The Labyrinthine Path

Found in Ancient Caves and Gothic Cathedrals, but What Do Labyrinths Really Mean?


The most direct path from A to B is a straight line. The most indirect path from A to B is likely to be a labyrinth. Not to be confused with a maze, which has several dead ends, a labyrinth is a unicursal voyage that leads from a point outside the design towards the center… in the longest of ways. Unicursal means a curve or surface that is closed and can be drawn or swept out in a single movement.

Though the labyrinth of the French Gothic Cathedral of Chartres is likely the most famous, labyrinths are of all times and civilizations. They have been found on rock art dating back thousands of years. Indeed, they may be as old as civilization itself. A labyrinth carved on a piece of mammoth ivory has been found in a Paleolithic tomb in Siberia. The site is more than 7000 years old.

But what message do they convey? Though their interpretation has changed and been adapted by individual civili­zations over time, and —whether intentionally or not—in origin, the labyrinth is best explained by its very shape. In the 1990s, British author Paul Devereux established a relationship between straight lines and the flight of the soul in its disembodied state. In folklore across the world, it is said that the disembodied soul within this earthly realm trav­els in a straight line. A labyrinth, however, is anything but straight; and it was therefore said that it could both catch the soul and keep it in one location or instead create a void, in which the person visiting the center would be “clean” of any outside spiritual influences, as such energies cannot penetrate the labyrinth. No wonder therefore that some see the center of a labyrinth as a point outside of time. Such an observation has also been made by the Hopi Native American tribe of North America, who use the labyrinth shape as the symbol for what they call a place of emergence, where access to this—and other—realms becomes possible: a sacred space that creates a gateway through time, to communicate with the Creator God.

Because of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the birthplace of the labyrinth is popularly ascribed to Crete, where the Minoan civilization flourished in the second millennium BC, even though we know the story is far older.

The Minotaur is normally described as part man, part bull, a hybrid being, an abomination for which King Minos of Crete needed an enclosure. This was designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus. Most identify the site of Knossos as the location. Though the palace held many puzzling compartments, the structure would clearly be more of a maze than a labyrinth. If there was a labyrinth here, it has, so far, not been uncovered. Most interpretations of the Knossos labyrinth, however, favor the story of a maze, as it seems more easily to explain the legend.

The key role in the story is that of Ariadne, the one who reveals the structure’s layout to Theseus and the secret that he needs to tie a rope to himself at the start, so that, once having located and slaughtered the Minotaur, he can find his way out. But as labyrinths are unicursal, most researchers have thus concluded Knossos was a maze, if only because a labyrinth could not hold a beast, as it could simply follow the single corridor and come out.

Of course, this assumes the labyrinth was a real, physical structure and the Minotaur a “normal” beast. But if a soul were to enter the labyrinth, and since souls can only travel in straight lines, a cord would indeed be required to find the way out again. Remarkably, there are thousands of years of shamanic tradition that speak of such a cord—the famous silver cord through which the shaman remains connected to his body during journeys in the Otherworld and can find his way back. So it is therefore more likely that the Cretan structure was indeed a labyrinth but was not the palace itself, and perhaps not even a physical structure.

The inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth was said to have been built at Medinet el Fayum, ca. 1800 BC, under Pharaoh Amenemhet III (twelfth dynasty). Indeed, Daedalus is said to have studied there. The Egyptian “labyrinth” at Hawara was actually a temple of the dead and is a vast array of rooms, set on several floors, so that one could easily get lost. As such, it is on par with the Palace of Knossos. Indeed, both were possibly temples of the dead. Labyrinths were specifically identified as structures from which the dead could not escape.

Though the chief argument for Knossos being the labyrinth has been the number of rooms within the palace, and some have observed that the access routes to Knossos had several bends, there is no straight line in approaching the Palace. This fact is more important than it might at first appear. Spirits, remember, were said to be able to travel only in straight lines; and so, bends—like those for entering Knossos—guaranteed that spirits could not enter or leave such constructions. Seeing that the palaces of Crete were likely linked with a cult of the dead, this is a significant ob­servation.

In hindsight, it seems that the term labyrinth was applied to two distinct structures. One was a design, unicursal and concentric, while the other was a structure. Both, however, were linked with the spirits of the deceased; and it is likely that some confusion arose over time, leading to the current problems in identifying the “real” Cretan labyrinth. However, if the Palace of Knossos was indeed the residence of the infamous Minotaur, then its cell is still to be dis­covered, or identified.

