Once popular in medieval cathedrals as a tool for making a symbolic pilgrimage to the holy land, labyrinths have been undergoing a contemporary resurgence of interest
by Daria Woodside
Carved on an ancient cave wall in Galicia, Spain is a pattern that twists and turns, looping back upon itself, circling ever inward. You can run your finger along its cool rocky surface and follow the path to a central point. Nothing blocks your way as you trace the design, easily sliding your finger back and forth from the outside to the inside and back again. Doing that is oddly calming, almost soothing, and one can’t help but wonder who it was that placed the petroglyph there almost 2000 years ago and why?
The mystery becomes even greater when you realize that the same simple curved design found on that ancient cave wall has also been discovered on every continent from Southern Russia to India, Africa, South America, the American Southwest, Indonesia, and even among the ruins of the mounds of Poverty Point in Louisiana. What is even more intriguing is that the same gentle design that fascinated ancient cave artists and countless others across the centuries is still enchanting people today.
The labyrinth is a design consisting of a unicursal (one way) path that leads to a center. Unlike a maze, which has several twists and turns that lead to dead ends, labyrinths have no tricks. Once popular in medieval cathedrals as a tool for making a symbolic pilgrimage to the holy land (legend says that pilgrims walked it on their knees), labyrinths have been undergoing a contemporary resurgence of interest.
Hospices, drug and alcohol counselors, and integrative medicine practitioners are finding that taking a walk along the winding paths of a labyrinth can help with healing. Churches of all denominations across the nation are using labyrinths for meditation and prayer walks. Prisons are using them as tools to help prisoners cope with incarceration, and businesses are using the design for brainstorming and creative problem solving. And with good results, labyrinth walkers claim it helps them relax, focus, and gain new insight into old problems.
But what is the real story behind the labyrinth? Why did that ancient artist carve the design on a cave wall? Why did it appear in so many other cultures? No one knows for sure, but several legends surround the labyrinth.
The most common story is the Cretan labyrinth which imprisoned a half man/half bull monster, the Minotaur, who required human sacrifice. The monster was the offspring of the wife of King Minos, who copulated with a bull because of a curse placed on her husband from the Gods. Coins were found on Crete with the seven circuit design, now known as the Cretan labyrinth, which was believed to be the replica of the larger prison labyrinth where the Minotaur was kept. The story claims that those sent into the labyrinth couldn’t find their way out because of its confusing twists and turns. King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with one of the sacrificial victims, and gave him a ball of yarn which he unwound as he descended to the center. There he killed the monster, freed the other victims, and followed the string back to his love.
While we can only speculate whether Ariadne had ever ventured to the center of the Cretan labyrinth to get a glimpse of her monstrous half-brother (How else did she know how much yarn to give her lover?), finding a young woman with the Cretan princess’ characteristics in the center of the labyrinth is more common than a monster. Remember Helen of Troy? The poor Trojans had to build a giant horse filled with soldiers to trick her captors to get her back. Why? Some scholars speculate that Helen was being held prisoner in the center of a labyrinth-shaped fort.
Both Ariadne and Helen are considered by some researchers as being representative of early vegetation/fertility goddesses. The idea of a goddess protected inside a multi-walled fort is a common theme in eastern religious texts. One Hindu Goddess, Sita, who took birth from the earth, was the consort of Rama, the central figure in the famous Indian text the Ramayana. Sita is taken captive by the demon Ravanna, who holds her hostage in his fortified palace built in the shape of a five circuit labyrinth called the Chakra Vyuha. Following a major battle between Rama and Ravanna’s armies, Sita is rescued from the demon’s clutches and removed from the labyrinth. What is interesting about the Chakra Vyuha pattern is that not only does it represent a fort in religious texts, it is often drawn on the bellies of women in labor to help them give birth.
This notion of the labyrinth as a birth symbol is common in labyrinth lore. Many scholars speculate that the labyrinth was an ancient symbol used in early Goddess religions to represent rebirth and regeneration. Anyone who has studied ancient religions knows how closely tied they are to sun and moon cycles, and many believe that the labyrinth is a design that mimics the path of the sun as it rises and sets. Others speculate that it represents the progression of moon cycles. While we often relate ideas about planetary and solar cycles to earth religions, the labyrinth that seems to contain the most obvious connection to moon cycles is the Chartres labyrinth, which was developed by monks during the middle ages. This labyrinth, most commonly used in Christian churches, is filled with symbols which relate to the heavens, and many believe that the small notches on the outside of the design, called lunations, were used to calculate moon cycles to establish the date for Easter.
Labyrinths haven’t always had religious connotations. Many European traditions believed the labyrinth was magical. One researcher speculates that labyrinths may represent maps of the paths of the planets. He has found that magic number squares, believed to contain information about planetary cycles, also contain the seed patterns for drawing labyrinths. In northern Europe, people believed walking the labyrinth could help fisherman control the weather. In Sweden, people believed the labyrinth was a protection against wolves and could be used to predict reindeer migration. Alchemists believed the secret of the philosopher’s stone could be found in the center of the labyrinth. And whether it harkened back to the earlier stories of Helen and Sita or not, young European girls were often known to wait in the center of the labyrinth while the boys raced through its twists and turns to see who could reach them first.
We may never know why that unknown artist carved the labyrinth on that stone wall in Spain, or why the labyrinth symbol spread across the globe. But whatever it was 2000 years ago that fascinated the ancient stone carver enough to etch the labyrinth into the cold walls is still intriguing us today.
Copyright 2004 by Daria Woodside
Daria Woodside is a registered Reiki Master, a certified EMDR practitioner, and a certified Metamorphic Technique practitioner. She worked as a research assistant for at the University of Pittsburgh/Shadyside Center for Complimentary Healing, has lead meditation and healing circles and taught meditation classes. An avid labyrinth walker, Daria has served as an active volunteer, facilitator and lecturer for Baton Rouge Labyrinth Project.
Now a college professor with her own healing practice, Daria worked for 12 years as a critical care nurse. She is a trained critical incident debriefer who served as a volunteer counselor for three years. For the past 15 years, Daria has been studying Kriya Yoga, sound healing, and Vedanta under the direction of Sri Ganapathi Sachchidananda of the Datta Peetham Ashram in Mysore, India.
Daria is available for private healing sessions, lectures, corporate workshops, Reiki and meditation classes, as well as to facilitate labyrinth walks. To schedule a session or event contact Daria at [email protected]
Photo by Michele Fry www.preciousmomentsphotography.us
Artwork courtesy of www.labyrinthina.com