A Brief History of Labyrinths
By Marilynn Jennings
The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool used for prayer, meditation, reflection, and contemplation. It is a universal image representing life’s path, with its winding walk in toward the center and out again creating a symbolic journey in the form of a walking meditation. The labyrinth is not a maze; there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. It is an archetypal symbol of wholeness and combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a purposeful path. The circle represents completion, unity, and the changing of seasons. To ancient people the spiral was considered a sacred primal symbol of the Great Mother Goddess and her transformative powers.
The labyrinth is found in various forms in all religious traditions around the world and throughout history. The labyrinth appears in old legends, in ancient art, on floors and walls of churches, cut into turf, and built of low stone walls. References to the labyrinth can be found in Mayan, Celtic, Greek, and American cultures. Labyrinths have been viewed as sacred gateways and are found at the entrance to ancient sites around the world. Some of the earliest forms of labyrinths are found in Greece, dating to 2500 BCE.
The labyrinth has been known to reemerge when the culture is going through turmoil. The current revival of the labyrinth has been a valuable tool for those seeking peace and inner guidance. Its use for meditation, stress relief, guidance, ritual, and celebration has spread to many circles, including churches, hospitals, parks, and retreat and conference centers.
Use of the labyrinth flourished in Europe throughout the 11th and 12th centuries and was associated with pilgrimage routes in search of the holy. For the medieval Christian, walking the labyrinth was seen as a symbolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Pilgrims would journey to sites where they would make a prayer-walk of the labyrinth, laid in the cathedral’s stone floor, as a symbolic completion of their pilgrimage.
Designs for the labyrinth focus on the number of circuits, which is the number of times the path winds around the center. Seven or eleven circuit labyrinths are common. The classical seven-circuit labyrinth, also known as the Cretan labyrinth, is the oldest style and found in many cultures; it has an egglike shape with seven circuits. It connects the seven chakras and joins the spiritual and physical aspects of the body. The seven-path labyrinth is also associated with the Hopi Indians of North America, who viewed the labyrinth as a symbol for Mother Earth and used it as a medicine wheel. Labyrinths were woven into objects to personify man’s connection to his source and were often placed at sacred places in nature to remind him of this union. Walking the labyrinth is recreating this ancient expression of remembrance of the divine in all things.
The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France, upon which the Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth in San Francisco is modeled, was built in 1201 and is based on sacred geometry. It has 11 concentric paths that wind through four quadrants of a circle, a six-petal rosette in the center, and 112 lunation’s around its circumference. An invisible 13-point star radiates from the center of the labyrinth and connects the outer lunation’s with the center. Some believed the labyrinth served as a calendar by keeping track of the lunar cycles. The rosette at the center of the labyrinth is associated with the petals of a flower and is symbolic of enlightenment and new life. After medieval times the spiritual uses of the labyrinth were forgotten.
Today, walking the path of the labyrinth is a sacred ritual that can provide insight, courage, and understanding in facing life’s challenges. There are three parts or stages to walking the labyrinth: releasing, receiving, and returning. Before one enters the labyrinth, an intention, prayer, or question may be posed. From the entrance to the center is the path of releasing, of letting go, a time to quiet the mind and open the heart. Arrival at the center is a place of prayer, meditation, and receiving guidance. The walk back out from the center is taking back into the world and putting into action what has been received to transform one’s life. The labyrinth walk is different each time one walks it. Some people feel a sense of peace while others may find old memories surfacing as they walk. When walked with a community of people, the walk is a shared journey that helps to coalesce and unify visions. The labyrinth invites us on a journey of presence and allows us to experience on many levels the mystery of which we are all a part.
Marilynn Jennings has recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Chartres Cathedral in France where she was trained as a Labyrinth Facilitator. She has built a modified seven circuit Chartres labyrinth at the White Lotus Retreat Center in Chico.
For information about labyrinth walks, you can email her at WhiteLotusCenter@sbcglobal.net or call 345-6087.