The Labyrinth Coins of Knossos



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.


800px-Crete-Palace-KnossosKnossos 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.




Photo credit ANS.

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.”




Photo credit ANS

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.

Traveling with Art: The Erechtheion Temple in Athens, Greece

It’s no longer in one piece, but just by looking at it you can tell the Erechtheion was once a grand, majestic Greek temple. Ancient Greeks went there to worship Athena and Poseidon.

Built somewhere between 421 and 406 BC, this temple’s ruins still stand for visitors to admire.

The whole of the structure has had an elaborate attention to detail paid to it, especially on the doorways, windows and columns. The marble that makes it up comes entirely from Mount Pentelikon, a mountain famous for its marble. Decor details once included highlights of gilt bronze and multicolored glass beads.

Another view of the Erechtheion Temple in Athens, Greece.

Another view of the Erechtheion Temple.

The temple had different areas of dedication for different Greek gods and goddesses; Athena in the eastern part and Poseidon in the western part, along with altars to Hephaestus and Voutos (brother of a hero and the temple’s namesake, Erichthonius).

A postcard of the Erechtheion Temple in Athens, GreeceA Caryatid is a sculpted female figure standing in place of a column as architectural support.

One of the most prominent features on this ancient architecture is the Porch of the Caryatids, or “Porch of the Maidens”. This porch hides the 15 foot beam supporting the southwest corner standing over the metropolis.

In 1801 Lord Elgin, perhaps a little overeager about Greek statues, moved one of the Caryatids to his Scottish Mansion. According to Athenian legend, if you listen closely at night you can hear the remaining five Caryatids crying for their lost sister.

Lord Elgin later attempted to remove another of the statues; when it wouldn’t budge, he put a saw to it, trying to break it into pieces, but this smashed the statue and it was left in pieces at the site.

Today, the Caryatids stand in the New Acropolis Museum, replicas replacing the originals at the site of the temple. The originals had been damaged over time and are currently being cleaned and restored with lasers at the museum, a process that’s visible to visitors through a camera.

Check out some of our other travel posts:

Mount Vesuvius and Naples in Italy

New York City Architecture

Bray, Berkshire, England