Evidence for the phenomenon of the labyrinth dates as far back as the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, some two thousand years BCE. Discovered first as petroglyphs (drawings on rock), they were later found on artefacts unearthed in particular on the various shores of the Mediterranean. This petroglyph is of one of the Rocky Valley labyrinths uncovered in Cornwall, South West England, by a local man, S J Madge, in 1948.
The drawing is of a labyrinth decorating a 16th century gem. The creature at the centre of the labyrinth is a Minotaur, depicted here as a man with the body of a bull, though the Minotaur is also portrayed as a man with the head of a bull *- the Minotaur, of Ancient Greek legend. In the tale, Daedalus, a skilled artisan (the name means ‘cunning worker’) constructed a labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, at Knossos, in which to hold the Minotaur.
The labyrinth tattoo is based on ancient patterns of the Tonoho O’odham – meaning ‘Desert People’ – a group of First Nation American Indians based in Southeastern Arizona and northwest Mexico. Tattoo patterns record the labyrinth in southern India. There is a substantial essay by Jeff Saward about labyrinths in India, Pakistan and Nepal at http://www.labyrinthos.net and the labyrinth is known to serve a purpose in Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic contexts. The labyrinth therefore, has served some sort of cultural purpose worldwide and across the ages.
While labyrinth and ‘maze’ are often used synonymously, a maze offers a choice of destination and is often complex and confusing; a labyrinth however, is characterised by a single path which winds to a centre. The significance and purpose of the labyrinth varies from people to people. It is used today as a protective device in the south-east of India, in the region of Tamil Nadu. Known as a ‘kolam’ the labyrinth is marked out on a doorstep or porch with powdered rice, as an offering to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of rice, earth and wealth, to prevent evil entering the house and to ensure the good fortune of the householders.
In medieval times, over 500 labyrinths were constructed in Scandinavia. Generally along the coasts, these are made up of stones and are thought to have been put together by fishing communities to entrap trolls (in legend, gigantic unhelpful and sometimes man-eating creatures, dwelling characteristically in isolated mountains, rocks and caves). The concept of protection by entrapment rather than prevention is at the root of the Cretan Minotaur labyrinth.
The purpose is not known for the medieval Christian pavement labyrinths of the 13th and 14th centuries, constructed in the great gothic cathedrals such as Chartres, Reims and Amiens in northern France and Siena, Italy. It has been suggested that they represented the Holy City; that they were affordable substitutes for real Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land; or were tools for contemplation – walking the labyrinth symbolised the Christian path to God. There has been an upsurge of the labyrinth in modern times, especially perhaps with the birth of ‘New Age’ spirituality. The purpose of ‘Walking the labyrinth’ is to bring on spiritual awakenings and growth.
For walkers, the challenges of walking the labyrinth are not so much physical, but spiritual. Its use varies from religion to religion. There are a number of ‘virtual’ labyrinths on the Internet. I like the one at http://www.labyrinth.org.uk described as: “… an interactive installation for spiritual journeys. It’s for anyone who wants a break from surfing the surface of culture to contemplate the deeper things of life.” Its purpose, according to the web site, is to take you on a symbolic journey, creating a virtual space in which to unwind, to think about one’s relationship with ourselves, one another, the planet and God.
In my ‘Walkers Store’ on my web site at www.annisik.com I’ve dedicated several ‘shelves’ to ‘contemplative’ walking, including one on ‘Walking the Labyrinth’ where I’ve made available a selection of books on the theme.
‘Walking the labyrinth’ could also form the basis of themed walks around the British Isles and further afield. The Labyrinth Society http://www.labyrinthsociety.org includes a zone for locating labyrinths around the world at: http://labyrinthlocator.com and for locations of Irish labyrinths in Ireland visit http://labyrinthireland.com Check out http://www.labyrinthuk.org, which is about labyrinth activities in UK and Eire.
* See Picasso’s ‘Minotauromachia‘ at the Art Institute of Chicago
‘World Labyrinth Day’ is celebrated round the world on the first Saturday in May. Details can be found at: http://www.labyrinthsociety.org
Keep a lookout here for some ‘labyrinth’ art!
Acknowledgements and links: