Labyrinths are a familiar icon in the western world. We know the story of the great Labyrinth of Minos, home of the minotaur. The labyrinth set into the floor of the cathedral of Chartres is a major tourist destination. Even the popular show Westworld used the concept of the labyrinth as a metaphor for the development of consciousness. But for a long time, the symbol of the labyrinth was best known as the mark of the mint at Knossos on the island of Crete.
Knossos is identified as the palace of King Minos, though there’s no real evidence the king himself existed or ever had a massive labyrinth, much less a half-human half-bull son. But the Minoan culture was real, and flourished in the Middle Bronze Age. “The identification of Knossos with the Bronze Age site is supported by tradition and by the Roman coins that were scattered over the fields surrounding the pre-excavation site…many of them were inscribed with Knosion or Knos on the obverse and an image of a Minotaur or Labyrinth on the reverse, both symbols deriving from the myth of King Minos.” The palace itself is a winding complex of living spaces, storage facilities, and work rooms.
Cretan coins with the labyrinth symbol date to early Hellenistic times, and continued even into the Roman Empire. Many of the labyrinths featured on coins use branching square paths, rather than the circular labyrinth designs that became popular later. In her excellent article “Searching for the String: Labyrinths in Classical and Medieval Art,” Sarah Emily Bond writes, “Classical and medieval labyrinths were visually portrayed as unicursal, i.e., a maze where one finds the end simply by following along one set path. However, classical texts themselves often described multicursal labyrinths. For instance, we know that the labyrinth of Knossos must have been multicursal, because Theseus needed a string to guide him. Doob believes that cathedral labyrinths from the high medieval period cast Christ as Theseus, who killed hell just as the Athenian hero cut down the minotaur. Tellingly, the multicursal labyrinths hinge on the choices of the individual, whereas the unicursal labyrinth hinges on the choices of the creator. It was not until the Renaissance of the 15th century that humanists began to depict non-symmetrical, chaotic, and more confused labyrinths. This was perhaps a direct reflection of new way of thinking about human agency and the divine.”
Coins with a labyrinth on the reverse began to circulate in the 5th century BCE; most had a face in profile on the obverse, but at least two of them portrayed the minotaur himself. The earliest designs are rectangular, with some of the labyrinths resembling a swastika. Later labyrinths became more symmetrical and intricate, with a round 7-circuit labyrinth becoming the preferred version (the famous Chartres labyrinth is similar, but has 11 circuits.)
The square labyrinth design became popular again in the Roman Empire, with some wealthy homeowners going so far as to set labyrinths in tile in the floor of their houses (one such house was found in the ruins of Pompeii.)
Labyrinth coins have not been in circulation for 2000 years but the mystique and metaphor of the maze remains.