Jürgen vom Scheidt



Interview with the director of the Munich “Haus der Kunst” (House of Art), Dr. Hermann Kern, about his book Labyrinthe, published by Prestel Publishers.
Dr. Jürgen vom Scheidt asked the questions.
(Broadcasted May 27,1983, Bavarian Radio, night studio)

Interview translated from German by Dr. Theresia Sauter-Bailliet

Theresia at Dalby (GB)
Theresia at Dalby



(JvSch:) Dear listeners:
Perhaps you walked already through a garden labyrinth, like the one in the park of the castle of Aschaffenburg, or you dreamt that you got lost in a maze without exit?

In the following discussion you will hear about some facts and assumptions with completely new and surprising aspects about this topic. When Dr. Hermann Kern, the new director of the Munich “Haus der Kunst”, questions some familiar conceptions about labyrinths, you might ask yourself, as I did: why did'nt somebody a long time ago find out that originally the labyrinth was not that proverbial maze of misleading turns, but on the contrary a pathway that takes you safely to a hidden center. As in other such cases, only a versatile outsider, not restrained by the blinders of specialization, was probably able to open such a startlingly new avenue of thinking, one which convinces you both by its originality and by its serious and logical argumentation. No easy feat, if one considers that in our culture labyrinths have existed for at least 5000 years and that more than one inquisitive spirit has brooded over this concept with its ambiguous associations.

Recently Hermann Kern set up some large exhibitions, one on calendar buildings in 1976 in the “Neue Sammlung” (New Collection) in Munich as well as the first one dealing with labyrinths in Milan . He will come up with a similar exhibition by the way in the “Haus der Kunst” in 1985.

The catalog to the Milan exhibition is the result of his intensive work on this topic over the last 6 years, which in turn lead to a fascinating book just published by Prestel in Munich , called simply Labyrinthe. The sub-title suggests the broad spectrum of the topic addressed: “Manifestations and Interpretations, 5000 Years' Presence of an Archetype”. The book with its close to 700 illustrations lavishly and attractively dispersed throughout, offers however far more than a thorough treatment of this body of ideas. Hermann Kern succeeded in treating this complicated labyrinth concept which touches upon 20 different disciplines, using an appealing style and leading the reader through vast areas of our cultural history. Not dogmatically, but as an invitation to wonder and ponder.


JvSch: Dr. Kern, one of the goals of your book is to explore and transmit a new understanding of the ancient form of the labyrinth. Therefore first of all the question: What is really a labyrinth? 
Dr. Kern: That is difficult to express acoustically, because the labyrinth is actually a graphic figure, a figure of movement, which has to be seen or else experienced physically. First of all you have to keep in mind that there are different kinds of labyrinths. To state it simply: A labyrinth actually is not a labyrinth, that is to say, not that which one commonly imagines a labyrinth to be. When they hear the word labyrinth most people think of a maze, i.e., of a space, a building or a garden with many different paths, of a place, where you have to choose between different paths, where you are sent on the wrong track or come to a dead end.


JvSch: In this popular view, the goal of the labyrinth is to go astray, even to perish in it.
Dr. Kern: Yes, that goes back to the very strange Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur in the Greek labyrinth. I would like to say that we are dealing here with a relatively late and biased historical account which has nothing to do with the original labyrinth - in contrast to the maze, a relatively late concept...


JvSch: In what time period do we place this concept?
Dr. Kern: Well, in literature we find this concept since about 400 B.C. In a dialogue, Plato formulated this concept for example visually, as a design, which was later realized. The first design is in a manuscript of the Venetian physician Giovanni Fontana, which he wrote around 1420 and which is now here in the Munich public library. The labyrinth proper is however much older. It can be traced back to the 3rd pre-Christian millenium and possesses, unlike the maze, only one pathway, with many turns that lead to a center; and there you have to turn around on your heels and retrace the same way to the exit. You are being led inevitably to the center; you cannot possibly go wrong.


