Grant Voth recently wrote this series of articles on the history of labyrinths for our weekly update emails. Read the full set below.
By Grant Voth
A labyrinth is a geometric form that from earliest times seem to have defined sacred space. It has been found from as long ago as 4000 B.C.E. and on every continent except Antarctica, etched on rock, painted on vessels or walls, carved on cliffs, on tombs, on floors, and cut in turf. Its classical form defines a circuitous path from an entrance to a center, and then back out again. It looks like this, and we can trace with a finger the path from entrance to center, noticing that the path traverses all of the circle’s space in making its way to that center. A labyrinth, because of its single path, is called “unicursal’ (Latin: one course or path), and is distinguished from a maze, which is “multicursal,” and features branching paths, multiple entrances and exits, and dead ends. Negotiating a maze is challenging, requiring memory and logic, while negotiating a labyrinth invites meditation and a pilgrim’s consciousness, rather than that of a riddle-solver.
The classic or Crete labyrinth form above has seven circuits, or courses. It is identified with Crete because of its function in the story of Theseus, Ariadne, the Minotaur, and a “labyrinth” created by Daedalus, the master builder and artificer for King Minos. As both logic and the details of the story make clear, however, Daedalus’s structure, said to be so complex that he could barely escape from it himself when he’d finished it, has to be a maze, not a labyrinth. If you’d like to refresh your memory about the Crete labyrinth, there’s a good short version of it at https://stmuscholars.org/theseus-and-the-minotaur-the-monster-in-the-labyrinth-of-crete/ The seven-course design appears on coins from Crete from the 4th Century and is the one that is found most often in the ancient world. In order to get to the shape of the modern labyrinth, four additional courses needed to be added to the Crete design. That happened in the Middle Ages, and we’ll pick up the story there next week.
The Classical or Crete Labyrinth, which we looked at last week, had seven circuits—a circuit being defined as the number of times the path passes between the center and the outside edge. During the Medieval Period, more circuits were added to the Classical pattern to make the eleven-circuit labyrinth, which looks like this. It not only has more area than the Classical pattern, but its path meanders more between inner and outer regions on the way to the center, and it features a lot of turn-backs, so the way is much longer and takes longer to reach the center, encouraging more intense focus and more time for meditation. To see the route taken by a pilgrim in this type of labyrinth, see https://www.instagram.com/p/CxoVK1xNQAa/
We’re not sure precisely when the Christian Church adopted the labyrinth. The earliest evidence comes from the fourth-century basilica of Repartus, Orleansville, in Algeria.
The labyrinth is set in the pavement near the entrance, and at its center are the words Sancta Eclesia [sic]. Its function is not precisely known, but its location may suggest a calming or cleansing or releasing ritual before entering a sacred space. The most famous example of the eleven-circuit labyrinth is from Chartres Cathedral, installed in the church floor towards the end of the 12th or the beginning of the 13th Century. It has been in constant use since then, unchanged except for the copper, brass, and lead centerpiece, which was used to make cannons and cannon balls during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the prototype for most modern church labyrinths. For a view of this famous floor piece and a nice introduction to it, see https://praywithjillatchartres.com/labyrinth-2/
Next week: What, exactly, do labyrinths do?
