The Labyrinth

There is a large literature about labyrinths and mazes AND there is conflict about some of the information given. There are also unknown blanks where we know very little. So today will be a basic primer regarding the subject and, along with the bibliography you will receive, this will hopefully stimulate interest and further study on your part in the future.

The first distinction we probably need to make is that between a maze, which is designed to confuse, and a labyrinth, which has one path in and the same path out. Historically these two words have often been used interchangeably. Currently, along with the distinction I mentioned above, we might say that a labyrinth is a maze that has been solved, bringing order out of chaos. Thus we can understand part of its usefulness to us today. It can be seen as a very powerful Mandala which we can use to become more balanced and centered in our daily lives.

The history of the labyrinth goes back at least 3500 years with patterns inscribed in bone or ivory or on clay tablets from places like Siberia dating even further back into olden times. Labyrinths seem to arrive in a periodic manner and last for decades or centuries only to fade out and reappear at a later time perhaps as we humans call them forth. Peru, Arizona, Iceland and Scandanavia, Crete, Egypt, India, and Sumatra as well as Siberia are just a few places that have seen their appearance. The similarities of some of the designs seen world-wide seem to suggest phenomena such as mentioned in the 100th monkey story where, all of a sudden, monkeys everywhere were seen to wash the coconuts they ate. Perhaps also Teilard de Chardin's prediction made so many years ago of the next layer added to this planet being the oosphere, or consciousness was, indeed, correct.

The purpose and the uses of labyrinths in ancient times are not well known. One story that I like tells of fishermen in Scandinavia, where there have been evidence of large numbers of labyrinths uncovered near docking locations. The story tells of a fisherman and his crew. The crew boarded the fishing vessel early in the morning of the day of departure while the Captain slowly walked a labyrinth followed by all the evil spirits and trouble making entities in the area. When all were inside the center, the Captain would suddenly burst forth, running out of the labyrinth and going rapidly to his ship which quickly cast its anchor before any of the spirits found their way out and could follow him. This process assured the ship of a safe sailing and a good catch.

In walking a labyrinth symbolically we find that it can become the path to death, to wisdom, and to rebirth. Symbols can be thought of as a language of the soul and can draw us into a place of deep listening - they awaken us to that which is just beyond our grasp. Thus the walk can be an experience of discovery, transformation, compassion, grief, sheer pleasure or delight. This movement through the twists and turns of the labyrinth can be perceived as a metaphor for the journey we are on, for the Dance of life.

And indeed, there have been many references to circular and meandering dances acting as celebratory and centering occasions - from the Iliad, to dances in the medieval cathedrals, to Sufi dances and sinuous Greek dances as well as square and round dances in this country. Many experiences have been written on paper - one of my favorite is that found in the book “My Grandfather's Blessing” by Rachel Remen which some of you may have. I'd like to quote a short part of one chapter at this time:

“Walking a labyrinth is deceptive. At the beginning one seems to be heading directly for the center when one is actually farthest away from it, and moments before reaching it one is walking near the outermost edge of the circle. Among other things, walking the labyrinth causes you to confront the world of illusion, the difference between our hard-edged perception of how the world works and how it really works. It can be a humbling experience. It often creates in people a willingness to look past the familiar evidence of their eyes and towards a greater ability to hope for that which is unseen.

Many insights can be gained in this walking meditation. The first time I stood at the center, I had an odd thought. Lying around me was the path I had walked from the beginning with all its complexity, frustrations, and many turnings. It was complete, and I suddenly realized that, despite my experience to the contrary, I had always been heading for the center. Perhaps this was true of my life as well. Could events that seemed meaningless, or even wasteful, be taking me to a destination as surely as the twisting and turning path I had just followed? Perhaps my path only seemed random because I was still on it. At the end, from the center, would I someday see my life as complete and whole and recognize a hidden direction and pattern that redeemed loss, failure, and pain and utterly changed their meaning and value?” End quote

The power of the labyrinth lies in part in the secrets it holds of the greater mystery and in its way of capturing, for an instant, the unknowable. All of these descriptions point to the labyrinth journey as one way we can come to terms with our meanderings through time and space in our lifetime.

I would probably be amiss if I didn't mention that most familiar of tales - telling of the labyrinth at Knossos on the island of Crete and of the trip into its center undertaken voluntarily by Theseus with the purpose of slaying the Minotaur, the mythical half man, half bull. It is important to remember that many men had been forced to go before his famous journey and that all had died. But Theseus was smart and had studied the designs in the floor of the palace that held the key to entering and going to the center. By using the golden thread given to him by the Princess Ariadne, he successfully reached his goal in the center, then slayed the monster, AND was able to return and celebrate. As in mountaineering tradition, the mountain perhaps has not been successfully climbed until the climbers return safely. I will refer back to this story in a moment.

In the Christian era, labyrinths had ONE flowering of several hundred years during the time of construction of the great Cathedrals of Europe. We chose the design of one of these, that in Chartres Cathedral in France, for our design here in Redlands because of its beauty, symmetry, and balance of energies. The word Dromenon has been used as one name of this design and can be translated as the Gate to Heaven. As you look at and walk this particular design, I would point out a few of the many facts you may note about the design:

First, the design is very feminine. Compared with other labyrinths, it has an open feeling that is very light. The lunations around the outside are based on the lunar monthly calendar as well.

You will notice a beautiful resonance if you stand near the center and you may wish to chant or sing or pray out loud. The diameter is very close to one millionth the diameter of the Earth and the design itself is the key to the construction of the Cathedral at Chartres. The center of the labyrinth itself stands at the same distance from the crossing as the high altar originally stood from the opposite end. There will be more correlations to numerology in the material you receive. One of the best pamphlets for a basic understanding is by Robert Ferre and titled “Origin, Symbolism, and Design of the Chartres Labyrinth”.

Now, as we return to our story of Theseus, we can find that in one Christian adaptation Theseus becomes the spiritual pilgrim, the Minotaur represents Satan or evil, and the golden thread of Ariadne is seen as the grace and intercession of the Virgin Mary. The rose pattern with its six petals in the center of the Chartres design can also be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary with the six petals as representative of all of creation - the mineral, vegetable, plant, human, and angelic kingdoms and of the greater mystery of our Creator God. I find this a particularly meaningful way to meditate and spend time in the center as I focus on each of these areas with a grateful heart.

I have a couple of other personal notes to give you: 1) You might want to notice how you pass, meet, or are passed by others walking the labyrinth. Some may want to go slower or faster than you. One time I ended up confused when someone passed me and I started back the opposite direction. Does this sound familiar in our lives? 2) I personally love to watch synchronicities in my life. A few weeks ago Linda and I were both on the labyrinth at the same time. I was very celebrative and decided to review my life with that in mind. The only time Linda and I passed each other on adjacent paths was when I reached the year 1980 - the year we first met in India. Our individual journeys took us further along the now separate paths as it did in life - it was many years before we met again.

Donald (Pat) Vieten October 2005