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       Labyrinths:

The word 'Labyrinth' is a pre-Greek word (Minoan). There is a hidden irony in the current definition and the original myth of Theseus and the Minotaur's lair, within which one could get lost in forever. Unlike a maze, which refers to a complex branching puzzle with choices of path and direction; the 'classic'  labyrinth design has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the centre. A labyrinth in this sense has a single, unambiguous route to the centre and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate, so Theseus would have had little need for Ariadne's thread.

We do not know when the labyrinth structure first was conceived, but there are several incidences among the ideograms carved into rock faces across Neolithic and 'Bronze-age' Europe. We see the ideogram later on an Etruscan vase from c. 550 B.C. Later, at about 300 B.C., it was used on coins in Crete. During the middle-ages, it was used in European Cathedrals for pilgrimage.

 

The Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.

A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. We can walk it. It is a metaphor for life's journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space which leads us into its heart, then back out again along the same path. Although one is able to cross the lines at any time, we are compelled to follow the meandering path to the centre and back again.

The Labyrinth represents both a journey to our own centre and back out again into the world... at the same time as acting as a metaphor for the path we walk throughout our lives.

There is no getting lost in a Labyrinth. Rather, one is offered a path that weaves back and forth, in and out, until it ends in a central circular area. Here, walkers pause to reflect before departing as they came, carrying back wisdom gained on the inbound journey. Labyrinth walkers say the certitude of the path—knowing all decisions about direction have been made—frees them to focus on contemplation instead of navigation. Some call this prayer; others, deep reflection. Whatever the name, the practice has been used to nourish the soul around the world for several thousand of years.

The Labyrinth is a powerful geometric symbol with which we have formed an almost symbiotic relationship, which allows us to enter within its physical form at the same time as entering into a non-physical communication with ourselves.

Because they are so ancient, the various interpretations of the Labyrinth today may not agree with the same concept of the labyrinths in ancient times. It is curious then that the same identical symbol is found in countries and major religious traditions from around the ancient world (such as India, France, Egypt, Scandinavia, Crete, Sumeria, America, the British Isles, and Italy), and that in all cases, they share a common theme of pilgrimage and spiritual reward. This has led some claim they represent a universal pattern in human consciousness.


 

 

The Geometry of the 'classic' 7-circuit Labyrinth

All 'classic' labyrinths are based on a simple geometric template.

The ancient seven-circuit labyrinth (so called because the path creates seven concentric rings around the centre) is rich with symbolism. It draws on the mystical quality of the 7, a number of transformation and vision. In medieval times, the seven circuits were seen to correspond to the seven visible planets, and a walk in the labyrinth was a cosmic journey through the heavens. The seven circuits can also be seen to represent the days of the week, the chakras, colours, or musical tones.

Some research suggests that the geometric shape [of a labyrinth] produces an energy field that can heal ailments of the body and calm the mind. It balances thoughts with the presence of the body to the point where one stops thinking and the intuition of knowingness takes over (4)

 

 

 

Proto Labyrinths..?

Prehistoric labyrinths have also been found carved on rock faces at Pontevedra, Spain and at Val Camonica in northern Italy, these latter ones are attributed to the late Bronze Age. The Rocky Valley labyrinths in Cornwall, England, are supposed to be from the Bronze Age. The labyrinth is found etched into the sands of the Nazca Plain in Peru, in use among the Caduveo people of Brazil and scratched on boulders and rockfaces in Northern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. 

It is suggested that the Labyrinth evolved from the spiral.

  

Achnabreck, Scotland (left), and Knowth, Ireland (Right).

 

The Glastonbury Labyrinth: It is proposed that the strong terracing on the sides of the Tor represent a classic '7-circuit labyrinth' in three dimensional form.

The Tor is a natural hill, but it has been established that it was altered in shape from the late Neolithic onwards. Whether or not the terraces were cut to replicate the 'classic' Labyrinth shape is still conjectural but the location, and the tor's reputation as the 'Sacred Heart of England' makes it possible that the terraces were the final part of a pilgrim route.

 (More about Glastonbury Tor)

 

The 'Lost' Labyrinth of Egypt.

The Lost Labyrinth of Egypt.