When we think about labyrinths today, we are likely to picture a circuitous path that leads from an entrance to the center of an enclosed figure and then back out again by the same path, made of rocks or turf or paint or tiles or canvas, like the one in Chartres Cathedral that we looked at last week. But many labyrinths are not walkways at all, but are symbols etched in stone or painted on walls and jars, which are negotiated with a finger rather than feet. Check this Google search to see some examples:
The universality of this symbol, across time and cultures and religions and geographical regions; has led some to suppose that the symbol is part of our collective unconscious or is a figure from a sacred geometry, a symbol that can help us gain deeper understanding or solve a problem or lift a weight from the heart, a symbol that we “recognize” even if we cannot explain why and which has the power to comfort and heal. Lauren Artress, Canon Emeritus at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and founder of Verditas World-Wide Labyrinth Project, says in her book, Walking a Sacred Path, “Labyrinths are divine imprints. They are universal patterns most likely created in the realm of the collective unconscious, birthed through the human psyche and passed down through the ages. Labyrinths are mysterious because we do not know the origin of their design or exactly how they provide a space that allows clarity” (p.39). Psychologists have noticed how completing the labyrinth pattern, whether with eye or finger or feet, can be a calming, satisfying, and perhaps therapeutic exercise, which is why these days labyrinths are showing up at clinics and hospitals and schools and other places where such healing is needed. See https://labyrinthsociety.org/labyrinths-in-places/3266-1-an-introduction-to-labyrinths-in-counseling-settings
All of these benefits are the gifts of all labyrinths everywhere. But for people of faith, the labyrinth offers in addition a spiritual journey which will be the subject of next week’s piece.
The first analogue of walking a labyrinth is probably that of a journey. A labyrinth has one entrance and one way out. It takes us on a meandering path, around curves, backwards and forwards, from the edge to near the center.
We are never lost, but we can’t always tell exactly where we are or where we are going. Sometimes we move ahead confidently, and sometimes cautiously. From time to time we stop to think about where we are going and what we are doing, and we may even on occasion retreat. We are aiming for the center, and we will get there if we keep going. In all of these ways the labyrinth is like a journey—like the journey of life. See https://www.oakpark.com/2012/07/15/labyrinth-as-a-metaphor-for-life/ for a journalist’s account of his discovery of the labyrinth as a metaphor for life’s journey and several things he learned about the journey from the Lauren Artress book cited in last week’s article, Walking a Sacred Path.
The in-and-out, back-and-forth from edge to center to edge suggests a different kind of metaphor, which we will take up in next week’s article. But the first half of that movement is to find our way to the center of the labyrinth, which, as we have seen, can be understood as a deeper exploration of the self or as a way of discovering God’s plan for us, to find our way to a closer walk with Jesus. Sarah James, editor of Clerestory magazine, provides a beautiful review of labyrinths as spiritual tools and describes her own first experience at walking one: https://earthandaltarmag.com/posts/qs6pevk77i0lhpqlvv8w0u23f1sbwk She makes clear the reason we make our way to the center of the labyrinth and what we might hope to find there.
Next week: the way from the center back out into the world.
As we have seen, the labyrinth is a walking meditation, one technique among many available to people of faith to reflect, solve problems, or to deepen and enrich spiritual life. There are no hard and fast rules for walking a labyrinth, but counselors and workshop leaders and guides suggest a 3-R program that works for most people The suggested preparation for the walk is to quiet the mind and be aware of one’s breathing. Relax. You may wish to consider for a moment where you are in your life and what particular question or concern you bring with you to the labyrinth. Then the first R is releasing. Choose a pace and try to clear the mind of clutter, aiming for a calm receptive state. Try to quiet the voice of your ego. The second R is receiving. This occurs at the labyrinth center, the place for meditation and prayer. It is also the place of openness so as to be able to receive what the moment offers. You may stay in the center as long as you feel the need. The last R is returning, bringing with you and into the world what you have experienced, returning (not coincidentally) by the same path you took to get to the center. As psychologists have described the journey, we carry our burdens with us as we move toward the center. There we meditate or pray—for forgiveness, for grace, for wisdom and understanding. When we walk the path back into the world we are lighter, more joyful, better prepared to deal with life’s challenges and to try again to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
A very good labyrinth builder and guide and counselor and master is Lauren Artress, Emeritus Canon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Her book on these subjects is Walking a Sacred Path; Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice (New York: Riverhead Books, rev. ed, 2006). She is the founder of Veriditas, a non-profit organization dedicated to personal and planetary renewal via the labyrinth experience. A more detailed account of her suggestions for walking the labyrinth and a beautiful little video of people doing just that can be found at https://www.veriditas.org/ Click on <Labyrinth Resources> and then on <New to the Labyrinth>.