can be found as rock paintings dating back thousands of years, while the earliest coin found in the world has on its face a labyrinth. Mazes also form a rich part of our history (mazes differ from labyrinths in that they do have dead ends; a person will get lost within a maze but never within a labyrinth), and both have influenced garden design and structure within western culture for at least a thousand years. Many European countries have turf and stone labyrinths cut into hillsides that are thousands of years old, and even Shakespeare mentions that ‘treading the maze’ was a well-established folk custom in England.

The very idea of labyrinths and mazes incorporates a great deal of symbolism. They offer the curious a means to become lost, and then find oneself again. They suggest danger lurking behind every twist and turn, and redemption for the true and brave of heart. They represent blindness and light, temptation and chaos, and satisfaction and serenity for those who brave the perils of the unknown, and who win though.

During the medieval period many churches incorporated unicursal labyrinths into their floors — you can still see them today in some of the larger and older cathedrals. A man or woman’s journey through the labyrinth represented his or her journey through life towards, hopefully, redemption. Sometimes people crawled through these labyrinths on their knees, murmuring prayers, hoping to find at the heart of the labyrinth a similar redemption as if they had gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In fact, the cathedral floor labyrinths offered a metaphorical pilgrimage into the heart of Jerusalem, and its subsequent spiritual redemption, for those who could not dare or afford the actual physical pilgrimage.

As in cathedrals, so also in medieval gardens, although the symbolism in secular gardens was not so high-minded as that within the cathedrals. There has long been conjecture that one of the most important ideas associated with labyrinths is that of fertility (this somewhat allied with the idea of spiritual rebirth that the Church promoted); the long winding canal of the unicursal labyrinth, the emergence from the dark heart into the light of day, clearly has connotations with giving birth. May-pole dances reflect the labyrinth and the unwinding into life and birth again — May dances being not only danced versions of the labyrinth, but also a spring rite.

It should be noted that many ancient labyrinthine games were in fact dances, whether danced on foot by lines of men and women, or by youths on horseback – modern-day dressage was founded three thousand years ago in the games and sports of Aegean horsemen. This became known as The Troy Game, and the dances had both fertility and protective qualities to them. They were often danced in order to secure protection for a city and its peoples.

During the medieval period garden labyrinths became very much associated with love — they were, after all, the perfect place for secret dalliances. According to legend, Henry II built a labyrinth in his garden at Woodstock to hide his mistress Rosamund from his jealous wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine – the original ‘summerhouse of sin’. Legend only, for it cannot be substantiated and, after all, a unicursal labyrinth is not the most perfect of places to hide a mistress. In France the garden labyrinths were known as Houses of Daedalus (after the legendary figure who first constructed a labyrinth in which to hide the Minotaur). Some of these labyrinths were true garden hedge labyrinths, others buildings secreted deep within a garden, still others curious twisting mazes of tunnel arbors, some were three dimensional, incorporating staircases leading to upper levels. Whatever shape or form they took, these labyrinths of love were the perfect place for forbidden dalliances.

Troy and Jericho are both examples of cities which were destroyed by ‘unwinding their labyrinths’. In the ancient Aegean cities were often protected by what was called the Game of Troy — a protective enchantment woven either by dancers on foot or by men on horseback (Ariadne’s ‘thread’ is the line of the dance). Troy and Jericho had their protective labyrinthine enchantments unwound by warriors circling their walls and playing music to a set pattern.

By the sixteenth century hedge mazes and/or labyrinths were features of many noble gardens, as also communal gardens. Hedges could completely obscure the view, or they might only be waist height, enabling people to see more clearly where they were going, as also to display fine pieces of statuary within the twisting paths. Garden mazes or labyrinths were perfect for a garden – they enabled people to mix socially (perhaps a little too much, sometimes!), to have fun, to get some exercise, and to participate in nature. Some of these maze gardens were enormous – in one Italian example the most direct route to the heart of the maze took two miles; if you became lost you travelled much greater distances.

Maze gardens proliferated during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. They took not only the traditional hedge form, but could also be incorporated into herbaceous borders. Their popularity began to decline in the late eighteenth century, however, and many were removed and destroyed, or simply allowed to become overgrown masses of hedge and tree. They were highly labour intensive to maintain, and authorities often facilitated their removal as maze gardens, ever the summerhouses of sin, ‘served purposes not permitted in public spaces’.
Maze and unicursal labyrinth gardens continue to be built and remain popular today, most being found in public parks, or the few which remain in vast private estate gardens. While few suburban gardens can incorporate a large maze garden, it is perfectly possible to build one from pebbles, stones, pavers or low box hedging. The symbolism of the labyrinth, of travail and rebirth, of danger and redemption, is powerful indeed, and a labyrinth can be one of the finest pieces of design you can incorporate into your own garden.

Are you aware that, when as a child you played hopscotch, or that when even now you avoid the cracks in the pavement, you are playing the ancient labyrinthine Game of Troy — avoiding the monster in the dark heart of the labyrinth? Both the game and the superstition date from thousands of years in our past — they are games of lines, of not crossing lines, and of avoiding the evil that lurks for the unwary.

All images and text © copyright Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd 2006 –

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