Herodotus (c. 484-424 BC) describes his visit to the now 'lost' labyrinth after describing how the Egyptians divided the land into twelve parts, or nomes, and set a king over each, he says that they agreed to combine together to leave a memorial of themselves. They constructed the Labyrinth, just above Lake Moeris, and nearly opposite the city of crocodiles (Crocodilopolis). "I found it," he says, "greater than words could tell, for, although the temple at Ephesus and that at Samos are celebrated works, yet all of the works and buildings of the Greeks put together would certainly be inferior to this labyrinth as regards labour and expense." Even the pyramids, he tells us, were surpassed by the Labyrinth. "It has twelve covered courts, with opposite doors, six courts on the North side and six on the South, all communicating with one another and with one wall surrounding them all. There are two sorts of rooms, one sort above, the other sort below ground, fifteen hundred of each sort, or three thousand in all." He says that he was allowed to pass through the upper rooms only, the lower range being strictly guarded from visitors, as they contained the tombs of the kings who had built the Labyrinth, also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms he describes as being of super-human size, and the system of passages through the courts, rooms, and colonnades very intricate and bewildering. The roof of the whole affair, he says, is of stone and the walls are covered with carvings. Each of the courts is surrounded by columns of white stone, perfectly joined. Outside the Labyrinth, and at one corner of it, is a pyramid about 240 feet in height, with huge figures carved upon it and approached by an underground passage.

Strabo, who lived about 400 years after Herodotus also described them first hand. After referring to the lake and the manner in which it is used as a storage reservoir for the water of the Nile, he proceeds to describe the Labyrinth, "a work equal to the Pyramids." He says it is "a large palace composed of as many palaces as there were formerly nomes. There are an equal number of courts, surrounded by columns and adjoining one another, all in a row and constituting one building, like a long wall with the courts in front of it. The entrances to the courts are opposite the wall; in front of these entrances are many long covered alleys with winding intercommunicating passages, so that a stranger could not find his way in or out unless with a guide. Each of these structures is roofed with a single slab of stone, as are also the covered alleys, no timber or any other material being used." If one ascends to the roof, he says, one looks over "a field of stone." The courts were in a line, supported by a row of twenty-seven monolithic columns, the walls also being constructed of stones of as great a size. "At the end of the building is the royal tomb, consisting of a square pyramid and containing the body of Imandes." Strabo says that it was the custom of the twelve nomes of Egypt to assemble, with their priests and priestesses, each nome in its own court, for the purpose of sacrificing to the gods and administering justice in important matters.

(More about the 'Lost' Labyrinth of Egypt)

 

The Minoan Labyrinth, Crete:

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary craftsman Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos to conceal the Minotaur.

'At that time there reigned at Knossos, in Crete, a monarch called Minos, who held sway over what was then the most powerful maritime state in the Mediterranean. Minos had a son named Androgeos, who, during his travels in Attica, was treacherously set upon and slain, or so his father was informed. In consequence of this Minos imposed a penalty on the Athenians in the form of a tribute to be paid once every nine years, such tribute to consist of seven youths and seven maidens, who were to be shipped to Knossos at the appointed periods.

There was at the court of Minos an exceedingly clever and renowned artificer or engineer, Daedalus by name, to whom all sorts of miraculous inventions are ascribed. This Daedalus had devised an ingenious structure, the "Labyrinth," so contrived that if anybody were placed therein he would find it practically impossible to discover the exit without a guide.

The Labyrinth was designed as a dwelling for, or at any rate was inhabited by, a hideous and cruel being called the Minotaur, a monstrous offspring of Queen Pasiphaë, wife of Minos. The Minotaur is described as being half man and half bull, or a man with a bull's head, a ferocious creature that destroyed any unfortunate human beings who might come within its power. According to report, the youths and maidens of the Athenian tribute were periodically, one by one, thrust into the Labyrinth, where, after futile wanderings in the endeavour to find an exit, they were finally caught and slain by the Minotaur'. (1)

There are many versions of the legend, some of them greatly at variance with others. For instance, Philochorus, an eminent writer on the antiquities of Athens, gives in his "Atthis" a very rationalistic account of the affair, stating that the Labyrinth was nothing but a dungeon where Minos imprisoned the Athenian youths until such time as they were given as prizes to the victors in the sports that were held in honour of his murdered son. He held also that the monster was simply a military officer, whose brutal disposition, in conjunction with his name, Tauros, may have given rise to the Minotaur myth.

