The concepts of “labyrinth”, “grave” and “realm of the dead” had the same meaning/symbolism for our ancestors, both referring to the burial mound whose entrance and main channel represented the vaginal channel while the last and deepest zone/chamber symbolized the womb. This sort of “womb of the earth” was the place where was accomplished the initiation ritual that allowed the rebirth inside the ancestry.
Representation of an archaic labyrinth:
In Greek the verb “muein”, from which derives the noun “mysterion”, referred originally to the reaching of a center: the mysteric initiations that took place in Ancient Greece had their primordial origin 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/burial mound 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” originally a reference to the meanders of natural caves (the prototypes of the burial mounds) and not to the meandering path of rivers.
An example of decorative motif called “meander”:
The figure of the labyrinth was in ancient times also used 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 Underworld) 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 as they danced was that of an archaic labyrinth? We can answer to these questions 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 was kept. Fourteen young 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 hostages 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 certain cases, as children/young boys.
Theseus kills the Minotaur:
The name “ariadne” on the other hand derives from the Cretan-Greek “ari-hagne” that means “utterly pure”, purity being for the Greeks an attribute of Persephone, since death purifies us. Ariadne is nothing else than Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, and was also called “Lady of the Labyrinth” according to an inscription found at Knossos 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 a gift 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”.
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 symbolizes the umbilical cord that binds the mother to her son, 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/burial mound/labyrinth (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!