It is unicursal, which means that it has only one entrance and leads in only one direction. Although the word maze is often used as a synonym for labyrinth, mazes are multicursal in design; the user has to make choices at many points along the path. Mazes often have more than one entrance, and usually contain many wrong turns and dead ends.
The English word labyrinth is derived from the Greek word labyrinthos, which in turn may come from labrys, the word for the double-headed axe associated with the Minoan culture on the island of Crete that was at its height around 1650 B.C. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 450 B.C.), King Minos of Crete asked an Athenian architect and inventor named Daedalus to build a house with winding passages for the Minotaur, a monster that his queen had borne after having intercourse with a bull.
This mythical Cretan labyrinth was actually a maze rather than a true labyrinth, as it was intended to prevent those who entered it as human sacrifices to the Minotaur from escaping.
The unicursal designs associated with labyrinths are thought to predate constructed labyrinths. Pottery estimated to be 15,000 years old painted with labyrinthine patterns has been discovered in the Ukraine.
The oldest known constructed labyrinths were built in ancient Egypt and Etruria (central Italy) around 4500 B.C., perhaps to prevent evil spirits from entering tombs.
These mosaic labyrinths were usually square or rectangular in shape. The Romans also constructed turf labyrinths in fields or other open areas as a test of skill for horseback riders. Traces of Roman turf labyrinths have been found all over Europe.
Labyrinths have been found in many cultures around the world, including ancient India, Spain, Peru, and China. Members of the Tohono O’odham and Pima tribes in southern Arizona have made baskets for centuries decorated with the so-called “man in the maze” design. The labyrinth pattern woven into the basket represents the path to the top of a local sacred mountain known as Baboquivari.
More than five hundred ancient stone labyrinths have been identified in Scandinavia. Most are located near the coast, and are thought to have been used for rituals intended to guarantee good fishing or protection from storms.
The best-known labyrinths in the West, however, are those dating from the Middle Ages. They were built as substitutes for going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a journey that was physically or economically impossible for most Christians in Western Europe during this period.
Cathedrals were designated as pilgrimage shrines, and labyrinths were embedded in the stone floors of the cathedrals as part of the shrine’s design.
The labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France was installed around A.D.1200, and a similar labyrinth in Amiens Cathedral was made around the same time. Tracing the path through the labyrinth, often on the knees, was for many pilgrims the final act of devotion on the pilgrimage.
The circuitous journey to the center of the labyrinth represented the many turnings in the journey of life, a journey that required the Church’s guidance and support. Medieval labyrinths were circular in shape, the circle being a universal symbol of wholeness, completion, and unity.
By the seventeenth century, however, many cathedral labyrinths were removed or destroyed. There is some disagreement among scholars regarding the reasons for their removal.
Some experts think that the labyrinths were removed because the cathedral clergy had forgotten their history and original purpose, while others speculate that they were destroyed to prevent children from playing on them during Mass and disturbing worship.
Another factor was the growth of rationalism in the seventeenth century and the hostility toward religion that emerged during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The labyrinths were regarded as remnants of “superstition” and therefore offensive to “enlightened” people.
The contemporary revival of interest in labyrinth walking began in the early 1990s, when Dr. Lauren Artress, a psychotherapist who was on the Special Ministries staff of Grace Cathedral (Episcopal) in San Francisco, attended a Mystery Seminar led by Jean Houston, who describes herself as “a scholar and researcher in human capacities,” and directs the Foundation for Mind Research in Pomona, New York.
Dr. Houston presented the labyrinth as a tool for spiritual growth that would lead the seminar participants to their spiritual center. She had taped the forty-foot-wide pattern of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth on the floor of the meeting room.
Dr. Artress felt drawn to return to the labyrinth later that night and found walking through it a powerful experience. She then made a pilgrimage to Chartres itself in 1991, followed by further research into the history and significance of labyrinths.
After returning to the United States, Dr. Artress made a canvas version of the Chartres labyrinth for use in the San Francisco cathedral. It was introduced to the public on December 30, 1991, and was used twice a month until 1995, when a permanent outdoor labyrinth made of terrazzo stone was laid down in the cathedral’s outdoor garden.
creativity associated with the right brain.
Lauren Artress has said, “The labyrinth does not engage our thinking minds. It invites our intuitive, pattern-seeking, symbolic mind to come forth. It presents us with only one, but profound, choice. To enter a labyrinth is to choose to walk a spiritual path.”
In addition to helping people open themselves to the nonrational parts of the psyche, labyrinth walking puts them in touch with simple body rhythms.
Because labyrinth walking involves physical movement, participants may find themselves becoming more mindful of their breathing patterns, the repetition of their footfalls, and the reorientation of the entire body that occurs as they move through the circular turns within the labyrinth.