These 5th - 3rd century BC coins from Knossos were struck with the labyrinth symbol. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple 7-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth.

(More about Knossos, Crete)

 

The Nazca Labyrinth:

A five-year study by British archaeologists has shed new light on the enigmatic drawings created by the Nazca people between 100 BC and CE 700 in the Peruvian desert. They discovered an itinerary so complex they can justify calling it a labyrinth, and see it as serving ceremonial progressions.

In the midst of the study area is a unique labyrinth originally discovered by Prof Ruggles when he spent a few days on the Nazca desert back in 1984. “When I set out along the labyrinth from its centre, I didn’t have the slightest idea of its true nature,” Prof Ruggles explained. “Only gradually did I realize that here was a figure set out on a huge scale and still traceable, that it was clearly intended for walking. Invisible in its entirety to the naked eye, the only way of knowing its existence is to walk its 2.7 miles (4.4 km) length through disorienting direction changes which ended, or began, inside a spiral formation.

(Link to Full Article)

“The labyrinth is completely hidden in the landscape, which is flat and virtually featureless. As you walk it, only the path stretching ahead of you is visible at any given point. Similarly, if you map it from the air its form makes no sense at all.”

“But if you walk it, discovering it as you go, you have a set of experiences that in many respects would have been the same for anyone walking it in the past. The ancient Nazca peoples created the geoglyphs, and used them, by walking on the ground. Sharing some of those experiences by walking the lines ourselves is an important source of information that complements the hard scientific and archaeological evidence and can really aid our attempts to make anthropological sense of it.”

This ground shot is taken along the innermost pathway of the labyrinth directly towards the central mound.

The line widens out towards its terminus, creating a false perspective that makes it appear parallel as it stretches away into the distance.

(Photo Credit: Clive Ruggles)

(More about The Nazca Lines)

 

 

The Labyrinth and the Church.

Probably the oldest known example of this nature is that in the ancient basilica of Reparatus at Orléansville (Algeria), an edifice which is believed to date from the fourth century A.D. (1) It measures about 8 ft. in diameter and shows great resemblance to the Roman pavement found at Harpham and the tomb-mosaic at Susa. At the centre is a jeu-de-lettres on the words SANCTA ECLESIA, which may be read in any direction, except diagonally, commencing at the centre. But for the employment of these words the labyrinth in question might well have been conceived to be a Roman relic utilised by the builders of the church to ornament their pavement. Such pavement-labyrinths, however, with or without central figures or other embellishments, and of various dimensions and composition, are found in many of the old churches of France and Italy.

As to the function and meaning of the old church labyrinths, various opinions have been held. Some authorities have thought that they were merely introduced as a symbol of the perplexities and intricacies which beset the Christian's path. Others considered them to typify the entangling nature of sin or of any deviation from the rectilinear path of Christian duty. It has often been asserted, though on what evidence is not clear, that the larger examples were used for the performance of miniature pilgrimages in substitution for the long and tedious journeys formerly laid upon penitents. Some colour is lent to this supposition by the name "Chemin de Jérusalem." at Chartres (see below). In the days of the first crusades it was a common practice for the confessor to send the peccant members of his flock either to fight against the infidel, or, after the victory of Geoffrey of Bouillon, to visit the Holy Sepulchre. As enthusiasm for the crusades declined, shorter pilgrimages were substituted, usually to the shrine of some saint, such as Our Lady of Loretto, or St. Thomas of Canterbury, and it is quite possible that, at a time when the soul had passed out of the crusades and the Church's authority was on the ebb, a journey on the knees around the labyrinth's sinuosity's was prescribed as an alternative to these pilgrimages. Perhaps this type of penance was from the first imposed on those who, through weakness or any other reason, were unable to undertake long travels.

This view seems to rest chiefly on a statement by J. B. F. Géruzez in his "Description of the City of Rheims" (1817), to the effect that the labyrinth which formerly lay in the cathedral was in origin an object of devotion, being the emblem of the interior of the Temple of Jerusalem, but Géruzez quotes no authority for his assertion. Another explanation, based upon the occurrence of the figures of the architects or founders in certain of the designs, is that the labyrinth was a sort of masonic seal, signifying that the pious aim of the builder had been to raise to the glory of God a structure to vie with the splendours of the traditional Labyrinth. It is also said that in some cases the "Chemins" were used for processional purposes.