JvSch: That makes it so interesting. The popular idea is that one gets lost in the labyrinth, and now the opposite actually takes place: One goes in and one goes out without ever going astray.
Dr. Kern: That was for me also a big surprise while working on this topic for the last 6 years. Therefore I chose subsequently as a motto for the whole book the following rather clumsy poem:
“In the labyrinth you will not get lost, in the labyrinth you will find yourself”.
Instead of the Minotaur, you will meet in the labyrinth your self. Because here is one of the main aspects of this figure: The labyrinth is really a place of self- confrontation; it is also a figure of initiation, I would say it is the figure of initiation, decidedly a figure of orientation, while the maze on the contrary stands for disorientation or loss of orientation.


Jürgen vom Scheidt ©IAK
©R.Kern Hermann Kern
Jürgen vom Scheidt
Hermann Kern


JvSch: How do you explain that the meaning of the labyrinth turned into its opposite?
Dr. Kern: That is difficult to explain. I can only guess what happened. The labyrinth originally was a dance movement. The Cretan labyrinth also did not exist as a building, but as a dance floor on which the pathways were traced, so that the members of the dance group could make the steps correctly. That is the so-called crane dance which different ancient writers have described to some extent and which has probably a cosmologically hermeneutic meaning, in that the movements of the stars were supposed to be imitated, thereby ensuring magically that the movements in the sky will occur in their proper order. This dance was certainly confusing when watched by outsiders. And individual records document how in the course of the centuries the understanding of this dance figure was gradually lost, so that only the impression of total confusion remained and thus the idea of a maze. It is strange how these two conceptions existed side by side over thousands of years and were projected one on top of the other. Thus, for example, we find in medieval manuscripts always genuine labyrinths to be drawn, with only one pathway, without the possibility of getting lost. The accompanying text however speaks always of the labyrinth in the sense of a maze, in the sense of getting lost, without rescue, ending in death. Only now in the 20th century do we realize that these are two completely different figures.


JvSch: You also write that in the church too there was a transition from one form to the other.
Dr. Kern: Yes, the labyrinth symbol has also been christianized along the way, i.e., the Christian church has taken control of this concept and incorporated it into its own system. This happened especially in the 9th and 10th century. The labyrinth figure was also changed in form until finally a cross of the Chartres type was superimposed on the labyrinth. The labyrinth served as a representation of the sinful world, a world far from God in which the sinners lived, where the superimposed cross stood as a symbol of salvation.


JvSch: Thus in the Christian sense the labyrinth is no longer a figure of self recognition or a place to meet God, but already a maze. Already in this clear form?
Dr. Kern: Yes, here we find clearly addressed the state of the Christian soul in a sinful world, far from God.


JvSch: How far back can we trace the original labyrinth with its unambiguous pathway?
Dr. Kern: My conviction is that the earliest labyrinth petroglyph found so far is in an underground tomb in Sardinia and belongs to the 3rd pre-Christian millenium. We can date accurately a clay tablet, namely around 1200 B.C., from the palace of Nestor in Pylos. On it a labyrinth is carved, which can be dated so precisely because it was hardened by fire in a battle with sea-faring people about 1200 B.C. Therefore it must have been incised shortly before. Thus we have proof of an original labyrinth this far back. We can only guess what its meaning was at that time. For example this clay tablet: A scribe probably worked on it during his leisure time, for on the other side of it he kept record of some goats. It began thus as a playful thing. In the Sardinian tomb the labyrinth had a completely different meaning: There it was interpreted as a symbol of and hope for rebirth. That sounds like a sudden switch. Perhaps I can make it clearer by visually analyzing the figure: We have a rounded external form, only connected with the external world by a small opening. From this outer form, only a single way - however with many turns that fill out the complete inner space - leads to a center. I see this as an initiation figure, and initiation means a symbolic death and a symbolic rebirth. That can be somehow illustrated if you put yourself into the situation of someone who tries to enter this space. First one is deterred by its reticent character. This inner space is rather hermetically closed off against the outer space. The many turns and the complexity of the arrangement are confusing. One only dares to enter if one has a certain maturity, a certain self-assurance, which corresponds exactly to the situation at a certain age of initiation, where a socially and sexually immature child turns into a mature and socially responsible adult. The person enters the labyrinth and is troubled on the way to the goal by a maximum of detours and by a maximum of loss of strength and time. We can see in this process an initiatory test situation in the center. There one does not meet the Minotaur but oneself, one's God or whatever the center or the middle stands for. Anyhow the center offers the possibility and also the space for an experience which is so fundamental that now that person has to turn back, has to turn literally on one's heels, for if one changes direction by 180°, that means at the same time breaking away from one's past as radically as possible. It means breaking with one's former existence which has ended in the center, and that means at the same time that the person leaves the labyrinth quasi reborn. We find the same meaning also in the tomb, where the dead body is laid down and rebirth is being represented in the labyrinth. Labyrinth engravings in the northwest of Spain during the Bronze Age about 1200 B.C. show similar motives. They are closely linked to tin mining in the Bronze Age, where the miner so to speak entered the womb of mother earth - another world, the underworld, the labyrinth. So in this context this can be interpreted as hope for the return from the underworld, as hope for a comeback and also as a magic sign, as a magic ascertainment that there is a comeback. That means that the labyrinth is explicitly a magical figure.


