Rationale - The Theme of the Conference


The 9th International ISIS Congress is focused on the theme: Labyrinth and Symmetry. Both concepts go back to the Greek antiquity and the Mediterranean basin.

The concept of symmetry (συμμετρία – commensurability) was shaped by the Pythagoreans of the Magna Graecia about 2500 years ago and soon became the basis of the concepts of proportionality-based harmony in the arts and architecture that underlies modern European culture. The commensurable arithmetic relations were viewed by the Pythagoreans as underpinning the universe, leading them to consider the concepts of order and harmony (ἀρμονία) as the ontological foundation of the cosmos and ratio as the basis of the musical scale.

The concept of labyrinth is predominantly connected with Crete and the Mediterranean basin. It is primarily related with the Knossos Palace in Crete and the myth of the Minotaur. According to the myth, king Minos commanded the skilful craftsman Daedalus (the name Δαίδαλος connotes “labyrinth”) to construct a monumental building of interconnected rooms – a labyrinthos (λαβύρινθος) – to imprison Minotaur (a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull), which was the offspring of the intercourse of his wife Pasiphae and a bull sent from the sea by Poseidon, the god of the sea. The Minotaur required human sacrifice every couple of years, until it was slain by Theseus, who managed to extricate himself from the labyrinth by means of a clue of thread, given to him by Minos’s enamoured daughter, Ariadne.

There are evident cosmological connotations in this myth: Minotaur’s original name was Asterion (ruler of the stars); Minotaur has also a connotation to Taurus (constellation). Minos’ wife – Pasiphae – is the daughter of the Sun. There is also connotation to the sea (Poseidon).

Probably, the earliest image of labyrinth was found in a clay tablet from Pylos at (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece (National Archaeological Museum, Athens, no 1287), a town on the west coast of the Peloponnese, and, thereby inhabited by Mycenaeans. This image seems to be the Cretan labyrinth.

Herodotus mentions the “Egyptian labyrinth” … " near the place called “the City of Crocodiles" (Histories Book II), a huge complex building of about 200 to 170 meters. During the 19th century, the remains of this labyrinth were discovered 11,5 miles from the pyramid of Hawara, in the province of Faioum.

The image of Minotaur also occurs in many pre-Greek cultures, namely the Phoenician and Egyptian, with whom the Cretans had certainly developed trade relations. It appears in the image of the Phoenician Moloch, (that has a Semitic root meaning “king”), which head is also a head of bull. To Moloch were also offered human sacrifices.

In Egypt, Mnevis (or Mer-Wer) was a god in the region of Heliopolis, Atum-Ra, with a head of bull. The association with the Sun is also evident in this case, since Mnevis was perceived as a symbol of the Ra (god of Sun), so that it is often depicted with the solar disc of its mother, Hathor between its horns.

The pattern of labyrinth appears much earlier in many Neolithic dolmen-like stone settings found in Karelia, Scandinavia, in Bolshoi Zayatsky Island (one of the Solovetsky Islands in Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia), Kola Peninsula and elsewhere. The purposes of these settings remain unclear.

Labyrinth is an ambiguous concept and construction that allows a double interpretation: From inside, it is a disorientating, chaotic construction; a man is imprisoned in it and unable to understand its structure and find a way out of it; he is entrapped in a repetitious pattern of wrong choices. From outside or above, it is a sophisticated, ordered construction of admirable complexity. Thus labyrinth is a metaphor that combines two opposite visions: overt chaotic complexity (internally) vs. underlying order (externally); imprisonment vs. freedom; confusion vs. clarity; multitude vs. unity; limited perception vs. overall comprehension.

The pattern of labyrinth appears also in non-European cultures, for instance in Indian manuscripts and Esoteric Buddhist texts, such as the Chakravyuha that refer to a military formation narrated in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. A prehistoric petroglyph on a riverbank in Goa shows labyrinthine pattern that has been dated to circa 2500 BC. This shows that the pattern of labyrinth is one of the oldest symbols of human civilisation.