Some writers have held that the labyrinth was inserted in the church as typifying the Christian's life or the devious course of those who yield to temptation. Some have thought that it represented the path from the house of Pilate to Calvary, pointing out that Chateaubriand, in his "Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem," mentioned two hours as the period which he took to repeat Christ's journey, and that the same time would be taken in traversing the average pavement labyrinth on the knees.The use of the labyrinth as a simile for the Christian's life is shown in a stone inscription in the Museum at Lyons: (1)

 

Chartres, France:

There have been at least five cathedrals on this site, each replacing an earlier smaller building that had been destroyed by war or fire. It was called the 'Church of Saint Mary' in the eighth century.

One of the best known examples of Cathedral Labyrinths is found at Chartres, in rance: As well as the huge 11-circuit labyrinth on the floor, the cathedral has a spectacular rose window over the great west doors. This has the same dimensions as the labyrinth and is exactly the same distance up the west wall as the labyrinth is laterally from the cathedral's main entrance below the window

The labyrinth at Chartres was known as a "Chemin de Jérusalem" "daedale," or "meandre," terms which need no explanation. The centre was called "ciel" or "Jérusalem." (1)

When pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem was made difficult and dangerous by the Crusades. The Church designated seven European cathedrals, mainly in France, to become “Jerusalem” for pilgrims. The labyrinth became the final stage of pilgrimage, serving as a symbolic entry into the Celestial City of Jerusalem. All seven cathedrals used the 11-circuit labyrinth design. (3)

 

 

Other Examples of Labyrinths from around the Ancient World.

Although it is difficult to date exactly, this (Neolithic - Early Bronze-age) labyrinth comes from Val Camonica, in Italy. The Val Camonica valley has revealed over 300,000 petroglyphs of which this is just one. It is one of the richest sources of rock-art in all Europe.

(More about Val Camonica, Italy)

 

 

Reverse of a clay tablet from Pylos bearing the motif of the Labyrinth. The tablet, the earliest datable representation of the 7-course classical labyrinth, was recovered from the remains of the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, destroyed by fire ca 1,200 B.C. (Kern, Through the Labyrinth, Prestel, 2000, p. 73, catalog item 103–104).

(More about Mycenae, Greece)

 

 

 

This classic '3-circuit labyrinth' is one of the many intricate geoglyphs, or patterns created on the plains northwest of Nazca, Peru, by the indigenous peoples there, sometime between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D. Native Americans had them, and continue to be used in the sacred ceremonies of the Hopi. The Hopi Indians called the labyrinth the symbol for “mother earth” and equated it with the Kiva (called it Tapu'at, or Mother-child.)

(More about Nazca, Peru)      

 

 

 

 

This Etruscan Vase (c. 550 B.C.) came from Tragliatelli, Italy, with labyrinth design and three horse-back warriors riding away from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Currently the earliest evidence for the labyrinth in Asia is probably a labyrinth carved amongst other prehistoric petroglyphs, recently discovered on a riverbank at Pansaimol in Goa (Kraft, 2005). The age of this labyrinth is the subject of considerable dispute amongst experts on Indian rock art, but it could date to the Neolithic period, maybe c. 2,500 B.C. which would make it as old, if not older, than similar early labyrinth petroglyphs in Europe. Several examples of the labyrinth symbol have also been found amongst cave art in the north of India. One example at Tikla, in Madhya Pradesh, has been dated to approximately 250 B.C., although doubt remains as to whether the labyrinth is contemporary with other more dateable figures (Kern, 2000). (2)

(Prehistoric India)

 

 

(Knossos, Greece)     (The 'Lost' Labyrinth, Egypt)

(Spirals)

(Sacred Geometry)

(Altered Landscapes)

 

References:

1). W. H. Mathews, Mazes and Labyrinths, 1922, Longmans Publ.
2). http://www.labyrinthos.net/indialabs.html
3). http://www.huttvalleydhb.org.nz/Article.aspx?ID=1540
4). Cassandra Camille Wass. Meditative Mazes & Labyrinths: Color and Trace the Paths to a Calm Mind & Spirit. 2009. Sterling Publ' Ltd.
 
 

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