The origin of the labyrinth is often associated with the Greek myth of the Minotaur, but labyrinths have spanned across ancient cultures as places of meditation, magic, and impetuses for holy quests or pilgrimages. Once a symbol of the underworld and madness, labyrinths have now been revived, introducing a modern twist of reflection and rejuvenation to the age-old practice.
The idea of the labyrinth—a sprawling path of twists and turns—comes from the Lydian term labrys, a double-edged axe. While generally associated with Zeus’ thunderbolt, high society priestesses worshiping the goddess Crete wore the double-axe as a symbol, giving it a feminine and matriarchal foundation. Since the 1970’s, the labrys has maintained that female power to become a LGBTQ symbol of independence and strength.
With the axe handle representing the labyrinth’s single-entry point, the double blades resemble the intricate formation of a seven-circuit construction called a Cretan labyrinth, a symbol abundantly found on coins, walls, and art in the ruins of Europe’s ancient city, Knossos, home of the Minotaur legend.
The Minotaur’s Labyrinth
Another tale where the tinkering of a god has a queen bearing a hybrid animal-human child, the myth of the Minotaur and labyrinth are intertwined as places of blood, death, and madness. When the monstrous child grew into a human-devouring creature, King Minos imprisoned the Minotaur under his palace in a huge underground labyrinth, designed by the one and only Daedalus, father to Icarus. Every year, the Minotaur devoured human sacrifices, making the labyrinth synonymous with a horrifying underworld of confusion and fear where monsters lurk in the pitch-black darkness. Once you’re inside, not only must you defeat the Minotaur, you have to survive the labyrinth as well.
Here, the differences between a maze and a labyrinth mingle, influencing the uncertain relationship society has with labyrinths today. A maze, having multiple dead ends, branching pathways, and tricks to return you to already-explored areas are supposed to test the intellect through confusion and deception—all aspects to the Minotaur’s labyrinth.
Yet other labyrinths cascading from the Grecian legend are generally uni-cursal, meaning they have one way in and one way out, and are meant to be explored through meandering. A labyrinth walker can put faith in the reliability of the labyrinth’s path: it will always lead to the heart. Within that certainty, the walker can focus on harnessing spiritual elements, be it self-realization, in-depth communion with the earth, or a revitalization of magic or faith. By enduing the labyrinth with the idea of darkness, its true purpose as a way to enlightenment has been obscured.
Ancient Labyrinths of the World (Besides Greece)
Near the ancient city of crocodiles in ancient Egypt, the Greek (okay, a little bit of Greek) historian, Herodotus, described the Egyptian labyrinth in his Histories Book II as being more elaborate and glamorous than the ancient pyramids. While only given access to view the upper corridors and rooms where worship and political matters occurred, the lower levels dedicated to the burial of kings and honored officials brought the living and the dead under one roof.
Yet the temple at Ephesus and that in Samos are surely remarkable. The pyramids, too, were greater than words can tell, and each of them is the equivalent of many of the great works of the Greeks; but the labyrinth surpasses the pyramids also.
While it’s indicated that the labyrinth was erected to keep looters out of the tombs, knowing how the Egyptians revered their dead leads to a secondary interpretation. Representing the walk from life to death—an incredible meandering where you can take as many twists and turns as life throws at you—you always know where you’ll be when your life is complete.
In the Southwestern United States in the Sonoran Desert, the labyrinths of the O’odham Native Americans are symbols of creation and the birth of man. Comparative to the Greek labyrinth, the Man in the Maze is flipped upside down, with a man standing on top ready to walk the labyrinth down instead of upwards. Within the sharper-angled labyrinth, the walker experiences the joys and pitfalls of life, along with end result of his goals and dreams. Finally, at the end, he can look back upon the labyrinth to see the sum of his life and all the choices that brought him to that point. This pattern has been used as basket and jewelry designs with a ‘mistake’ added to the weave to create a secondary doorway as a way to release the creation’s spirit.
The labyrinth always ends at the same place. You cannot be lost—you always end up at the end of your life no matter what road you take. Instead of a construct of fear, this labyrinth allows the examination of living—the choices made, the joy had, the sadness experienced, before reaching the heart, or death, of the labyrinth. Horrific death or being hopelessly lost has no place here, as walking the labyrinth becomes a way to meditate and become closer to understanding life.
