LABYRINTH: A Metaphor for Transformation

Copyright © Elizabeth Fergus-Jean 1996

The labyrinth as an archetypal image has resonated within the human unconscious since antiquity. Although the idea of the labyrinth is ancient, it has nevertheless remained alive in both art and literature for thousands of years. It is indeed fascinating that both the image and the myth surrounding the labyrinth have remained vital in the minds of so many different peoples and cultures throughout time. I chose to write about the labyrinth because it still retains this power to engage the unconscious. I am attracted and intrigued by the multiplicity surrounding the labyrinth, which is inherent in its images and rituals, including its sense of mystery, encounter, paradox, and transformation.

In this paper I will explore some of the many ritual aspects of the labyrinth, and labyrinth forms. I will begin with a discussion of the word labyrinth, and how it is generally used today.(1) I will follow with a consideration of the labyrinth as paradigm of paradox within a structural mental context of order and chaos.(2) I will then discuss ambiguities found in both labyrinthine forms and images.(3) Next, I will examine historical examples of labyrinths and their early ritual aspects and uses.(4) I will close with a discussion of contemporary considerations of the labyrinth, its resurgence, and its place in contemporary culture.(5)

To begin any consideration of the labyrinth, one must try and unravel the perplexing mysteries surrounding the word 'labyrinth', and that entails understanding the various ways that the word is used and interpreted. In my research of the labyrinth, it has become apparent to me that the word 'labyrinth' and the word 'maze' are often confused. Exacerbating this situation of confusion, in recent years there have been authors who have created their own set of rules and meanings for the two words, in the attempt to state the "correct" terminology and definitions.1 I find these new, and often conflicting rules for "correct" usage, only adding to the confusion. For me, the simplest explanation of this persistent confusion comes from Penelope Doob.2 Doob states that in ancient and medieval times, the words labyrinth and maze had the same meaning, and thus, are often used interchangeably.

In addition, there is confusion among many scholars with, on the one hand, adequately distinguishing the image and form of the labyrinth as a single winding path, or on the other hand, distinguishing the labyrinth as a path with multiple choices. This lack of clarity creates ambiguity in understanding the inherent properties that belong to these two distinct forms. There are however, two terms that help clarify this situation when defining physical labyrinth forms, they are multicursal and unicursal. The multicursal labyrinth form contains many false turns and dead ends, making it difficult for walkers to find their way to its center without some form of guidance. In contrast, the unicursal labyrinth form has only one entrance, and although the path may twist and turn, there are no false turns, and if the walkers stay on the path, they will eventually find themselves in the center. Each of these forms is invested with distinct metaphorical qualities, that provide insight into their ritual natures, and transformative powers that have remained vital for thousands of years. I will use these two terms, multicursal and unicursal, throughout this paper to distinguish the type of labyrinth or maze I am referring to. This brings up other ambiguities intrinsic to the paradoxical effect of the labyrinth image. This paradox involves order and chaos. Specifically, this ambiguity can be seen in the physical realm. In this realm, spatial disorientation and getting lost in the labyrinth is one of its basic features. When walking a labyrinth, either multicursal or unicursal, there is a palpable sense of disorientation. For when the walkers are immersed in the maze, they are unable to detect the pattern as a whole, thus there is a sense of disorientation, which can create chaos. However, when the labyrinth is viewed from either above or outside, and when it can be seen in its entirety, then the orderly, and intricate patterned quality of the labyrinth is made evident.3

In the mental realm, this paradox reflects a world view that draws a dichotomy between order and chaos, giving the labyrinth image a paradoxical nature that is also metaphorical. Interestingly, the point of view of order or chaos is a function of one's perspective of, and involvement in, the labyrinth. In this sense, disorientation occurs from mental errors of judgment, which as a whole, create ambiguity and bewilderment. However, when the issue of correctly choosing a path is resolved/solved, the order of the labyrinthine path, now mentally traversed, can be revealed.

Another aspect of ambiguity surrounding the labyrinth, is the description of the labyrinth as an inextricable maze where one could get lost. This is most often found when the labyrinth is referred to in classical literature; an example of this is in the Theseus myth. In this myth, the labyrinth is described as a multicursal labyrinth. However, when this labyrinth is visually depicted in the two-dimensional form, it is most often seen as a unicursal labyrinth. This pattern of inconsistent representation appears to be that: in the literary traditions, the labyrinth is usually described as multicursal; and in the visual traditions (from prehistoric rock art to contemporary painting,) the labyrinth is usually envisioned as unicursal.

A similar pattern of representational ambiguity arises when examining the earliest forms of the architectural labyrinths, and the earliest forms of two-dimensional labyrinth representational images. The earliest known architectural structure of a labyrinth was from Egypt, dating from the 19th c. B.C. This structure was thought to be a mortuary temple of Amenemhet III at Hawara. Another example of an early architectural labyrinth was the Minoan Palace at Knossos, also known as the Palace of the Double Axe. This palace is often associated with the Cretan myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Both of these early architectural labyrinths were actually multicursal in form. However, when the labyrinthine images were found on two-dimensional objects, the pattern was rendered as a unicursal design. One of the earliest examples of this was found on a rock carving in Cornwall, England (dated ca. 1800 - 1400 B.C.) Other examples were found on early coins from Knossos.4,5

Again, there is a similar transposition of forms as with the previously mentioned literary / visual representation of the labyrinth. Thus, there is considerable evidence that from the beginning, when the labyrinth was an actual building, it was indeed multicursal; but when the building was represented two-dimensionally, it was rendered as unicursal. This incongruity creates an ambiguous situation with respect to differentiating labyrinths and their actual forms. This is especially significant when one examines visual examples of unicursal labyrinths from classical to medieval times.6

