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Introduction to labyrinths

The labyrinth, as we know it from Greek mythology, was an elaborate, confusing structure – designed and built by the legendary Daedalus for King Minos of Crete. Its sole function was to hold the Minotaur (a monster eventually killed by the hero). In this instance the labyrinth was actually a maze – a structure within which you can get lost and from which it is nearly impossible to escape.

The words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ are sometimes used interchangeably. They are, however, two very different things. As explained above, the maze is a multi-cursal puzzle with many dead-ends – designed to confuse, whilst the labyrinth is unicursal.

A labyrinth has one entry point which is also the exit point. Once you enter, you cannot turn back, hence you will continue until you reach the centre. At the centre, you will observe only one exit point that leads to the exit of the labyrinth – the very same point from which you have entered. Although it presents no navigational challenge, the challenge is on a spiritual level. This can be compared to following and staying on a more spiritual path in life.

Historically, labyrinths were found worldwide, e.g. in Africa (Egypt), Europe, Scandinavia, India, Nepal and in the Native American cultures of North and South America.

As a theme, labyrinths have been used in medieval designs and manuscripts. The labyrinth theme has continued in modern times, notably in films and literature. Some examples include the Academy Award-winning film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ by the Mexican film director, Guillermo del Toro; ‘The name of the Rose’ – debut novel of the internationally acclaimed and late Italian author, Umberto Echo, as well as the short stories of the late Jorge Luis Borges – considered to be the most influential and prominent Argentinean writer of all times.

In some instances, the Christian tradition has embraced and incorporated the tradition of labyrinths in worship. In medieval times, it started appearing on church walls and floors and the best-known example today is probably the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. It is said that in medieval times, clerics led others in a traditional and ritual dance into the labyrinth on Easter Sunday.

Some inscriptions found at labyrinths depicted the ‘chemin de Jerusalem’ or path to Jerusalem, thus suggesting that the labyrinth was used as a symbolic alternative to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or Jerusalem. Many illustrations have also depicted pilgrims following the labyrinth path on their knees whilst in prayer.

Spiritually, the labyrinth is an ancient symbol; designed for spiritual development and inner growth or a symbolic pilgrimage. You walk the path and ascend towards salvation or enlightenment. It represents the journey to your own centre and back into the world, both literally and metaphorically. It is associated with the spiral of life, creation and the four cardinal directions. Sometimes you may walk the labyrinth looking for an answer or simply to be open to what comes. It is impossible to get lost, but you need to be very sure that you want to embark on this journey since it has the power to change you.

Used as a spiritual tool, the labyrinth is a metaphor for being on your path – exactly where you are supposed to be, as it relates to wholeness and the achievement of your goal. You may want to reach your goal immediately, but in a labyrinth it means that you are ignoring the path, stepping over it directly into the centre. The actual gratification lies in reaching your goal by walking the path.

How to walk the labyrinth: Walk slowly whilst quieting your mind and focusing on a spiritual question or a prayer and it will take you to ‘that which is within’. This is a right-brain intuitive path that enables you to let go and become more receptive. As you go along, you experience an inward release and when you reach the centre, you become still to focus and reflect on the internal journey. When you are ready, you start preparing for the journey outward. You become receptive to the messages that flow to you during this time and you will walk with gratitude and peace, becoming ready to step back into the outside world.

The Labyrinth Society provides a locator for modern labyrinths worldwide. Members of the society are encouraged to facilitate group walks at public labyrinths to engage communities and to amplify the collective energy. World Labyrinth Day provides a great opportunity to introduce others to the path by organising lectures, workshops, tours, readings, art exhibitions and guided walks at temporary or permanent labyrinths. In a collective walk for peace, more than 5000 people walked as one at one in the afternoon – on World Labyrinth Day 2019.