Most of us know that a maze is a confusing network of winding paths, its purpose being to puzzle those caught within its confines. Mazes can be used for puzzle games or learning devices or as intricate designs.

The most famous maze comes from Greek mythology. In a Greek myth, Minos, the king of Crete, orders an architect named Daedalus to build a place to confine a terrible beast called the Minotaur. Daedalus constructs the Labyrinth, a maze with blind, twisting paths. The Minotaur is placed inside the Labyrinth, and each year fourteen Athenian youths are sacrificed to this awful beast. Once inside the Labyrinth, the youths cannot find an exit to escape from the Minotaur. Finally the Minotaur is slain by an Athenian lad named Theseus, who finds his way out of the Labyrinth with the aid of a ball of thread.

While the labyrinth in this myth was imaginary, ancient people did build mazes as defense works to confuse attacking armies. Confusing mazes were also built inside tombs to discourage and confuse robbers trying to steal treasures. Some ancient cultures believed mazes had magical powers. In ancient Rome maze patterns were used in the tiled pavements to keep out evil spirits.

During the Middle Ages Europeans cut the turf on the village green into maze patterns for games of amusement, and the practice came across the ocean with early American settlers. During harvest festivals when the pioneers gathered together, the turf of a field was turned up to make a maze. These mazes provided amusement for the children while the parents talked and visited, but adults were also fond of maze games. Some of these mazes with their twisting paths provided a mile’s walk in a very small area. Julian’s Bower is one such maze. At times, when it wasn’t possible to turn over sod, the farmers would lay sheaves of grain end to end to form a maze.

Children today play a maze game when they play fox and geese in the snow. This game is played by shoveling paths in the snow, with some ending in dead ends. Then the fox chases the geese, hoping to trap one in a dead-end path of the maze. Maze games became so popular with some early settlers that at one time the Puritans made a law against playing them, claiming that they were foolish and a waste of time.

Mazes were sometimes constructed with growing shrubbery in the gardens of great houses. Probably the most famous shrubbery maze is in the Hampton Court Palace gardens in England. The Hampton Court maze was planned during the reign of King William III of England (1689 to 1702). The shrubbery maze was also brought across the seas by early American settlers. A maze of growing holly, patterned after the Hampton Court maze, is in the garden of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In modern science, mazes are used to test learning behavior of men and animals. Laboratory animals, like rats and mice, are placed into a box fitted with dividers to form a maze. By placing food at the opposite end of the maze from the entrance, scientists can study animals as they travel the twisting passages seeking the food. Experiments like these allow scientists to obtain information about animal learning patterns.

For most of us, however, mazes are entertaining puzzles printed on paper that let us divert our minds from less leisurely problems. Mazes could be considered as a kind of modern-day therapy, with roots tracing back to ancient times.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney; photo by Jed Clark