A labyrinth is a pattern with a single winding path that leads from the entrance to the centre. All labyrinths are unicursal, that is, they have only one path. Mazes are multicursal. Their many paths present a puzzle which the walker must solve in order to reach the centre.
WHAT DOES A LABYRINTH PATTERN LOOK LIKE?
There are two basic labyrinth patterns, the Classical or Cretan, which has seven paths or circuits that surround the centre, and the Chartres or Medieval style, based on a pattern set into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France in the early years of the 13th century, which has eleven circuits leading to the centre.
WHEN DID LABYRINTHS BECOME PART OF HUMAN HISTORY?
The oldest reliably dated labyrinth is of the Classical style and appears on a fragment of pottery from the palace of King Nestor at Pylos in southern Greece. Preserved by a fire that destroyed the palace, it dates from c. 1200 BCE.
In Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 CE, a piece of graffiti scratched on a house post, shows the labyrinth symbol and the words "Labyrinthus Hic Habitat Minotaurus", translated as: Labyrinth the Minotaur Lives Here — a reference perhaps to the personality of the owner.
The Labyrinth symbol appears on silver coins from Knossos dating from about 400 BCE. Elaborate mosaic floor labyrinths have been found throughout the Roman Empire. These labyrinths were often placed at the doorways of private and civic buildings.
WHERE ELSE HAVE LABYRINTHS BEEN FOUND?
Labyrinths have been found around the Mediterranean basin, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, and have probably been used in Indonesia. They also appear in North America among the Hopi and Pima peoples.
WHY AND HOW WERE LABYRINTHS USED?
Labyrinths may have been used as protective symbols, as pathways for sacred dances, or for displays of horsemanship. The stone labyrinths along the Baltic coast, now dated from the 13th to 16th centuries, may have been used by fishermen seeking fine weather and abundant catches. Labyrinths associated with tombs could have symbolized the journey of the soul after death.
In the medieval Christian church, the labyrinth played a part in the ceremonies surrounding Easter. The labyrinths in the great cathedrals of France may have been part of the journey of devout Christians who, no longer able to travel to the Middle East because of unsettled conditions, made their pilgrimages on the labyrinths.
WHAT ABOUT LABYRINTHS TODAY?
Since the early 1990's there has been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths, which coincides with today's increased focus on personal self-awareness and spiritual growth. Labyrinths are found in public parks, private gardens, and churches.
Modern-day uses are many. In hospitals, labyrinths are walked by staff, recovering patients and their visitors to relieve stress and aid in rehabilitation. Community groups and retreat centres use labyrinths for meditation, reflection, and exercise. School labyrinths can serve as an activity zone for students. They can stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving, and act as a tool for conflict resolution. The labyrinth remains a metaphor for the individual's journey through life.