Maze meanderings

It is by no means definitive, but there are some who adamantly distinguish between a maze and a labyrinth; these are evidently people with too much time on their hands, those refractory types who delight in inflicting grammatical misery on others. The distinction they make is, however, not without interest: a maze offers choices, alternate and wrong routes that are dead ends; a labyrinth has a path that goes directly to the centre or an exit. It is easy to see why both have been richly mined as metaphors for the human condition, with a maze representing a conundrum that must be solved, thus the Moral Maze, a long-running programme on BBC Radio 4 that deals with ethical conflicts in specific cases. The labyrinth, on the other hand, with its inevitability, can symbolize a more pessimistic outlook on the course of time.

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There is an historical interchangeability between the two terms, best demonstrated in what is probably the most famous example of either: the labyrinth that was found under the palace of Minos and which was inhabited by the Minotaur. This had been constructed to house the mutant monster which lurked at its focal point awaiting sacrificial victims. The myth serves as a powerful representation of love and passion for the Minotaur is the physical result of the queen, Pasiphae, having mated with a prize bull, the consequence of a curse but also a potent emblem of the bestial grip of lust that can shed us of our humanity and reduce us to being enslaved by our animalistic undercurrent. Ariadne, a royal princess and half-sister of the half-man/half-beast, falls in love with one of the intended victims to be fed to her half-sibling, Theseus, and enables him to escape by means of a red thread indicating the route, the “clue” or solution to the elaborate edifice. Love moves her to betray and Theseus will choose her sister, Phedra, over her and simply abandon Ariadne on Naxos. All in all, love has a very bad rap in Greek mythology.

The architect of the labyrinth was also the designer of the machine that Pasiphae demanded be constructed to enable her to engage in carnal relations with the bull, a taurine fornication device, namely Daedalus. This poor man, as might be expected, had had his fill of his rather demanding hostage-taker and put his creative side to good use by inventing wings to enable him and his son, Icarus (yet another lesson will occur with this lad; Greek myths are richer than Bill Gates), to fly away, literally and figuratively, from the turbulent world in which they had been caught up. French borrows his name for its term for maze, which is un dédale, or a daedalus. This delicious mythological allusion is almost trumped by the English word amazement which has the same root as maze. When we are amazed, we are as if placed in a maze and stand stupefied and puzzled at which way to go. As shown by these two examples, sometimes etymology flirts with us.

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A very different allegorical use may be seen in the Middle Ages with some labyrinths being found in churches, the most famous example of which is the 43-feet wide labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, dating from the thirteenth century (above). The exact function of such constructions is debated, but the symbolism is clear, representing either the Christian’s struggle in this life or the pilgrim’s path towards Jerusalem -a pilgrim’s progress-, a trope for the soul journeying towards the celestial Jerusalem: Heaven. The labyrinth is striking and, in its way, beautiful. Unfortunately one of France’s other famous labyrinths, located in the gardens of Versailles, was destroyed in the late eighteenth century and so no longer exists.

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This was not simply a hedged pathway such as to be found at Hampton Court, impressive though that is, but was also filled with points with sculptures depicting Aesop’s Fables, so walking along the labyrinth was intended to be an educational and cultural experience. The labyrinth also served a less noble and salubrious function in being a conveniently hidden location for nocturnal rendez-vous. This same site, albeit the remnants of the labyrinth, featured prominently in one of the most bizarre episodes in French history, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. An enormously expensive necklace had been commissioned by King Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry. It took so many years to accrue enough large diamonds that, by the time it was completed, the monarch was dead and his lover had been exiled from Versailles. The jewellers, desperate to get some money back on their extraordinarily expensive investment, offered to sell it to the new queen, Marie Antoinette, who wanted nothing to do with it as she had detested the former royal favourite. It took a royal command from Louis XV to force her to address Madame du Barry in public after years of ignoring and spurning her. The sentence that satisfied the monarch and stunned courtiers used to Marie Antoinette’s refusal to recognize the existence of the mistress was a perfectly pedestrian one: “Il y a bien du monde aujourd’hui à Versailles ” – There are a lot of people at Versailles today. History is littered with examples of such banal talk that has changed the course of nations’ destinies.

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To cut a long, fascinating story short, an ecclesiastic who had disgraced himself because of his indiscreet, gossipy criticism of the new Queen (Marie Antoinette), and who hailed from a long line of politicians and prelates, Cardinal du Rohan (above), harboured political ambitions which led him to become the unwitting pawn in a complex fraud. He was the ideal stooge; ambitious but stupid. A group of fraudsters made contact with him purporting to be the Queen and arranged a secret meeting. The cleric met a woman who closely resembled the Queen one sultry August night in 1784 at the site of the labyrinth at Versailles, a former prostitute, who told him she very much wanted the necklace. When he spent a fortune obtaining it, the real Queen refused it and he found himself promptly arrested and brought to trial. He ended up being acquitted and Marie Antoinette, one of the most unfairly maligned people in the annals of human history, was nonetheless blamed and implicated in the affair, with many believing that she engineered the ruse itself in order to come into possession of the jewels. The ramifications of this episode were far-reaching; this helped to seal the fate of the Ancien Régime and led to the French Revolution.

Whether a maze or a labyrinth, this concept occupies a visible place in our culture and has haunted artists (such as Picasso), writers (Umberto Eco, notably), and both pagan and Christian iconography. It is no accident that James Joyce names his hero and alter ego Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for, like the eponymous mythological figure, Stephen Dedalus/Joyce negotiates and flees the labyrinthine world of Irish politics and religion.

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Today’s cufflinks are made from 835 grade silver and bear the maker’s mark of HM, namely Henning Munnecke, a Danish silversmith who was active from 1953 to 1973. The abstract rendition of a labyrinth-type theme suggests they date from the mid to late 1960s. The wonderful oxidization highlights the interior of the faces very pleasingly and this piece is an effective visual example of why not all older silver jewellery benefits from polishing. While not a common motif on jewellery, it is, nonetheless, a powerful emblem of our life’s progress, even the days on which we cannot see which route to take or where we are headed.

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2 comments on “Maze meanderings

  1. Henning was my father. Amazing seeing his work in use. Thank you. Kind regards from Copenhagen

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