Medieval Labyrinths and The Christian Connection
In 1194, a cathedral was built in Chartres, France on top of a sacred worship site of Celtic pagans. An eleven-circuit labyrinth with a rosette heart decorated the floor of the nave. Different from the Cretan labyrinth, the new Chartres labyrinth split into four quadrants and represented a holy place for pilgrims unable to make the ultimate journey to Jerusalem. At Chartres, they could come, walk the labyrinth, and honor their god. Suddenly, the labyrinth’s purpose had evolved further from the dark underground grotto of the Minotaur’s prison. Now, as an act symbolic with traveling to the holy land, medieval labyrinths skewed away from realizing the complexity of life or the fear of the underworld, but as a means to commune with a higher power.
The cathedral served a dual purpose for pilgrims. It housed and protected the tunic of the Virgin Mary, called the Sancta Camisa, a garment worn when she birthed Jesus. As worshippers paid homage to the Virgin Mary, they also kept up the worship of the feminine—specifically coming to honor her fertility and walk the labyrinth in her honor.
For those unable to walk a cathedral labyrinth, turf mazes, or labyrinths created out of grass and earth, became an outlet for religious reverence and spiritual awakening. Dotting the landscape of Europe, turf mazes allow for anyone to have moments of reflection surrounded by nature.
The Art of Healing
While the art of walking the labyrinth faded in lieu of the intricate game-driven garden mazes of the Renaissance era, labyrinth walking has made a comeback as a way of healing and mental rejuvenation, of disconnecting with the world to focus on a singular path. Yet labyrinths still maintain cloaked in mystery as places of uncertainty and confusion, looked on with derision as a new age phenomenon.
To fight the stigma surrounding the purpose of a labyrinth, The Labyrinth Society, a website dedicated to the purpose of labyrinths, provides a list of labyrinths across the world along with meet-ups for labyrinth enthusiasts. Hospitals, schools, and homes for the elderly are incorporating labyrinths within their gardens and institutions as a way for children and adults to obtain power over their world, spirit, or selves. As an outlet for rejuvenation and reflection, the labyrinth brings back an ancient method of understanding without the blood-soaked walls of ancient Greece.
Algeo, John. “The Labyrinth: A Brief Introduction to its History, Meaning and Use.” Quest 89.1 (January-February 2001):24-25. https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/42-publications/quest-magazine/1276-the-layrinth-a-brief-introduction-to-its-history-meaning-and-use
Algeo, John. “The Theosophical Labyrinth.” Theosophy Forward. 03 June 2012. http://www.theosophyforward.com/theosophy/612-the-theosophical-labyrinth
Attali, Jacques, & Rowe, Joseph H. The Labyrinth in Culture and Society: Pathways to Wisdom. North Atlantic Books. 22 March 1999.
Coppens, Philip. “The Labyrinthine Search.” http://philipcoppens.com/hawara.html. Accessed 06 July 2017.
Doore, Kathy. “Myth & History of Labyrinths.” Labyrinthia. http://www.labyrinthina.com/labyrinths-myth-history.html.
Francis, Jane E. & Kouremenos, Anna. Roman Crete: New Perspectives. Oxbrow Books. 31 May 2016.
James, John. “The Mystery of the Great Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral.” Studies in Comparative Religion. Vol. 11, No. 2. 1997.
Klimczak, Natalia. “The Chartres Cathedral—A Sacred Site for Ancient Druids and Christians” Ancient Origins. 7 March 2016. http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/chartres-cathedral-sacred-site-ancient-druids-and-christians-005482
Kumar, Ajit. “Labyrinths in Rock Art: Morphology and Meaning with Special Reference to India. Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology. 3(2015): 84-104.
Lloyd, Elinor Wynne. “The Significance of the Labrys in Minoan Civilization.” It’s All Greek. 21 October 2014. https://itsallgreeklondon.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-significance-of-the-labrys-in-the-minoan-civilisation/
Matthews, William Henry. Mazes and Labyrinths: A General Account of Their History and Development. Dover Publications: November 2, 2011.
Saward, Jeff. “A Brief History of the Labyrinth.” The Labyrinth Builders. 2011. http://www.labyrinthbuilders.co.uk/about_labyrinths/history.html