Labyrinths

Through the act of trusting the path, of giving up conscious control of how things should go and being receptive to our inner state, we can be opened up to a whole new world. -- Lauren Artress

As you move through a non-linear labyrinth, you lose your sense of where you are in the pattern, and enter into a pleasurable state of timelessness. -- Lauren Artress

Labyrinths were very popular during medieval times. As many as twenty-two of the eighty Gothic cathedrals housed labyrinths. -- Lauren Artress

labyrinth In common parlance a labyrinth is maze, a maze is a labyrinth, the two words are interchangeable, synonymous with each other, but strictly speaking they are not the same.

A labyrinth has a a single-path, unicursal route through to the centre. Once the centre is reached, turn around and go back whence you came and you arrive back at the entrance. Within a labyrinth it is not possible to get lost.

A maze has numerous branches, alternative routes, dead ends. It is all too easy to get lost, although there are algorithms to find your way through a maze.

A famous maze is the Hampton Court Maze at Hampton Court.

Another hedge maze can be found at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. The house featured as the ancestral home of Darcy in the recent critically acclaimed film version of Pride and Prejudice.

One way to classify labyrinths is the number of circuits around the centre. A popular labyrinth is the 7-circuit labyrinth.

Labyrinths are often subdivided into quadrants. The path may meander around within a quadrant, then do a complete circuit. Whereas it is not possible to get lost within a labyrinth, it is possible to lose a sense of time and space.

It is this loss of time and space that makes a labyrinth a powerful meditation tool and why it is used in religion.

Labyrinths were known in classical times and are thought to date back for at least 3,000 years.

Pliny the Elder mentions four ancient labyrinths: Cretan labyrinth, Egyptian labyrinth, Lemnian labyrinth, and Italian labyrinth.

Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek Pelasgian origin absorbed by classical Greek, and is apparently related to labrys, a word for the archaic iconic "double axe", with -inthos connoting "place" (as in "Corinth"). The complex palace of Knossos in Crete is usually implicated, though the actual dancing-ground, depicted in frescoed patterns at Knossos, has not been found. Something was being shown to visitors as a labyrinth at Knossos in the 1st century AD.

The oldest known examples of the labyrinth design are small simple petroglyphs (incised stones) perhaps dating back 3000 years. These spiralling labyrinth-pattern petroglyphs are found in numerous places across the world, from Syria to Ireland.

The labyrinth is the referent in the familiar Greek patterns of the endlessly running meander, to give the "Greek key" its common modern name. In the 3rd century BC coins from Knossos are still struck with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple 7-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth.

The term labyrinth came to be applied to any unicursal maze, whether of a particular circular shape or rendered as square. At the center, a decisive turn brought one out again. In the Socratic dialogue that Plato produced as Euthydemus, Socrates describes the labyrinthine line of a logical argument:

Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first.

Even more generally, "labyrinth" might be applied to any extremely complicated maze-like structure. Herodotus, in Book II of his Histories, describes as a "labyrinth" a building complex in Egypt, "near the place called the City of Crocodiles", that he considered to surpass the pyramids in its astonishing ambition:

It has twelve covered courts six in a row facing north, six south the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I was taken through the rooms in the upper storey, so what I shall say of them is from my own observation, but the underground ones I can speak of only from report, because the Egyptians in charge refused to let me see them, as they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms, on the contrary, I did actually see, and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me, as we passed from a courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms and thence into yet more courtyards. The roof of every chamber, courtyard, and gallery is, like the walls, of stone. The walls are covered with carved figures, and each court is exquisitely built of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade.

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate maze-like structure constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a fateful thread to wind his way back again.

The medieval labyrinth was at its peak during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the Gothic cathedrals, most notably Chartres and Amiens in Northern France and Siena in Tuscany. The turf maze, a labyrinth in turf, is also believed to date from this period, with turf mazes surviving at Wing in Rutland, Hilton in Cambridgeshire, Alkborough in Lincolnshire and at Saffron Walden in Essex.

The impressive 11-circuit labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral believed to have been laid in 1220 has been reproduced in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. A small labyrinth is found on the wall outside La Lucca Cathedral. One traces the route with ones finger, to quiet the mind before entering.

The turf maze at Alkborough in Lincolnshire is one of the few surviving medieval labyrinths in England. Alkborough is a small remote village on the north coast of Lincolnshire. The labyrinth overlooks Alkborough Flats, an area of low-lying arable farmland where the Rivers Trent and Ouse join to form the Humber estuary. According to Arthur Mee in his book Lincolnshire the maze was cut by monks in the 12th century. Locally the maze is known as Julian's Bower. It is a unicursal maze, thus making it a labyrinth.

Walking a labyrinth, is a meditative, contemplative experience. Part of the mystical tradition.

Walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is divided into three stages:

Guidelines for walking the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth: Quiet your mind and become aware of your breath. Allow yourself to find the pace your body wants to go. The path is two ways. Those going in will meet those coming out. You may "pass" people or let others step around you. Do what feels natural.

Of recent popularity is a maze carved into a field of maize. The Panton Brothers had one such maze at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby in Lincolnshire in the summer of 2005.

In a novel of the same name Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, a labyrinth forms the centrepiece of the novel. Our heroine Alice stumbles across a labyrinth in a long lost cave. Chartres Cathedral also features in the novel. The 'labyrinth' featured in the novel is not a 'true' labyrinth, although superficially it appears to be a real labyrinth. To say more would reveal the plot.


Religion and Symbolism
(c) Keith Parkins 2006 -- April 2006 rev 0