The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
Joy and Peace,
Labyrinth – Ancient History Encyclopedia by Joshua J. Mark
Elements of greek tragedy and the tragic hero
Mary Hackworth—“The One and the Many: The Significance of the Labyrinth in Contemporary America,” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies Vol. 9, No. 3, 2014
The Labyrinth Society: The Labyrinth Society: Directions to Make a Labyrinth
How to Make a Canvas Labyrinth for $200
Histories of Herodotus
What is Space Time?