I’m back from an impromptu holiday in Greece. I love living in Britain but there is only so much rain I can take and I just had to escape to sunnier climes. I went to Crete, home of the Minoans and of the Palace of Knossos, which could well be the original labyrinth:

1387, from L. labyrinthus, from Gk. labyrinthos "maze, large building with intricate passages," esp. the structure built to hold the Minotaur, from a pre-Gk. language; perhaps related to Lydian labrys "double-edged axe," symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the labyrinth was originally the royal Minoan palace on Crete and meant "palace of the double-axe."

It is only a theory though: the word entered the Greek language as a loanword, so its etymology is murky and we’ll never known for sure whether the palace of Knossos was really called "the house of the double axe".
I love everything to do with mythology, which has given us a lot of words, like echo for example. In French, another word for labyrinthe is dédale and I was delighted to learn that this word comes from Daedalus, the architect who built the labyrinth and also the wings which Icarus and him used to escape from Crete after their imprisonment by Minos.
This is the myth in which the labyrinth plays a central role:

Before he ascended the throne of Crete, Minos struggled with his brothers for the right to rule. Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull, as a sign of approval by the gods for his reign. He promised to sacrifice the bull as an offering, and as a symbol of subservience. A beautiful white bull rose from the sea, but when Minos saw it, he coveted it for himself. He assumed that Poseidon would not mind, so he kept it and sacrificed the best specimen from his herd instead. When Poseidon learned about the deceit, he made Pasipha, Minos’ wife, fall madly in love with the bull. She had Daedalus, the famous architect, make a wooden cow for her. Pasipha climbed into the decoy and fooled the white bull. The offspring of their lovemaking was a monster called the Minotaur.
The creature had the head and tail of a bull on the body of a man. It caused such terror and destruction on Crete that Daedalus was summoned again, but this time by Minos himself. He ordered the architect to build a gigantic, intricate labyrinth from which escape would be impossible. The Minotaur was captured and locked in the labyrinth.

"Minotaur." Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.

Coincidentally, Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films ever, was on last night. What a treat.

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:23+00:00 September 29th, 2008|Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. LInda Herbertson September 29, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    Quelle coincidence !
    in my blog i just mentioend the next episode, when Theseus goes to the labyrinth “Ariadne (in French Ariane, like the rocket launcher) saved Theseus, who broke his promise to take her with him and abandoned her on an island…”
    oh what a tangled web, n’est-ce pas ? not that we’re trying to deceive anybody. Glorious sunshine here in SW France, but the British have such a good sense of humour 🙂

  2. céline September 30, 2008 at 7:44 am

    We need all the sense of humour we can get at the moment…

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