More particularly, the overall pattern of movement in labyrinth walking—first inward toward the center of the labyrinth and then outward on the return path—holds deep symbolic meaning for many people.
Specific benefits that some people have experienced as a result of labyrinth walking include:
- answers to, or insights, personal problems or circumstances
- a general sense of inner peace or calm
- emotional healing from past abuse or other traumas
- a sense of connection to, or unity with, past generations of pilgrims or family ancestors
- reawakened interest in their specific religious tradition
- greater awareness of their own feminine nature or the feminine principle in nature, often associated with circular shapes and patterns
- stimulation of their imagination and creative powers
- improved ability to manage chronic pain
- faster healing following an injury or surgical procedure
Labyrinth construction and design
Contemporary labyrinths are constructed from a wide variety of materials in outdoor as well as indoor settings. In addition to being made from canvas, mosaic flooring, or paving stones, labyrinths have been woven into patterned carpets, outlined with stones, bricks, or hedgerows, or carved into firmly packed earth. Most modern labyrinths range between 40 and 80 feet in diameter, although larger ones have also been made.
One classification scheme categorizes labyrinths as either left- or right-handed, according to the direction of the first turn to be made after entering the labyrinth. The entrance to the labyrinth is known as the mouth, and the walkway itself is called the path.
Classical labyrinths are defined as having a simple path with an equal number of turns and counter-turns. Labyrinths are also classified by the number of circuits in their design, a circuit being one of the circles or rings surrounding the center of the labyrinth.
The labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, for example, is a classical eleven-circuit labyrinth. Three- and seven-circuit classical labyrinths have been constructed in many parts of the United States, while one labyrinth in Denmark has 15 circuits.
Walking the labyrinth
The actual procedure of labyrinth walking is divided into three phases or stages: the journey inward, a pause for prayer or meditation at the center, and the return journey.
There are no rules or guidelines for the pace or speed of labyrinth walking, although participants are asked to be respectful of others who may prefer a slower pace, and to move around them as gently as possible.
Some people choose to dance, run, crawl on their hands and knees, or walk backwards in the labyrinth. With regard to pausing in the center of the labyrinth, people’s behavior varies depending on the size of the labyrinth.
Labyrinths based on the Chartres model have six “petals” or semicircular spaces surrounding the center, which allows several people to remain for a few minutes to pray, contemplate, or meditate. Smaller labyrinths may have room for only one person at a time in the center, and it is considered courteous to remain there only briefly.
Labyrinth walking can be incorporated into such ritual events as weddings, funerals, and anniversary celebrations, or such personal events as completing one’s schooling, taking a new job, or moving to a new area.
Some published guides to labyrinth walking include meditations to be used for labyrinth walking during pregnancy, or for blessing ceremonies at different seasons of the year.
Although one need not be a member of any specific faith or religious tradition to participate in labyrinth walking, spiritual preparation is considered an important part of the activity.
Although the walk itself is informal and relatively unstructured, most participants find that a period of quietness to focus their attention on their journey is essential.
Some also recommend clarifying one’s intention for the walk beforehand; that is, participants should ask themselves whether they are seeking spiritual guidance, healing, closer fellowship with God, discernment, blessing, or the fulfillment of some other purpose. The use of prayers or mantras is suggested as a way to calm and “center” one’s spirit at the beginning of and during the walk.
Participants are advised to wear comfortable shoes and clothing for labyrinth walking so that they will not be distracted by physical discomfort or concerns about their appearance.
They will be asked to remove their shoes, however, if the labyrinth is made of canvas or woven into a rug; thus it is a good idea to bring along a pair of clean cotton socks or soft-soled slippers.
There are no special precautions needed for labyrinth walking other than allowing sufficient time for the experience. Most people find that the walk takes about 45 minutes or an hour, but some take two to three hours to complete their journey. It is best to plan a labyrinth walk for a day or evening without a tight time schedule.
No physical or psychological side effects have been reported from labyrinth walking as of 2004.
Research and general acceptance
Little research has been done within the mainstream or alternative medical communities on labyrinth walking in comparison to other forms of treatment. As of 2004, however, it appears to be generally accepted as a form of mind-body therapy or spiritual practice that has few if any associated risks and offers spiritual benefits to many people.
Since the mid-1990s, growing numbers of churches and retreat centers in the United States and Canada have built or installed labyrinths. Some communities have also built outdoor labyrinths for the general public.
In the early 2000s, health spas and tourist resorts have added labyrinths to their facilities in order to attract visitors interested in wellness programs. A labyrinth locator is available on the web site of The Labyrinth Society.