The labyrinth represents a road-model, which is essentially teleological. Most labyrinths of antiquity and of the Middle Ages were designed with the thought of reaching the centre (representing the God or the Truth). But the fact that each labyrinth has a centre does not necessarily mean that the walker is aware of its existence. Moreover, reaching the centre is not always to be desired (in case it conceals a lurking Minotaur), and once the centre is reached, the walker may never find the way back. Thus a labyrinth also symbolically evokes the danger of eternal imprisonment and inextricability. This sinister aspect is intensified by the recursive nature of labyrinthine design and the mirroring effect of the paths. In the Middle-Ages, the labyrinthine attributes of imprisonment and limited perception were reflected in the view of life as a journey inside a moral labyrinth, in which man’s vision was constricted because of his fallen nature. The pattern of labyrinth is also related with death and a triumphant revival.

Consequently, the pattern of labyrinth has various manifestations in many disparate cultures. The symbol has appeared in various forms and media (petroglyphs, classic-form, medieval-form, pavement, turf, and basketry) at some time throughout most parts of the world, from northern Europe to the Mediterranean basin, from Native North and South America to Australia, Java, India, and Nepal. Prehistoric labyrinths are often interpreted as traps for malevolent spirits or as paths for ritual purposes. In medieval times labyrinths are interpreted as a sacred path to the God or Eternal Truth with a center (the God) and an entrance (the birth). In the early Christian era, the labyrinth was presented as a metaphor for the universe: divine creation based on a perfect design, perceived as chaotic due to the shortcomings of human comprehension.

In the European philosophical tradition, the labyrinth was also conceptualized in dynamic terms and used as a metaphor for mental processes. According to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), there are “two famous labyrinths where our reason very often goes astray”: the problem of human freedom and the structure of the continuum.

In the 20th century, the computer scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Douglas R. Hofstadter represents the mind by the metaphor of an ant colony, i.e. a labyrinth of rooms, with endless rows of doors flinging open and slamming shut; a network of intricate domino chains, branching apart and re-joining, with little timed springs to stand the dominoes back up.

In computer science, labyrinth serves as a model of complexity. Ariadne’s thread serves as a name for solving a problem that allows a multitude of apparent solving moves (decisions), such as logic puzzles (for instance, Sudoku), including mazes problems, through an exhaustive application of logic to all available routes.

The pattern of labyrinth occurs very often in the arts. Notably, it appears in many film productions, such as the labyrinth of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980), in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth (1986), in Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and many others.

The image of Minotaur was revived in modern literature, for instance in Jorge Luis BorgesThe House of Asterion (original: La casa de Asterión, 1949), where Asterion in this story is actually the Cretan Minotaur. Moreover, in his Garden of Forking Paths (original: El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941), he suggests the idea of forking paths through different networks of time and uses the pattern of labyrinth as folding back upon itself in infinite regression, representing man’s fruitless search for meaning in an apparently infinite universe. Borges’s use of the pattern of labyrinth has influenced many modern authors, such as Umberto Eco. His protagonists in The Name of the Rose are expected to explore a labyrinthine medieval secret library, composed of an indefinite (infinite) number of hexagonal galleries.

The pattern of labyrinth also manifests itself in contemporary painting, such as Joan Miró’s Labyrinth, Pablo Picasso's Minotauromachia (1935), M. C. Escher's Relativity (1953), Salvador Dali's Labyrinth (1941), Friedensreich Hundertwasser's Labyrinth (1957), Dmitry Rakov's Labyrinth (2003), and many others.

Thus the labyrinth is an inherently ambiguous construct. Its structural attributes of doubling, recursion and inextricability yield a wealth of ontological and epistemological implications. Its cultural meanings vary, depending on the historical period and communities.


Leading academics and professionals will be brought to Crete in September 2013 to debate and suggest novel approaches and interpretations on these issues.