A labyrinth is a patterned path, often circular in form, used as a walking meditation or spiritual practice. A labyrinth’s walkway is arranged in such a way that the participant moves back and forth across the circular form through a series of curves, ending at the labyrinths’s heart or center. 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.
OriginsThe 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. It was thought that the evil spirits were repelled by the planned order of the labyrinth’s design. Other labyrinths were made by the Romans as mosaic patterns on the floors of large houses or public buildings. 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.
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