The concepts of “labyrinth” and “realm of the dead” had the same symbolism for our ancestors, both referring to the burial mound or initiatic cave whose entrance and main channel symbolized the vaginal channel, while the last and deepest chamber symbolized the womb of rebirth. This sort of “womb of the earth” was the place where was accomplished the initiation ritual that allowed the individual to be reborn inside the ancestry.
Representation of an archaic labyrinth (the word “labyrinth” may derive from “labra” [“cave, mine”]); the labyrinth of the Chartres Cathedral is composed of 274 stones, the average pregnancy days of a woman:
In Greek the verb “muein”, from which derives the noun “mysterion”, originally referred to the reaching of the center: the mysteric initiations that took place in Ancient Greece had their primordial function in the reaching of the center (the symbolism of the “center” always refers to an initiatory process) inside the labyrinth/burial mound, where lies its “mystery”.
This relation between the labyrinth and the cave or burial mound (Virgil, in the Aeneid, refers that at the entrance of the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl is engraved the image of the labyrinth) is clearly revealed by the decorative motif – common in ancient Greek and Roman art – known as “meander” (but also “greek”) and defined brilliantly by Károly Kerényi with these words: “the meander is the figure of a labyrinth in linear form”. My opinion is that the name “meander” was originally a reference to the meanders of natural caves (the prototypes of the burial mounds).
An example of decorative motif called “meander”:
The figure of the labyrinth was in ancient times used also in relation to ritual plays and dances: according to Livy, during a festivity dedicated to Proserpina (the Roman equivalent of Persephone, the Queen of the Dead) virgins danced the “Chorus Proserpinae” following a figure and holding in their hands a rope (the Greeks too used ropes during certain ritual dances), necessary in a spiral dance.
What symbolized the rope? Are we sure that the figure followed by the virgins while they danced was that of an archaic labyrinth? We can answer to these questions by examining a known myth: the one about Theseus, Ariadne and the Labyrinth.
Homer in the Iliad talks about a place for dance that Daedalus built for Ariadne: it is not appointed but can only be a reference to the Labyrinth built by Daedalus, the one where the Minotaur had been imprisoned. Fourteen boys and girls were periodically sended inside the Labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur, but Theseus joined the third sacrificial group, killed the Minotaur and returned dancing the path of the Labyrinth together with the children he saved. The children sent inside the Labyrinth are those who had to face the rebirth/initiation ritual, and Theseus is the one who accomplishes it and slays the Minotaur: another proof that the heroes of the mythologies should be seen, in many cases, as children.
Theseus kills the Minotaur:
The name Ariadne on the other hand derives from the Cretan-Greek “ari-hagne” that means “pure”, purity being for the Greeks an attribute of Persephone, because death purifies us all. Ariadne is nothing else than Persephone, the Queen of the Dead, and was also called “Lady of the Labyrinth” according to an inscription found at Knossos and dating back to the Mycenaean Bronze Age: she is the sorceress/priestess inside the burial mound. According to the same inscription the “Lady of the Labyrinth” received as gift some honey, that as we know was brought by the child who had to face the initiation ritual, to appease the sorceress/priestess (originally to appease and nourish the she-bear). I want to remember that the very first nourishment of the gods was not ambrosia but honey, that not casually the Greek word with the meaning of “appease the gods” derives from the word “honey”, and again not casually that particularly the underworld deities were regarded by the Greeks as “honeyed” and “sweet as honey”.
Zeus Meilichios (according to a popular etymology the epithet “meilichios” would mean “sweet as honey”) was often portrayed in the form of an enormous serpent:
Originally the structure of the labyrinth was unicursal, with a single path leading to the center: there was no way of getting lost. Then what symbolizes the ball of thread that Ariadne gives to Theseus, so that he will be able to find the way out? Ariadne’s thread (in the ancient Basque language “hari” and “agna” mean respectively “thread” and “nurse”, whereby, alternatively, the name Ariadne would refer to the thread that feeds) symbolizes the umbilical cord that binds the mother to her child, who is in a state between death and birth (or rather, rebirth). Theseus enters the womb of the earth/burial mound (i.e. the labyrinth), symbolically becoming a fetus with the umbilical cord (Ariadne’s thread), that will be necessary to him until the moment when he will come out from the womb/labyrinth/burial mound (i.e. until he will accomplish the initiation ritual), reborn: by that time it will not serve anymore.
Theseus takes Ariadne’s thread:
Returning to the “Chorus Proserpinae”, we can now clearly understand the meaning of the rope they held as they danced following a spiral, in honour of Proserpina/Persephone, the Lady of the Labyrinth!