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The Labyrinth Way

Labyrinths are a cross-cultural phenomenon, found in millennia old caves and medieval Gothic cathedrals. What do they represent?

Philip Coppens


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 centre of the labyrinth.
Though the labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres is likely to be the most famous, labyrinths are of all times and civilisations; they might be as old as civilisation itself and have been found on rock art dating back thousands of years. 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 over time and by individual civilisations – whether intentionally or not – in origin, the labyrinth might be explained by its very shape. In the 1990s, 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 soul travels in a straight line. A labyrinth, however, is anything but straight and it was therefore said that a labyrinth could both catch the soul and keep it in one location, or instead create a void, in which the person visiting the centre, will be “clean” of any outside spiritual influences, as these energies cannot penetrate. No wonder therefore that some see the centre of a labyrinth as a point outside of time, an observation which was recognised by the Hopi of North America, who use the labyrinth shape as the symbol of 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.

The birthplace of the labyrinth is often ascribed to Crete, with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. 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 of this labyrinth. Though the palace held many puzzling compartments, this would clearly be more of a maze, rather than a labyrinth. Hence, if there was a labyrinth here, it has so far not yet been uncovered.
Most interpretations of the Knossos labyrinth, however, favour the story of a maze, as it more easily seems to explain the legend. The key role in the story is that of Ariadne. She is the one who reveals the secret of the structure’s layout to Theseus: that he needs to tie a rope to himself at the start of the labyrinth, so that he can find his way out once having located and slaughtered the Minotaur. But as labyrinths are unicursal, most have thus concluded Knossos was a maze, if only because a labyrinth could not hold a beast, as it would 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 knowing souls can only travel in straight lines, a cord would indeed be required for a wandering soul to enter the labyrinth and for it to find its way out again. Remarkably, there are thousands of years of shamanic tradition that speak of such a cord: the famous silver cord of the shaman, through which he remains connected to his body while he journeys in the Otherworld, so that he can find his way back. And, as such, it is therefore more likely that the Cretan labyrinth was indeed a labyrinth, but not the palace itself – perhaps not even a physical structure.

Other myths that involve labyrinths underline the link between the labyrinth 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 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 how many myths relate that the approach to the Land of the Dead was halted by a female guardian, thus explaining the role of Ariadne in the story of Theseus killing the Minotaur.

The connection with Troy is equally of paramount importance. 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 Virgil, after the fall of Troy, Aeneas popularised 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 centre of the labyrinth was not occupied by a Minotaur, but that one needed to rescue a young woman at the centre, 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 centre of the labyrinth was often seen as a place outside of time, it was indeed a place of emergence and creation.

The story of the Cretan Minotaur, however, only existed after 400 BC onwards. Before, it was referred to as the “bull of Minos” – Minos Taurus. Furthermore, the origin of the story is likely to have been legendary encounters between gods-as-bulls and women, which were common in the Near East, rather than that of a hybrid being. Equally, there are earlier references to a labyrinth in Egypt, which some have reconciled by having Daedalus visit Egypt. An Egyptian etymology suggests lapi-ro-hun-t, or “Temple on the Mouth of the Sea”, while Minos is a Hellenized Menes, the first Dynastic pharaoh of Egypt. 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 time, the Apis Bull was linked with the beginning of a new era, such as Emperor Hadrian who had to suppress a revolt in 138 AD 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 look at 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 centre 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 centre free from external thoughts, surrendering himself to God. Whether in Siberia in 5000 BC, or Chartres in 1200 AD, in essence, the labyrinth has remained a shamanic device. “Only” its complexity has transformed and moved along with the civilisations that have incorporated it in their religions and constructions and added additional layers of interpretation to it, 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?

With the utmost appreciation and thanks to Kathleen McGowan, for bringing labyrinths into my life in the most unique way possible.