Kathleen McGowan has recently popularized the Chartres labyrinth and its connection to Ariadne. McGowan argues that Ariadne is the ultimate divine feminine principle at work: “She represents the pure power and protection that can only come from love. It is through her love that she is able to shield Theseus from harm or death.” Indeed, other myths that involve labyrinths underline the link between the design and a priestess or a virgin. The Greek poet

Homer remarked that the labyrinth was Ariadne’s ceremonial dancing ground, and she is obviously a key figure in guiding Theseus into the structure.

In fact, when we look at the story of Theseus, we find many shamanic connections. After slaughtering the Mino­taur, Theseus became king of Athens but would later enter Hades in an attempt to rescue the soul of Persephone. Hades, of course, is the Greek underworld and in Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas found a labyrinth at the entrance to Hades, separating the living from the dead—once again underlining the psychical role of a labyrinth. Furthermore, Joseph Campbell speaks of many myths which relate that the approach to the Land of the Dead was halted by a female guar­dian, thus explaining the role of Ariadne.

The connection with Troy is also paramount. In Celtic tradition, there were Troy Stones, which were handed down by wise women from one to another and were used to communicate with the underworld. Nigel Pennick notes that “the wise woman would trace her finger through the labyrinth, back and forth, whilst humming a particular tune, until she reached an altered state.”

According to the Roman author Virgil, after the fall of Troy, Aeneas popularized a processional parade or dance that became known as the “Game of Troy.” This may have been identical to the Crane Dance, which is said to have originated with Theseus and his party after escaping from Knossos. The crane was the sacred bird of Mercury (Hermes), and rock carvings found at Val Camonica in northern Italy, dated ca. 1800-1300 BC, depict a crane stand­ing close by a Cretan-style labyrinth, confirming the close connection between Troy, labyrinths, and the Crane Dance.

Indeed, in some regions, labyrinths are known as “Troy towns,” while other traditions state that the center of the labyrinth was not occupied by a Minotaur, but that one needed to rescue a young woman at the center, often identi­fied as Helen of Troy.

In Homer’s Iliad, King Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army, is the brother of King Menelaus, who has lost his wife, Helen, to Paris of Troy. She is the one being held hostage in Troy and the key, often unasked, question is whether she was held in a “Troy town”—a labyrinth, from which she needs to be liberated. Was, in fact, Troy not a physical location but a celestial city—on par with the Christian concept of the New Jerusalem?

Florence and Kenneth Wood in Homer’s Secret Iliad see the fall of Troy as an allegory for the decline of the con­stellation Ursa Major in the sky and the end of one era making way for another, as identified by the precession of the equinoxes, a process that greatly influenced many myths and legends. They identify Helen as the constellation Libra, Menelaus the red-haired Antares, while Paris is Betelgeuse and Orion. It therefore seems that the concept of time is a key component of the labyrinth, too—at least in Greek mythology. Noting that the center of the labyrinth was often seen as a place outside of time, it was, indeed, a place of emergence and creation.

The identification of the Minotaur as Cretan, however, existed only from 400 BC onwards. Previously, it was re­ferred to as the “bull of Minos”—Minos Taurus. Furthermore, the story is likely to have originated in legendary en­counters between gods-as-bulls and women rather than that of a hybrid being. Such accounts were common in the Near East. As mentioned, there are earlier references to a labyrinth in Egypt. An Egyptian etymology suggests lapi-ro­hun-t, or “Temple on the Mouth of the Sea,” while the Cretan king Minos is a Hellenized Menes, the first Dynastic pharaoh of Egypt—which does not necessarily imply that the two are identical.

The sacred structure in Egypt connected with labyrinths and bulls was the Serapeum, which was a burial place for the Apis bulls. The Serapeum had more than sixty such mummies, collated over a period of thousands of years. Each tomb is a remarkable piece of engineering, believed by some to be beyond the technical capabilities of the ancient Egyptians. Each Apis Bull was linked with the beginning of a new era, as seen when Emperor Hadrian had to suppress a revolt in AD 138 in Alexandria, as it marked the end of a Great Year when “bull fever” was even more intense than at other times.

When speaking of bulls and astronomical eras, we also need to consider Mithraism, in which Mithras takes on the role of Theseus and becomes the bull slayer. Interestingly, the bull in Greece was known as Asterion, which means “starry,” or “ruler of the stars.” In every Mithraic temple, the central focus was upon a tauroctony, Mithras killing a sacred bull, which was associated with spring. Remarkably, in Gothic cathedrals, the center of the labyrinth was often occupied by Theseus killing the Minotaur. Coincidence, or an inheritance of a sacred tradition? However, there seems to have been no room within Mithraism for labyrinths.

