The amazing maze of maize - Life and Style - The Independent

The amazing maze of maize

Chris Maslanka guides us through the labyrinthine complexities of mazes, large and small

Mazes turn up everywhere: in ancient myth, in prehistoric rock carvings in Sardinia, in Roman mosaics, in the cathedrals of Europe as well as English stately homes and more recently in fields of maize (mind the pun!) and even in the murals of Warren (as in rabbit) Street tube station in London.

The most famous maze myth is undoubtedly that of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos of Crete, the story goes, enlisted the help of Daedalus (he of the waxen wings whose son suffered a drop in the ocean) in the construction of a labyrinth under his palace, so cunningly contrived that no one entering could hope to escape. In its corridors he lodged the Minotaur, a monster half man and half bull.

Athens regularly sent human sacrifices to this Minotaur by way of tribute to Crete. Theseus, determined to end this tyranny threaded his way through the labyrinth, unwinding as he went a clew of wool (whence the modern word "clue" meaning a guiding principle in problem-solving). This had been given to him by Minos's daughter Ariadne who had conveniently fallen in love with him on sight. After killing the beast Theseus was able to retrace his steps by rewinding the wool.

One does not need balls of wool to solve the classical labyrinth, a form found all over the ancient world, not only on coins from Knossos but also dotted about the Scandinavian coastline in stone labyrinths bearing such suggestive names as Troytown and Jericho. Presumably its simplicity explains its ubiquity. Even a child could draw it, as ancient graffiti show.

These early mazes and labyrinths were not puzzle mazes. They generally had no branch points, so one could proceed from one end to the other, just by not stopping. Their purpose was symbolic and ritualistic. Until the turn of this century, for example, Nordic fisherman would ritually walk the stone labyrinths before putting to sea to fish.

As happens to all robust pagan customs, the maze was adopted and adapted by the Church. In Europe mazes were used to decorate cathedral interiors and symbolised pilgrimage and the road to salvation: keep your head down, stick to the right path and you'll get there. The English, less flamboyantly, cut turf mazes in the church ground. With the growth of formal gardens towards the end of the Renaissance, hedge mazes became popular for amusement and social ritual. Some were designed merely to be viewed as interesting patterns from balconies, others as promenades and means of pleasantly complicating walks.

However, it must not be supposed that mazes have only ritual and recreational functions. Psychologists place rodents and even earthworms in mazes to shed light on the process of learning. They have even shown that rats are as good as humans at maze-solving, which makes this type of problem a "species non-differentiating intelligence test". Even for non-carbon- based species, one might add, for students of artificial intelligence set logically programmed robotic mice to run mazes to test how well they find their way about and interpret their environment.

Mathematically speaking, the study of mazes is part of elementary topology ("the science of place") which deals not so much with size and angles but with connectivity (what joins on to what) and contiguity (what borders what). A map of the London Underground is topological: it isn't a scale model of the network, but a diagram giving the order of stations on the various lines.

Having a map of a maze or its graph (analogous to a tube map, showing only the connections of the branch points) is useful only if you know where you are. But what if you've taken a wrong turning in a maze with no distinguishing marks, or if you have no map at all? Blundering about randomly like Jack Nicholson in The Shining may eventually work, but the bigger the maze the less advisable this approach, particularly since humans tend to repeat errors. There are rules to traverse mazes. These are particularly simple for "simply connected mazes".

A "simply connected" maze is one all of whose walls are connected in one continuous - if meandering - sweep. Multiply connected mazes have detached portions of wall forming islands not connected to the outer wall.

If you keep one hand in contact with the wall of a simply connected maze as you walk you will traverse each corridor twice: once coming and once going. This is because such a maze consists of a single wall whose perimeter you are following just like a pencil drawing the outline on paper.

With multiply connected mazes the hand on wall routine will not take you round all of the maze, just those parts of it connected to your starting point. In general, it may not take you to your goal. Tremaux's method is designed to reach those parts that other methods cannot reach.

Why do mazes still fascinate us moderns? Partly because we live in an age of leisure but also because the timeless symbolism of the maze still holds good. Theseus's triumph over the Minotaur symbolises not just the shaking off of tyranny, but also the inroads that science could make into the world.

With so much twisting and turning in a small space we too can feel lost without going anywhere and insecure without being in danger. As in life so in the maze: we can be systematic or footloose and fancy free. There is still that same thrill that our goal may lie just around the next corner.

Much of the recent resurgence in interest in things labyrinthine is due to international maze designer Adrian Fisher, who organised the year of the maze in 1991. Thrice holder of the Guinness Book of Records title for the world's largest maze (1993, 1995 and 1996) Fisher has designed more than 135 mazes worldwide: hedge mazes, pavement mazes, water mazes and mirror mazes with themes as extravagant as Alien Abduction, Martian Exploration, Jurassic Park, and a Yellow Submarine. His designing the world's first maize maze in 1993 triggered a highly competitive maize maze craze in Canada, the USA, Britain and France.

Fisher's latest world record attempt is a Windmill Maze at Millets Farm in Oxfordshire, in the form of a traditional English windmill 975ft in "height" complete with sails, spur wheel and millstones. It was made by selectively uprooting plants in a field of heavy duty forage maize marked out in a grid, using for reference the maze design on squared paper. Weeding out by hand one fifth of the plants resulted in 4.47 miles of pathways covering nine acres. Unlike mazes in other media, maize mazes are seasonal. In late October, the windmill maze will end up as forage.

The Windmill Maze opens 10am Saturdays and Sundays until mid-October, last entry 4.30pm. Adults pounds 3, children pounds 2 (under 3s free), family ticket pounds 10. Millets Farm is at Frilford, eight miles south-west of Oxford, signed from the A34 at the Abingdon South exit and on the A338, the Oxford to Wantage Road. (Tel: 01865-391266 for details.)

Tremaux's method for traversing multiply connected mazes: consistently mark one side of the route (whichever side you choose stick to it throughout) with chalk, for example.

i) At a new junction choose any path you like

ii) When by a new path you reach an old junction or a dead end turn round and return the way you came.

iii) When by an old path you come to an old junction, take a new path if there is one; if not, take an old path.

iv) Never go along any path more than twice.

Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Energy Markets Analyst

    £400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

    Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Nursery Manager

    £22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

    Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week