As long as I’ve known about them, I’ve been fascinated with labyrinths. When I was younger, I always associated them with mazes that were so complex that you were sure to get lost in them or worse yet you’d end up arriving at… The Bog of Eternal Stench. It didn’t help that when I was 8 years old I saw Labyrinth and all I could think of was Sarah making her way through the Goblin King’s labyrinth in order to save baby Toby. What always stood out to me about that movie, aside from the maze Sarah had to navigate, was the magick within it. From fiesty Hoggle to brave Sir Didymus and his trusty sheepdog steed… within the Goblin King’s labyrinth was magick in abundance. Always magick.
It should make sense that the thought of labyrinths insights the images of magick to me even now that I’m a grown woman. I still see them through the eyes of a child in that way. They will always hold that air of mystery and magick. Even the most simple labyrinth drawn on the ground or laid in brick brings on the need to walk it, dance it, meditate within it… no way I could just breeze on by one without paying it some attention. They have and always will be special to me.
In many cultures they are thought to serve as traps for malevolent spirits and in others as a defined path for ritual dance. Still others believe they signify a symbolic pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Since many people couldn’t afford to travel to holy sites and lands labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Over time, most of the spiritual significance (especially in Christianity) of labyrinths faded and they served primarily for entertainment. Recently though their spiritual significance has seen a resurgence. Not just with Christians, but also with Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus and other spiritual people. Many newly made labyrinths exist today, in people’s personal gardens, in churches and in parks. Modern mystics use labyrinths to help achieve a contemplative state and for meditations.
The history behind them is especially interesting to me. Daedalus built the original for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its sole purpose and function was to hold the Minotaur, the half man and half bull creature. Eventually the Minotaur was killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. The story goes that Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so difficult and skillfully that he could barely escape it after he built it himself. Fortunately for Theseus, Ariadne provided him with a skein of thread, literally the “clew”, or “clue”, so he could find his way out after slaying the Minotaur.
According to Through the Labyrinth by Hermann Kern, “In colloquial English, labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two: maze refers to a complex branching (multicursal) puzzle with choices of path and direction; while a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.”
This leads me to wonder where the idea that mazes and labyrinths were synonymous came from. Many people, not just myself, think of the labyrinth in the movie with many ways to go and many twists and turns… and we’re all wrong according to Kern. So what was so difficult about navigating the original labyrinth built to hold the Minotaur? Magick, of course! I mean, what else could it be? Surely, if the Minotaur really wanted to he could just plow through the hedges and find his way out, but something kept him trapped… if it wasn’t the branching puzzle of a maze it could be magick, right? Well I think so!
Most labyrinths I encounter now-a-days are brick laid or made with stones. It’s quite a rare occasion to see a garden hedge labyrinth anymore, at least it has been for me. Hedges or stones, labyrinths are something I go out of my way to indulge in. However inaccurate the movie is about the true nature of the labyrinth, I’m not sure labyrinths would hold the same mystery and magick that they do for me if it wasn’t for the way it was portrayed. Besides, a story loosely based on a myth is bound to be embellished a little… especially when the embellishment makes it that much more magickal!
Whenever I walk a labyrinth I find myself counting steps and inhaling a little more deeply than usual. It is more often than not, a very relaxing and cleansing sort of thing to do. It doesn’t take long to get into a meditative head space and as long as I am feeling inspired, I may decide to offer up thoughts or prayers to the Gods. Even though these spaces are not “nature” in it’s truest sense… they are IN nature. Since they are set aside for the purpose of spiritual nourishment I believe that is why I feel strongly connected to the Goddess when I’m counting paces inside the defined space of a labyrinth. They are beautiful both aesthetically, but their purpose is as well. I hope that if you have the opportunity to walk the paces of a labyrinth, that you will.
To find labyrinths near you check out the Labyrinth Society.