JvSch: Now we have gone very far into the past to the beginnings, about 5000 years before today. How is it that on the one hand your book appears on the market at this moment, that your research interest is in labyrinths, and that on the other hand this labyrinth symbol is being treated nowadays so frequently in literature generally?
Dr. Kern: That is also a very complex phenomenon. I would like to pick out some aspects: First of all there is really a great interest in this figure. I can see this for example in the contemporary art scene. I know many artists who worked with this figure, in both versions, as a labyrinth and as a maze, each one of them pursuing a different, surely unconscious line of interest. Both the publication of my book, and the announcement of a large labyrinth exhibit, to be shown in the “Haus der Kunst” in 1985, met with a lively response. I interpret this as an indication of a search for wholeness and for oneness. Because the labyrinth is a holistic figure. It allows an individual to find oneself, to experience oneself as an entity. The labyrinth is in itself an organic whole and that is, we think, the most obvious, but also the most important preoccupation today. If you consider the fragmentation of our daily life, the thousands of individual functions we have to perform: now here for the moment in front of the microphone, just before as a tramway passenger or as a business partner, or as the father of a family, or as a taxpayer; all of them different functions, which prevent you from getting to the real center, to the essence of ones existence. That is a deficit, which I am certainly not alone to sense, but which prompted also others to search for experiences of wholeness. And that is mirrored in the labyrinth figure.


JvSch: How does that go together? On the one hand you see as the most fascinating aspect of the labyrinth that it offers wholeness, a means to find oneself. On the other hand we know that many people are fascinated by the maze exactly because it invites you to loose your way in different directions.
Dr. Kern: Well, you have to see it dialectically. The two concepts, the maze and the labyrinth, are closely linked. The idea to get hopelessly lost, materialized in the maze, is not conceivable without the background of a labyrinth figure which in turn provides orientation. So the idea of getting completely lost can only be interpreted as some kind of search for a firm foothold and orientation. Both conceptions are only understandable from this dialectic point of view.


JvSch: We know that many people experience a lack of orientation today. Can you imagine that this labyrinth figure could purposefully be utilized in some form of psychotherapy?
Dr. Kern: Yes, absolutely. The labyrinth is a really vital figure which reaches down into deep layers of the soul. If a therapist reaches these layers of the soul, he can achieve a lot, not only in an individual case, but also win deep insights into our constitution as human beings.


JvSch: Thus you could imagine to build a labyrinth which one could walk really for self exploration?
Dr. Kern: Yes, absolutely. And also in the exhibition which I will organize in the “Haus der Kunst” in 1985, I will make sure that there are many possibilities to move, that as a figure of movement the labyrinth can be really acted out, be felt, grasped, and consummated.


JvSch: In dreams too labyrinths emerge again and again when one feels that one has lost the way. I imagine you find such material also of interest.
Dr. Kern: Yes, I find such dreams very interesting. I was looking for such material already while working on my book, but found little that was informative. For me the symbolic perspective on birth is interesting, because in India the labyrinth is clearly understood as a magic figure of birth in a practical way, which on the one hand shows the way – the birth channel – , on the other hand is considered to magically alleviate birth pains. I could imagine that there are dreams, which so far were not available to me, in which this birth experience is interpreted in a labyrinthine way.


