The word labyrinth comes from the Greek “labyrinthos” and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or 'double axe', the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete.
The most famous labyrinth is found in Greek mythology in the story of Theseus, prince of Athens. This labyrinth was designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Knossos on Crete to contain the ferocious half-man/half-bull known as the Minotaur. When Minos was vying with his brothers for kingship, he prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of the god's blessing on his cause. Minos was supposed to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon but, enchanted by its beauty, decided to keep it and sacrifice one of his own bulls of far less quality. Poseidon, enraged by this ingratitude, caused Minos' wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull and mate with it. The creature she gave birth to was the Minotaur which fed on human flesh and could not be controlled. Minos then had the architect Daedalus create a labyrinth which would hold the monster. Since Minos was hardly interested in feeding his own people to the creature, he taxed the city of Athens with tribute which included sending seven young men and maidens to Crete every year who were then released into the labyrinth and eaten by the Minotaur.
Daedalus' labyrinth was so complex that he, himself, could barely navigate it and, having successfully done so, Minos imprisoned him and his son, Icarus, in a high tower to prevent him from ever revealing the secret of the structure. Later, in another famous tale from Greek mythology, Daedalus and Icarus escape their prison using the feathers of birds bound together by wax to form wings with which they fly from the tower. Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax of his wings, and fell into the sea where he drowned. Prior to their flight, however, Athens was annually sending the 14 young people to Crete to be killed in the labyrinth until Theseus, son of King Aegeus, vowed to put an end to his people's suffering. He volunteered as one of the tributes and left Athens in the ship with the traditional black sails hoisted in mourning for the victims. He told his father that, should he be successful, he would change the sails to white on the trip home.
Once on Crete, Theseus attracted the attention of Minos' daughter Ariadne who fell in love with him and secretly gave him a sword and a ball of twine. She told him to attach the thread to the opening of the labyrinth as soon as he was inside and, after he had killed the Minotaur, he would then be able to follow it back to freedom. Theseus kills the monster, saves the youths who were sent with him, and escapes from Crete with Ariadne but abandons her on the island of Naxos on his way home. In his haste to reach Athens afterwards, he forgets to change the sails on the tribute ship from black to white and Aegeus, seeing the black sails returning, flings himself into the sea and dies; Theseus then succeeds him.
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