A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze (multicursal) wants you to get lost. A labyrinth invites you to find–something (the center? peace? yourself?). A maze has many branches and dead ends and is intended to be confusing. A labyrinth (unicursal) is a single path that winds to its center.
I’m learning about labyrinths. My interest was first engaged by the labyrinth in Chartres cathedral as it appeared in Kathleen McGowan’s book, The Book of Love. What she describes is apparently true: the ancient labyrinth (12th century) is obscured by chairs six days a week. It is open for walking every Friday from 10 am to 5 pm. At least this was the schedule before COVID interrupted normal life.
McGowan posits that the chairs and restrictions are the Church’s attempt to discourage people from discovering the spiritual power of this ancient practice. She traces the roots of the labyrinth to King Solomon’s and the Queen of Sheba’s design, but I haven’t found that idea substantiated anywhere yet.
However, the labyrinth design goes back a long time. More than 3000 years ago, labyrinths appeared in a variety of forms in many different cultures. These ancient archetypes have been found in the cultures of ancient Crete, Hopi Native Americans, the British Isles, France, Norway, and India.
Over time, labyrinths may have served a multitude of purposes: as sites for choreographed dances, ceremonies, or rituals, and places dedicated to walking meditation. They are categorized by style and number of circuits. The Chartres cathedral labyrinth has eleven circuits. Medieval Christians walked the Chartres labyrinth instead of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, or to connect with a family member who was participating in a Crusade.
A fascinating collection of thirty-five labyrinths exists on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea of Russia. One island, Bolshoi Zayatsky, contains fourteen stone labyrinths that date back to 3000 B.C.
In my Internet wanderings, I found two interesting websites. The Labyrinth Society offers a lot of useful information about labyrinths at www.labyrinthsociety.org. Their World Wide Labyrinth Locator will provide you with a list of labyrinths in your area. Warning: some of the listings are out-of-date, but the quest is still fun and rewarding.
More about my labyrinth quest and discoveries in upcoming posts.
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