From the earliest depictions in Siberia, the labyrinth has been linked with shamanism, and hence altered states. The labyrinth, in short, should be seen as a shamanic device. This is also apparent in medieval labyrinths, even though these had, with the passage of time and cultures, received several more layers, including the intricate designs such as those of Chartres. But, in essence, the labyrinth remained a “Way to Jerusalem.” Often seen as a miniature version of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in truth, it was more a Way to a New Jerusalem: it remained a shamanic tool for the visitors who entered it and performed a ritual walk, a practice often associated with shamanic traditions and visi­ble in sites such as Nazca, Cusco, Chaco Canyon, and various others across the world.

Whereas Cusco and Chaco Canyon’s ritual paths were linear, the labyrinth is… labyrinthine. The person walking the labyrinth is cleansing his mind, to enter at the center free from external thoughts, surrendering himself to God. Whether in Siberia in 5000 BC, or Chartres, in AD 1200, in essence, the labyrinth has remained a shamanic device. “Only” its complexity has transformed and moved along with the civilizations that have incorporated it in their relig­ions and constructions and added additional layers of interpretation, often, as in the case of Chartres, combining concepts of various cultures and religions. With each implementation of the labyrinth, a time returns; and the passage of time, of beginning and end, birth and rebirth, is symbolically illustrated. It underlined the ancient concept that time was not linear, but cyclical… or labyrinthine?

The most celebrated and intricate—design-wise—labyrinth of all is that of Chartres. Its design has been copied numerous times, perhaps most famously at Grace Cathedral in the heart of San Francisco, where there is an indoor and outdoor labyrinth.

Though the labyrinth is a key feature of the Gothic cathedral that dominates the French town, the Church, which operates the building, treats the structure with almost utter disdain. Normally, except for Fridays from Easter till late September, the labyrinth is covered with chairs. This has resulted in damage to the stones, but, more significantly, it stops people from walking it and using the structure for its intended purpose: meditation. This has caused outrage.

New York Times bestselling author Kathleen McGowan talks about the Chartres labyrinth both in her novel The Book of Love and her self-help book The Source of Miracles. The latter specifically uses the Chartres labyrinth as a meditative tool—relating personal experiences of how the labyrinth has helped in her spiritual development. Both books powerfully underline what visitors have experienced for decades if not centuries: that the Chartres labyrinth is a powerful prayer tool. McGowan, however, is upset that the Church restricts access to the labyrinth: “The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral is a priceless piece of medieval art. As a UNESCO heritage site, I believe the labyrinth deserves the same protection as the sculptures and the stained glass in the cathedral. The fact that the Church intentionally damages it by covering it with unnecessary chairs for the sole purpose of denying pilgrims access to it is nothing less than vandalism.”

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems that we might once again penetrate the true purpose of laby­rinths: and yet the most famous labyrinths of all in Crete or Egypt remain undiscovered, while the one at Chartres is in the process of being lost.

1 Comment

  • PMC says:

    Thank you for compiling this information.

    I also prefer to think of Minos’s labyrinth as unicursal; I figured carved galleries could make it possible to back-track and get lost despite the one-way course. The metaphorical solution you’ve compelled me to consider is more interesting and my difficulty with this will amount to a simple question. I’ll give some context first so that perhaps you can help me even if my question isn’t clear.

    I use Minos’s name above because my interpretation relates in this case to the Greek myth (Homer aside), even though the labyrinth receives much more enriching attention elsewhere (as you point out). I enjoy thinking of Minos’s labyrinth as a house of shame to conceal the person-bull-ification of the king’s dishonorable transgressions. This seems to fit with the labyrinth representing a path of non-linear time to a center outside of time since memory winds its way to the source of shame, that is, the past is made convoluted to conceal the humiliating punishment of Poseidon (the act of punishment happened in the past, but the humiliation exists outside of time). The ramifications of Minos not confronting his monstrousness are the continued sacrifices of foreign youths. Theseus, then, acts a redeemer as he does in Borges’s “House of Asterion.” (As an aside, when it comes labyrinths and literature, Borges is an even more impressive Daedalus.)

    My question is, how does a thread help a soul if it can only go straight? By straight do you mean something other than an infinite line or circumference around the earth?

    Thanks again for your time,

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