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The Labyrinth - an intricate path to peace

Updated on January 31, 2014
The Labyrinth at the Naples Botanical Gardens (Naples, FL)  a place for meditation.
The Labyrinth at the Naples Botanical Gardens (Naples, FL) a place for meditation. | Source
Another photo shot of The Labyrinth at the Naples Botanical Gardens.  It is of classical Greek style.
Another photo shot of The Labyrinth at the Naples Botanical Gardens. It is of classical Greek style. | Source
Rock drawing of a classical labyrinth in Valcamonica, Italy.
Rock drawing of a classical labyrinth in Valcamonica, Italy. | Source
Carving stone labyrinth,  Hoysaleswara temple, Hatebidu, India.
Carving stone labyrinth, Hoysaleswara temple, Hatebidu, India. | Source
Stone labyarinth on Bla Jungfrun (Blue Virgin) Island, Sweden.
Stone labyarinth on Bla Jungfrun (Blue Virgin) Island, Sweden. | Source

I first became interested in labyrinths the first time I walked this one at the Naples Botanical Gardens in Naples, FL. Set aside in a beautiful, serene area this is a place for quiet meditation for which most labyrinths serve today. This labyrinth is in the classical Greek style, one of the oldest labyrinth styles in the world today. Therefore, labyrinths have been around in the world for a long, long time, having been discovered all the way back to pre-historic times of circa 2500 BC.

Today, most labyrinths are found in parks or in churches to help you achieve a contemplative state. As you walk among the turnings of the labyrinth, you lose track of direction and the outside world. The distractions fall away and following the twists and turns of the path quiets the mind.

This is exactly what I discovered as I navigated the Naples Botanical Garden labyrinth. I have walked its path many times, beginning at the bottom of the labyrinth and walking to the center to the lovely, small fountain in the center. The echos of falling water sooth the mind and leave me with a refreshing feeling both inside and out. Once at the center, I pause for a few moments to take in the lovely gardens, flowers, lake and plants surrounding me.

Signs warn that this is a meditation area and those approaching are to be silent and respect those within the labyrinth. After a few minutes at the center, I then find my way out of the labyrinth and back to the beginning. I have gone full circle literally and figuratively in meditation and depending on how much meditation I do and how fast or slowly I navigate it, I can spend anywhere from twenty minutes to half an hour in a pleasant 'other world' of my mind and the botanical gardens. It is complete peace.

What exactly is a labyrinth?

A labyrinth is described many times as a puzzle, synonymous with a maze, but actually the two are different. A labyrinth is a single path (unicurial) and has only a single non-branching path which leads to the center. As it twists and turns it has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.

On the other hand, the maze is a complex branching path (multicurial) which choices of path and direction. Today, we traverse mazes in corn fields or gardens of large estates and they can be very difficult to navigate even sometimes causing us to get lost in them.

The only way to get lost in a labyrinth is in your mind as you meditate as they are not designed to stymie the walker, but to produce enough concentration, that the walker can find peace and tranquility.

The word labyrinth is a pre-Greek word of Minoan origin. The Greeks popularized and designed the classical style as seen above, and first used it at the palace of Knossos in Crete. It is derived from the Lydian word labrys which means double-edged axe.

It was a symbol of royal power with historians believing today that the labyrinth was originally laid in the royal Minoan palace in Crete, The House of the Double-Axe. This same symbol was also discovered in palaces throughout Crete.

Many of the labyrinth symbols were associated with goddesses in these Cretin palaces because the Double-Axe was the symbol of the beginning or arche of the creation .

The labyrinth is also believed to have run and meandered to give the "Greek key" its common shape and modern name.

During the 3rd century BC the back of Greek coins were stamped with the labyrinth. And, at this time, the labyrinth was any unicurial maze that was circular or square in shape.

The Greeks were not the only ones to use labyrinths in their architecture and coinage, but the Egyptians, the Italians, the native American indians, Indians from India and the Swedish from Sweden all were fascinated with labyrinths.

Greek key design labyrinth.
Greek key design labyrinth. | Source
Typical medieval labyrinth pattern.
Typical medieval labyrinth pattern. | Source

Labyrinths of Medieval times

It was during the medieval period that labyrinths became used for religious reasons and labyrinths were put in the floors of many cathedrals in Europe. Less complicated labyrinths were used on these church and cathedral floors.

It was during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that many labyrinths were laid in the Gothic cathedrals of Chartres, Reims and Amiens in northern France. They became symbolic allusions to the Holy City, Jerusalem.

Some historians today believe that prayers and devotions accompanied the walking of their intricate paths. It is also believed that Christian pilgrims who could not actually travel on a pilgrimage to a specific shrine for whatever reason, substituted the 'path to Jerusalem' through walking a labyrinth.

