Maze is the English word for a labyrinth. Everyone thinks that they know what a maze is - lots of paths, with hedges in between, and you get lost in it - like our Jubilee Maze. However, no maze like the Jubilee Maze has been found which is over 600 years old. Yet the word labyrinth is found in a Cretan inscription "a honey-pot for all the gods, a honey-pot for the lady of the labyrinth" over 3,400 years old - and language experts think that the word is much older.
Labyrinth was one name given by the Ancient Romans to a special type of pattern which had a path in it - one path, which went all around the whole pattern, either to end in the middle or to come back out again. What was special about the patterns was the fact that they were made by a pattern-making trick, one which could make thousands of different patterns - and because each pattern had a path, you had thousands of paths to choose from when you built a maze. These patterns had to be carefully measured-out, or the path wouldn't work. Myth says that the labyrinth was solved with a clewe of twine - Old English for "ball of string". So a maze is the solution to a pattern-making puzzle which was solved by geometry - which means ground-measurement. This is the origin of our word clue.
One Greek maze was hidden under the floor of a temple at Epidaurus, and Plato thought of maze-patterns "as illustrations to our study of the true realities". Thus the labyrinth was a religious mystery, a secret for the initiate. The most important playwright in ancient Athens, Aesculus, was prosecuted for revealing religious mysteries - a crime which carried the death penalty - so it is wrong to expect Theseus, the first labyrinth-myth to have been written down, to hand us the secret undisguised. In fact some of the first people to write down the myth were Sacerdotal Magistrates whose job was to judge just such cases. It is possible that they wrote the myth down just in case they came across a prosecution involving its mystery.
Mazes appeared in Pylos (Greece) and Syria from around 3,200 years ago, so other religions had labyrinth traditions right from the start, and the Greeks claimed that the Egyptians used them. Judaism, Brahmanism, Sufism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and Taoism all had labyrinth traditions. Sometimes they used the same pattern-making tricks, sometimes they invented new types of maze. Sometimes they used the patterns to play games. Sometimes they were used for marriage, fertility, birth, funeral, exorcism, wind-control, healing or protective ritual. Generally, the labyrinth seems to have been a symbol of the path chosen through life - but it remains a mystery.
Giovanni Fontana read the Theseus myth 600 years ago, couldn't understand what the Christian mazes he knew had to do with it - and so invented the modern maze with many paths and walls. Modern puzzle mazes were soon planted in gardens with very simple designs and low hedges. In contrast, puzzle-books had very complicated mazes - perhaps because the symbolism was unimportant to children. In the last 200 years the arcane meaning became less important, so mazes were built with the idea of getting people lost. This European idea has now spread around the world, and is not religious at all.
The idea that there was always a way to find a path seems to have developed from the symbolism of the labyrinth. Mathematicians call finding the best path in a maze critical-path analysis. CPA can find the cheapest route for telephone-calls, design the electrical paths of circuit-boards, or reduce the cost of road-trips. Computer-programs which do critical-path analysis are called autorouters. Autorouters help miniaturise and cut the cost of electronics, and have been a major factor in the development of Information Technology. The first autorouter was tested on a map of the maze at Hampton Court Palace about 35 years ago.
Plato wrote of the labyrinth "Anyone who knew anything about geometry [...] would think it absurd to study it in the serious hope of learning". In the last 15 years we have discovered what the Ancient Greeks missed about the labyrinth - ancient mazes had chaotic paths. Today, chaos theory helps mathematicians understand how far ahead they can forecast the weather. The discipline is only a few years old. If the ancient Greeks had taken an interest in it, this branch of mathematics might have been studied for over 2,500 years - and our weather forecasts might be much better.
Ancient labyrinths are being revived by New Age mystics, who use them for meditation and healing. These New Religious Movements are creating their own mystery traditions and new myths - for example that the labyrinth was a celtic symbol, or that ancient labyrinths were aligned with the sun. In other parts of the world, the old traditions still exist, but they are altered through contact with European culture. There is nothing new in this: oral traditions have always changed the myth of the labyrinth, each telling being slightly different until new threads of the story emerge. Ancient Greeks preserved several threads for later historians.