The Multicultural Tradition of the Labyrinth

From Celtic and Jewish cultures and as a Wiccan symbol, the labyrinth has a rich history that spans many cultures.

| September/October 1999

  • An impromptu labyrinth (above) ­provides moments of repose on a Gulf of Mexico beach.
    Photo by Melissa Reynolds; Courtesy of Annette Reynolds, Labyrinth Project of Alabama
  • Designed by Sharon Brady, the Cretan-style labyrinth at St. Gabriel’s Monastery in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania (opposite), consists of sand-filled paths within the lawn. The indoor labyrinth of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (above and below) is a replica of Chartres’ eleven-circuit pattern.
    Photo Courtesy of Veriditas
  • A luxuriant grassy hill (left) in northern California has been sculpted into a simple labyrinth by Alex B. Champion, Philo, California. Once the design is mowed, frequent use maintains the pathway, while judicious pruning gives it an organic, cared-for look.
    Photo By Dency Kane

  • Photo By Dency Kane
  • This labyrinth , is at the Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center in Litchfield, Connecticut, a former center of spiritual development for the community of Catholic sisters, the Daughters of Wisdom. Today the center provides a learning environment conducive to reflection and creative expression.
    Photo By Dency Kane

  • Photo by Joe Coca

There are two atop San Francisco’s ­elegant Nob Hill, and one in a garden in Pocatello, Idaho. Others are scraped out of frozen snow on an iced-over mountain lake, painted by the dozen on portable canvases, laid out in specially commissioned carpeting, spray-painted on a clergyman’s front lawn. The patterns echo Hopi medicine wheels and the art of the Celts, the Jewish Kabbala, modern Wiccan symbols, and the floor design of a thirteenth-century French cathedral. It’s as new as the morning, and as old as 250 b.c.: the labyrinth.

Defining the Path

What is the meaning of these intriguing patterns? Why do people walk their paths? Why are they commanding such interest?

A labyrinth is a winding pattern whose single path leads to a central core. But it is unicursal: the same path leads in and out. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth holds no false paths or dead ends. It is not a puzzle. Walking in a labyrinth, one is always certain of being on the right path.

No one knows the origin of the labyrinth, but it spans many cultures and faiths. The oldest surviving example is a Cretan labyrinth with seven circuits. Iron Age Europe produced many, most too small to be walked. France’s Chartres Cathedral holds the oldest known eleven-circuit pattern. Perhaps the larger, walking patterns were considered small journeys to the center of creation and back.

The labyrinth is rich in symbols reflected in many traditions. The contemporary eleven-circuit pattern has a rosette—a six-petaled, rose-shaped area—at the center, and the rose is a symbol of enlightenment, as is its Eastern equivalent the lotus. The petals can symbolize the six days of creation, or the six levels of evolution in Christian theology: mineral, plant, animal, human, angelic, divine. Surrounding the rosette are eleven concentric circles of path that turn and fold to form ten labyrs—the double-ax symbol of women’s power and creativity; twenty-eight half lunations or partial circles per quadrant; and twenty-eight cusps or points per quadrant. The four quadrants may reflect the quarters of the year. When viewed from above, the quadrants form a large cross, one of the most sacred Christian symbols, while the entire circle expresses wholeness and completion.

What purpose does a labyrinth serve? Answers vary: It is a relaxation technique, a path of prayer, dance choreography using both clockwise (energizing) and counterclockwise (energy-releasing) moves. It represents an opportunity to listen deeply, to walk deliberately, yet without conscious thought. It is a place for voiceless prayer, petitionary prayer, and repetitive prayer—offering an opportunity for divine instruction. It’s a chance to join the healing forces of the world and to walk with ancient peoples. It is a meditation technique for people who are unable to sit still, and sometimes unable to stop thinking.

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