JvSch: The labyrinth figure is actually very simple. As you describe it, as it presents itself apparently most often, it seems to have seven segments. Or how would you express it?
Dr. Kern: Seven turns.


JvSch: Seven turns in both directions. Thus the turn means that you always go from left to right in a pendular motion and then back again.
Dr. Kern: Yes.


JvSch: Why seven of all numbers, do you think? The seven is a holy number ...
Dr. Kern: Well, I pondered this question also for a long time. That has surely a specific meaning. But the usual meanings which came to my mind did not satisfy me. From a cosmological perspective one thinks first of the seven planets, but that does not work, because in antiquity only five planets were known. If one adds to them the sun and moon, then we come up with seven. The question is however if, at the time this figure was created, seven planets were known? I doubt it. Possibly the figure seven points to the days of the week or the octave in music. Seven full tones and then begins the next octave as a sign of a restart. Perhaps there are connections there, but those are in my opinion speculations after the event. I am also not convinced that the labyrinth is of Greek origin. I rather think that it is of Minoan origin, i.e. prehellenic, and that it originated on the island of Crete and was taken over only later by the Greeks.


JvSch: Is the labyrinth limited to a certain cultural area, or do labyrinths exist everywhere in the world?
Dr. Kern: They are not to be found everywhere, which suggests that the creation or adoption of this figure presupposes a certain cultural maturity. I believe this figure was developed on Crete and then spread, long before the birth of Christ, throughout the whole Mediterranean basin. Approximately at the same time it came to Northern Europe . There are for instance rock carvings in Cornwall , dating to the Bronze Age. There are Scandinavian labyrinths, so-called walls of Troy , where stones delimit the pathways, placed in open fields, mostly in coastal regions, and which are very difficult to date. I think that this type of labyrinth also goes back to the Bronze Age. Relatively early, this concept might have spread to the east, whereby I think especially of the campaigns of Alexander the Great who was in India in 327 B.C. In India the labyrinth played a very big role, from there it spread to Sumatra and Java, and then found surely its way across the Pacific, into the southwest of the USA . There is the strange phenomenon with the Hopi Indians in Arizona that their labyrinth also stands as a symbol of rebirth. Surely it were not Christian missionaries who introduced the labyrinth there. Different reasons clearly prove the opposite, for the Hopi themselves speak in their myth of origin that they came from beyond a big sea in search for their present fourth world, and that in their travel across the sea they always went east, once even northeast. Which refers clearly to connections across the Pacific. That was one of the unexpected findings which my work with this huge material yielded.


JvSch: Where in the neighborhood of Munich, and/or in Bavaria, are there labyrinths which one can visit or perhaps even walk?
Dr. Kern: Here in Munich for example, in the city hall. You find it in the courtyard, thus outdoors. It is an octagonal labyrinth, which was made – or rather copied - after the model of church labyrinths in Northern France shortly before the turn of the century. That can be walked. It is, however, hard to recognize because the stones, of which it consists, can be hardly differentiated colorwise from the rest of the surface. We find a labyrinth [circular maze] in the park of the castle of Aschaffenburg, a garden labyrinth [hedge maze] in the public garden of Herrenhausen , and many designs and engravings since the 16th century.


JvSch: Are there real labyrinths buildings?
Dr. Kern: In the ancient world there were buildings which were called labyrinths, but which they were not. We know only of one very puzzling structure, the foundation of the Tholos of Epidauros; where circular walls actually form a labyrinth. We know unfortunately nothing at all about the meaning of this building.


JvSch: I guess the reader will discover a lot of things in your book. I would like to close here with many thanks for this conversation.

May I finally refer again to the book of Dr. Hermann Kern: Its title: Labyrinthe : Erscheinungsformen und Deutungen, 5000 Jahre Gegenwart eines Urbildes (“Labyrinths: Manifestations and Interpretations, 5000 Years' Presence of an Archetype”), published by Prestel in Munich.


Copyright © 1983/2005 for this text: Dr. Jürgen vom Scheidt and IAK Munich:

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