A very ancient labyrinth -- nuragic. The labyrinth of the Domus de Janas of Luzzanas.

In one of the Domus de Janas, ancient tombs that were believed to be the homes of the Janas, the fairies of Sardinian folklore, there is a strange carving in the shape of a labyrinth. Why in a pre-Nuragic tomb did the ancient inhabitants of the island leave this motif?

There are countless places in Italy that hold ancient legends and hide magical creatures of all kinds, but only in Sardinia are Domus de Janas found. They look like tiny houses carved into the rock and, according to the oldest folk tales, they are said to be the dwellings of the Janas, that is, mischievous as well as wise little fairies who live in secret places sheltered from the direct rays of the sun. There are those who still tell that the Janas spend their time weaving on their magnificent golden looms, watching over children’s dreams and protecting them from bad influences at night; others claim how they bestow their riches on anyone who can prove that they have a pure and virtuous heart, while there are countless who would swear that they have seen them in the flesh, intent on playing or quarreling with other fantastical creatures such as elves and goblins. In any case, such legends have helped keep alive the magical and mysterious atmosphere of these ancient tombs, although the historical reality surrounding them is quite different from the fantasy of folk tales.

These small lodgings were pre-Nuragic tombs dug into the rock more than 5,000 years ago by locals with the help of stone pickaxes, and they are found all along the island’s territory, representing an important evidence of the funerary cult of the people of antiquity.

Of particular relevance among these magical dwellings is the “Tomb of the Labyrinth”: an artificial burial cave dating back to the Recent Neolithic, some 6,000 years ago, which was studied by archaeologist Ercole Contu in 1965. Its structure is part of a small necropolis located in Sa Menta, in the locality of Luzzanas, municipality of Benetutti (Sassari), excavated on the slope of an isolated hillside of trachytic tuff. Currently, the hypogeum appears completely covered by sediment and the entrance hatch is not visible as it has been buried under deposits that have accumulated over time, but access to the tomb is made possible by the collapse of the roof of one of the rooms into which it is divided. Of these rooms, three are arranged around a central chamber with an irregular elliptical-polygonal plan, characterized by a planimetric pattern defined as centripetal development. Inside the central compartment, on the southwestern wall and to the right of a doorway, there is an engraving depicting a Cretan-type labyrinth, with a circular pattern with seven circumvolutions using an engraving technique defined as “a polissoir,” which seems to be made with a fine-tipped tool, presumably made of stone or metal, suitable for creating sharp, precise, very thin, but deep furrows with a “V-shaped” section.

Interestingly, the walls of the tomb were not flattened and finished with the care found in other Domus de Janas with engravings, such as in the necropolis of Sos Furrighesos, Matteatu and Calancoi, and the scant regard in the excavation process is also evident in the areas that have vertical and parallel furrows, left by the stone picks used during the excavation operations.

The labyrinth and other carvings found in the domus were also not part of the original construction plan for this structure, but are believed to post-date the Recent Neolithic period, which represents the time when most of the 3500 Domus de Janas surveyed in Sardinia were excavated.

The labyrinth of the tomb of Luzzanas
The labyrinth of the Luzzanas tomb

The precise dating of the labyrinth motif is still debated today. In 1965, Ercole Contu attributed it to the Copper Age, albeit with some uncertainty while, over the years, several dating hypotheses have been put forward, ranging from the mid-3rd millennium (2500-2000 B.C.), the Protonuragic period between 1500 and 1000 B.C., to the Bronze Age, the Ancient Orientalizing (730-600 B.C.), and even more recent eras.

However, the precise determination of chronology is only one of the many problems related to these engravings, as other complex and interesting issues include the etymology and interpretation of the term labyrinth, the origin of the labyrinth concept itself and its diffusion, and its relationship to the relevant societies.

Given the vast field of inquiry, we could focus here mainly on the problem of its origin in order to be able to best interpret the exegesis of Luzzanas’. In this regard, two distinct methodical approaches emerge: one based on the “elementary thinking” of German ethnologist Adolf Bastian, who suggests a universal presence of common spiritual and psychic needs in different cultures, linked to climatic-geographical influences and finding graphic expression in the labyrinth throughout the world. The second approach follows the “migration theory” of another German ethnologist, Friedrich Ratzel, who hypothesizes historical connections between cultures. According to the latter method, Hermann Kern in his book Labyrinths. Forms and Interpretations, 5,000 Years of the Presence of an Archetype locates the origin of the labyrinth in Minoan Crete, from which it would have spread to the West, Europe, Italy, the Iberian Peninsula and England, as well as to the East, India, Java, Sumatra and the southwest coast of the United States. It also suggests how the labyrinth might be a small-scale representation of the paths of dances on foot or horseback, referring to literary sources that mention such choreographic practices.

The labyrinth, then, like that of Luzzanas would be an expression of apotropaic magic crafted to keep spirits away since “bad spirits can only fly in a straight line, and therefore cannot find their way along the circumvolutions of a labyrinth; the complexity of a labyrinth confuses an attacker, fatigues him, deceives him, and deflects him,” as Kern states in his 1981 essay .

The symbolic significance of the ritual battle of the horsemen and the labyrinthine path carried out at funeral services highlights the separation of life and death, representing the complexity of the transition between the two states, which will always be parallel, but closer than one dares to hope. These symbolic elements embody the myth of continuous return, symbolizing both chaos and established order. The “Tomb of the Labyrinth” in Benetutti seems to confirm this interpretation of the symbol, recalling initiatory funeral rituals observed in various cultures, especially in Pacific islands, with intricate dances guiding the soul of the deceased into new life. The Luzzanas labyrinth thus becomes a figurative representation of complex theories of life, death and rebirth, embodying a rite of passage from life to death within an artificial burial cave.

It now seems likely, therefore, to assume that it represented a place where it is difficult to enter and from which it is difficult to exit: yet, even if with infinite snags and multiple circumvolutions, one does exit.

As Ercole Contu suggests, Benetutti’s figurative motif represents life and death as “indivisible” concepts, emphasizing that “one must die in order to be reborn,” whether it is a real death of the body or a symbolic death. Thus, the labyrinth emerges as a symbol expressing faith in the afterlife and rebirth, offering a perspective of creating a new being to overcome the anguish of death that has affected the community. A symbol that helps rebalance the cultural system put in crisis by the very mournful event.

A very ancient labyrinth -- nuragic. The labyrinth of the Domus de Janas of Luzzanas.
A very ancient labyrinth -- nuragic. The labyrinth of the Domus de Janas of Luzzanas.

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