The pilgrims followed the labyrinth path on their knees while praying, especially at the cathedral in Chartres, France. There is no evidence, however, that the early, early Christians used labyrinths in this way. This seems to be a medieval phenomenon.

Pilgrims walking a labyrinth symbolized the hard path to God with God as the center of the labyrinth and the entrance symbolizing the pilgrim's birth. The pilgrim walked the path of the labyrinth descending toward salvation or enlightenment. This substituted for pilgrimages those were not actually able to make.

Many of these cathedral labyrinths are thought to be the inspiration for many outside turf mazes in the UK which have survived to today in Wing, Hilton, Alkborough, Saffron, and Walden.

It is also during the medieval period that five hundred or more non-religious labyrinths were constructed of stones in Scandinavia, mostly in the coastal areas. They were constructed in the simple seven or eleven classical forms and thought to be constructed by fishing communities.

It was believed that labyrinths trapped malevolent trolls or winds in the labyrinth's coils and this would ensure safe fishing areas and expeditions. The stone labyrinth in the Iles of Scilly were not discovered by archaeologists until the nineteenth century.

Labyrinths appear in most parts of the world today such as native North and South America to
Australia, Java, India, and Nepal, to name a few world-wide places.

A class of students walking The Labyrinth for Peace.
A class of students walking The Labyrinth for Peace. | Source
Although the most usual pattern of labyrinths is round, they can also be square in shape and pattern.
Although the most usual pattern of labyrinths is round, they can also be square in shape and pattern. | Source

Modern labyrinths

Labyrinths today can be both literal and symbolic. Labyrinths designed on floors or outside on terrain are large enough that the path can be walked as is the one in the Naples Botanical Gardens. Today, they are used mostly for private meditation.

There are also symbolic uses for the labyrinth especially in literature, art and films. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was fascinated with labyrinths and used them many times in his short stories; for example, The House of Asterion.

Borges use of labyrinths in his stories have inspired other writers to use them also. For example, Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, and Mark Z. Danielewski, House of the Leaves, are two more authors who have used them.

Octavio Paz, in his book on the Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, used the labyrinth to describe the Mexican condition as orphaned or lost.

The film, Labyrinth, from the 1980s presented the search for meaning in a symbolic modern labyrinth.

Both, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso are artists who have included labyrinths in their art and paintings. Miro and his painting, Labyrinth (1923) and Picasso and his painting, Minotauromachia (1935) figure labyrinths in the paintngs.

In this sense, labyrinths have served as a metaphor for situations that are difficult to be extricated from. It is an image suggesting one getting lost in a subterranean dungeon like world.

Grace Cathedral labyrinth. (San Francisco)
Grace Cathedral labyrinth. (San Francisco) | Source

Healing Powers of the Labyrinth

Are you interested in walking a labyrinth?

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Grace Cathedral Labyrinth

Although the religious significance of labyrinths has faded over the years and their service today is more for entertainment or symbolic reasons, there has recently been a resurgence of labyrinth use of the spiritual aspect.

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco has two labyrinths, one indoors and one outdoors. The indoor labyrinth is inlaid on the floor of the cathedral and was introduced by the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress in 1994. In 1995, she founded Veriditas "to facilitate the transformation of the human spirit through offering the walking labyrinth experience."

The process has three stages to the walk:

  • Purgation (Releasing) and the letting go of the details of your life. As one walks the labyrinth there is the shedding of thoughts and distractions. This is the time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
  • Illumnination (Receiving) happens when one reaches the center of the labyrinth. The walker can stay here as long as he/she likes. The center is the place of meditation and prayer. It is here that one receives what there is to receive.
  • Union (Returning) as one leaves the center of the labyrinth, he/she follows the same path out of the center as he/she came in. Here is the entrance to the third stage of the process which is joining God, your Higher Power or the healing forces at work in the world.

Each time one walks the labyrinth and goes through this process one becomes more empowered to find and do the work for which he/she feels the soul is reaching.

Can there be traffic jams while walking a labyrinth? Yes, but those walking are respectful and allow others by and around them as they traverse on their spiritual journey.

The labyrinth at Grace Cathedral can be walked on a daily basis while a yoga exercise and class also uses the labyrinth. The cathedral also offers a candlelight labyrinth walk and a labyrinth peace walk.

For those interested in seeing different labyrinths or walking them, there is The Labyrinth Society which provides a locator for modern labyrinths all over the world and their link can be found below.

Whether you are just interested in these 'puzzles' or have a religious or spiritual reason for walking a labyrinth, they are fascinating at least to me. The peacefulness and serenity attained by walking a labyrinth is worth the time and the walk.

Copyright (c) 2013 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


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