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What is a Labyrinth

What is a Labyrinth

The Labyrinth is an archetype found in many religious traditions in one form or another. A labyrinth is an ancient symbol of wholeness that combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. Representing a journey to our own center and back out into the world, labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools.

A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. We can walk this metaphor for life's journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to "That Which Is Within."

A labyrinth is a single path that has several 180 degree turns. This path leads the person walking it into the center and then back out again. A labyrinth is not a maze with dead ends, tricks or false turns. It is not an intellectual problem to solve.

'A labyrinth is a pattern with a single winding path that leads from the entrance to the centre. All labyrinths are unicursal, that is, they have only one path. Mazes are multicursal and their many paths present a puzzle which the walker must solve in order to reach the centre.'

What Does a Labyrinth Pattern Look Like?

There are two basic labyrinth patterns, the Classical or Cretan, which has seven paths or circuits that surround the centre, and the Chartres or Medieval style, based on a pattern set into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France in the early years of the 13th century, which has eleven circuits leading to the centre.

Labyrinth Burfordos

When Did Labyrinths Become Part of Human History?

The oldest reliably dated labyrinth is of the Classical style and appears on a fragment of pottery from the palace of King Nestor at Pylos in southern Greece. Preserved by a fire that destroyed the palace, it dates from c. 1200 BCE.

In Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 CE, a piece of graffiti scratched on a house post, shows the labyrinth symbol and the words "Labyrinthus Hic Habitat Minotaurus", translated as: Labyrinth the Minotaur Lives Here — a reference perhaps to the personality of the owner.

The Labyrinth symbol appears on silver coins from Knossos dating from about 400 BCE. Elaborate mosaic floor labyrinths have been found throughout the Roman Empire. These labyrinths were often placed at the doorways of private and civic buildings.

Where Else Have Labyrinths Been Found?

Labyrinths have been found around the Mediterranean basin, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, India and Indonesia. They also appear in North America among the Hopi and Pima peoples.

Labyrinth patterns have existed for thousands of years in many different ancient cultures. Native Americans in Arizona wove labyrinth images into their baskets. Ancient labyrinth patterns have been found in India, the Ukraine, China, and Italy.

Greeks living on Crete imprinted the labyrinth on their coins three centuries before the birth of Christ.

During the medieval period, labyrinths were placed on the floors of many of the great European cathedrals. The most famous medieval labyrinth in existence today is at Chartres Cathedral. The pattern of this labyrinth is the inspiration for modern labyrinths like ours made in a contemporary medieval design.

Labyrinth Schofield

Why and How Were Labyrinths Used?

Labyrinths may have been used as protective symbols, as pathways for sacred dances, or for displays of horsemanship. The stone labyrinths along the Baltic coast, now dated from the 13th to 16th centuries, may have been used by fishermen seeking fine weather and abundant catches. Labyrinths associated with tombs could have symbolized the journey of the soul after death.

In the medieval Christian church, the labyrinth played a part in the ceremonies surrounding Easter. The labyrinths in the great cathedrals of France may have been part of the journey of devout Christians who, no longer able to travel to the Middle East because of unsettled conditions, made their pilgrimages on the labyrinths.

Why Should I Walk a Labyrinth?

By walking the labyrinth (a replica of the one laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220) we are able to experience part of a mystical tradition. The labyrinth has only one path - there are no decisions to be taken and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart.

Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual practice that helps us set aside time to pay attention to God. Sometimes our lives seem like straight, easy paths and sometimes the twists and turns feel confusing or even exhilarating.

Always, we believe, God is at the center. Walking the labyrinth reminds us that we are all on spiritual journeys. Walking the labyrinth with its many twists and turns teaches us to have faith in God. We can trust the path does take us to the center and back out again.

When we walk the labyrinth, we engage in a physical activity that keeps our left brains occupied and releases our right brains to be more open to creative and spiritual insights.

  • Walking the labyrinth and simply breathing deeply in and out has health benefits. It can help reduce our stress and tension.
  • Walking the labyrinth helps us focus on our spiritual, emotional, or physical questions and to seek deeper understanding.
  • Walking the labyrinth and being self-observant can teach us many insights about ourselves.
  • Walking the labyrinth puts us in community with others. Since it is a spiritual tool that can be used by people of any faith tradition, it gives us an opportunity to share spiritual insights and experiences with those outside our own faith tradition.
  • Walking the labyrinth and making the many 180 degree turns can help people improve their balance.

How Do I Walk a Labyrinth?

There are three stages of the walk -

Purgation (Releasing) - a releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.

Illumination (Receiving) - When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.

Union (Returning) - As you leave, following the same path out from the centre as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, or the healing forces at work in the world.

Beyond the general instruction to begin at the beginning of the path and to follow it to the center and back out again, there are no right or wrong ways to walk the labyrinth. The following are just a few suggestions for walking a labyrinth.

  • Walk, run, skip, crawl, or dance at a pace which is comfortable for you.
  • Feel free to pass other walkers on the labyrinth, just be respectful of their space and experience. It works well when people coming out of the labyrinth step aside for people coming into the labyrinth.
  • You may want to breathe deeply in and out as you walk the labyrinth. You may want to take each thought that comes to you and turn it into a simple breath-long prayer.
  • Be self-observant. How do you feel physically, emotionally, spiritually? What do you notice about yourself as you walk?
  • Set an “intention” before you walk. What personal question or issue are you currently concerned about? You might walk with the intention to be open to new insights and God’s guidance around that particular concern.

Shed your expectations of having a particular kind of experience or receiving a particular kind of answer or insight while you walk. Whatever happens or comes to you is of value.

Just as we have many different experiences when we pray, we will all have different experiences each time we walk the labyrinth. They are all valid.


What About Labyrinths Today?

Since the early 1990's there has been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths, which coincides with today's increased focus on personal self-awareness and spiritual growth. Labyrinths are found in public parks, private gardens, and churches.

Modern-day uses are many. In hospitals, labyrinths are walked by staff, recovering patients and their visitors to relieve stress and aid in rehabilitation. Community groups and retreat centres use labyrinths for meditation, reflection, and exercise. School labyrinths can serve as an activity zone for students. They can stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving, and act as a tool for conflict resolution. The labyrinth remains a metaphor for the individual's journey through life.

Since the mid-1980’s, labyrinths have enjoyed a revival in North America. Parks, churches, hospitals, schools, and private homes have installed labyrinths for people of all different backgrounds and faiths to walk.

Smaller labyrinths you can hold in your lap and “walk” with your finger offer another type of labyrinth experience.


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