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Labyrinths

Updated on May 7, 2011

Labyrinths, those geometric forms that define and lead to a sacred core, have been part of man's spiritual journey for over 4000 years. They are part, in one form or another, of most major religious traditions - Native American, Greek, Celtic, Mayan, Christian, Indian and Ancient Egyptian. Descriptions of labyrinths are found as far back as the writings of Pliny and Herodotus.

Many people confuse labyrinths with mazes. Mazes are designed to confuse, with dead ends, paths with turns and reversals, only one of which leads to the core. In a true labyrinth, despite confusing paths and turns, you are eventually led back to the beginning.

The 7 Circuit Labyrinth

The unicursal seven circuit labyrinth is one of the oldest and most true labyrinth designs.
The unicursal seven circuit labyrinth is one of the oldest and most true labyrinth designs.

The Unicursal Labyrinth

The predominant form in many early Mediterranean area labyrinths was the unicursal maze, meaning 'that which can be passed over or through in a single course'. It is a simple seven circuit style, with the entrance at the bottom and a single path to the center and returning to the beginning.  The earliest labyrinths were circular in shape.

Later ones were drawn or created as a square, with four quadrants that were to be traced before coming to the center, where a bull or minotaur was depicted.

Labyrinth Design

Labyrinth carved into rock, Tintagel, Cornwall
Labyrinth carved into rock, Tintagel, Cornwall

The Knossos Labyrinth

The Bronze Age labyrinth at Knossos is the stuff of legends. Homer, in the Iliad, tells us it was created as a ceremonial dancing ground for Ariadne, rather than for Minos to imprison the Minotaur.  Hephaestus inscribed the pattern on the shield of Achilles, and depicted the dance as one of courtship.

This is the labyrinth we all think of when we hear the word, a structure supposedly designed to imprison the Minotaur. Literary descriptions of this structure make it clear that it was a multi-cursal maze rather than a true labyrinth.

The ruins of Minos' palace at Knossos have been found, but there is no trace of the labyrinth. Most archaeologists to believe that the palace itself was the source of the labyrinth myth, because of the multitude of rooms, corridors and staircases that made up the palace.

Greek legend has it that after Minos ascended the throne of Crete, he prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull to sacrifice. He decided to keep it instead because of its beauty. For punishment, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë, Minos' wife, to fall madly in love with the bull, and the offspring was the monster called the Minotaur (from the Greek Minos + Taurus). Minos had Daedulus build the labyrinth to contain the monster.

Minotaur bust,National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Minotaur bust,National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Theseus slaying the Minotaur, sculpture by Ramey, in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris.
Theseus slaying the Minotaur, sculpture by Ramey, in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris.

Outside of Europe, similar patterned labyrinths appeared in North American Native cultures. "The Man in the Maze" pattern, found in basketry designs, was different in that is a radial design, entered from the top. In India, labyrinths are found in cave art and ancient shrines. They follow the classical unicursal design. Remains of stone and turf labyrinths have been found in Scandinavia and Britain, and some of these are still in existence.


Pavement Labyrinths

Notre Dame Abbey in St. Remy.
Notre Dame Abbey in St. Remy.
Walking the Maze, Chartres Cathedral
Walking the Maze, Chartres Cathedral

Pavement Labyrinths

In medieval Europe, grand pavement labyrinths were built into the floors of Gothic cathedrals in Chartres, Reims, Amiens and Tuscany. Although it is believed these were built as prayer paths, there is no evidence to support this. Recently, a revival of interest in labyrinths as spiritual, prayer or meditation paths has seen the building of modern pavement labyrinths, both in churches and in parks.

Hedge Labyrinth, Germany
Hedge Labyrinth, Germany

Today, these labyrinths are used as part of our search for the inner self. Walking these paths, you meander back and forth, turning 180 degrees each time you enter a different circuit. As you shift your direction you also shift your awareness from right brain to left brain.

Each person's walk is a personal experience - it can be anything from profound and healing to just a reflective walk. At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor - the journey to the center of your true self and back out into the world with a heightened understanding of who you are.

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    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      excellent writeup about the history and current usefullness of the Labyrinth. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Dennis 

      9 years ago

      Hey Nana... this is cool stuff! Sort of reminds me of Crop Circles and the stories around those. Love your posts... Congrats on the 30 day challenge!

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