There have been many uses for both the multicursal and unicursal labyrinth forms. An important use was in ritual. Perhaps, one of the first rituals surrounding the historic labyrinth originated from Paleolithic rites of initiation, as encountered through the ritual traversing of labyrinthine subterranean caves. Symbolically the antecedent labyrinthine cave, and the historical labyrinth have both been viewed as metaphors for the unconscious. This view is reflected in the hero quest of Theseus, found in the Cretan myth. In this myth, Theseus, the hero / initiate, must face the challenge of the unknown as represented by the labyrinth; he must have the courage to encounter the various mysteries, and dangers along the way leading to his encounter with the Minotaur / his inner beast. By comparison, the Paleolithic initiate must begin the quest by passing through a long, dark narrow entrance. This begins a process of disorientation and uncertainty that increases as the various intricate passages branch off into unknown places. The further the initiate traverses into the cave, the closer he comes to its' womblike center.

Thus, in both cases the journey toward the center of the labyrinth, or cave, can be seen as a journey toward one's own center. When viewed this way, such a center can also be thought of as the axis mundi, a place that links the various planes of the cosmos. The center thus represents the vertical axis where the world of the gods and the world of humankind can communicate.7 Upon reaching this center of one's soul, represented as a place of total darkness (disorientation), a sense of wholeness or completion is found (illumination). It is then that the center then reveals its true nature as a place for transformation where new dialogue and understanding can occur.

This ritual journey into the center of the labyrinth can also be thought of as a death and rebirth transformation. In this view, the initiate, on entering the labyrinth, symbolically enters Mother Earth, and must experience a rebirth and transformation in order to reemerge. The labyrinth, thus symbolically defines a mythic path from death to regeneration. Jill Purce describes this journey as implying "a death and re-entry into the womb of the earth, necessary before the spirit can be reborn in the land of the dead. But death and rebirth also mean the continuous transformation and purification of the spirit throughout life; the alchemists use the word VITRIOL to stand for Visitabis Interiora Terrae Tectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem. 'Visit the interior of the earth; through purification thou wilt find the hidden stone'. Such a descent into the underworld is the theme of most initiation rituals, and is comparable to the passage through the wilderness, or the 'dark night of the soul', which is experienced by mystics on their path." 8

A primary ritual associated with the labyrinthine cave, is the ritualistic 'meeting the monster.'9 In this ritual association, when entering the subterranean underworld, the initiate must meet the monster/guardian of the labyrinth, whether the Minotaur or Cerberus. Symbolically, the monster/guardian can be viewed as both the inner daimon of the individual, and of the collective society. The hero, or initiate, must confront and master the monster/guardian, in order to bring about transformation, not only for themselves, but for the entire civilization as well.10

Another ritual function of labyrinths, again with origins steeped in the Cretan myth, is that of dance. Labyrinth dance in its various forms is considered a ceremonial type of behavior. Many have noted that the rhythmic spiraling movements that are often evoked when one walks the unicursal labyrinth are reminiscent of dance. The first attributed ceremonial dance surrounding the labyrinth was the Crane Dance, or Geranos as it was often called. This dance was said to have been performed by Theseus and his friends on the island of Delos, in honor of Aphrodite.11 It is thought that through this dance, the meandering path of Theseus threading the labyrinth was reenacted.12,13

Yet another ritual dance associated with the Cretan myth was the Trojae lucus or Game of Troy, an equestrian form of dance and parade reinstated in Rome by Augustus.14 This dance involved participants mounted on horseback, who wove in and out and around each other, in complicated movements, again reenacting the Cretan Labyrinth.15,16

A third example of ritual dance associated with the labyrinth, is the Easter labyrinth dance, which occurred at the cathedral at Auxerre. (There may have been similar dances during the later Middle Ages at other cathedrals such as Chartres, Amiens, and Sens.) The exact meaning of this dance is not known, however, because it took place during Easter, the dance may have been a celebration of the harrowing of hell and the resurrection of Christ. Existing details describing the dance include an account of one of the new canons presenting a large ball to the dean. This presentation has striking similarity to the ball and the clew of thread that Ariadne gave to Theseus in the Cretan myth.17

With respect to ritual dance, if one views the dance-like movement that occurs when one moves through the labyrinth, as evoking a spiral or spinning motion, a fundamental association with the rhythmic cycles and patterns of nature can also be made. In this regard, an association can be made to the Hopi Snake Dance and the Maypole dance, which both follow a spiral, weaving, in and out pattern. These dances, as well as the Auxerre dance, are springtime ceremonies, which can also be viewed as having a "ceremonial association with the awakening of nature in spring, after its winter sleep, or the release of the imprisoned sun after its long captivity in the toils of the demon of winter."18

Another ritual labyrinthine aspect associated with the rites of spring, yet performed in quite a different manner, are the festivities that took place around the turf labyrinths of England in the middle ages. Here, the ritual was construed as more of a festive game, the purpose of which was to 'thread' the maze. This game was often part of spring fairs, where children would run the maze in the form of a race. The design of turf labyrinths accommodated this usage, through the path of the maze that was inclined towards its center. This design afforded a firmer footing for the runners. Such turf labyrinths date from at least the Middle Ages, and were usually unicursal in form.19

Another example of a game-like ritual surrounding the labyrinth was the hedge maze. The topiary labyrinth, or hedge maze, had its origins in antiquity. And, although there were no actual descriptions of hedge mazes by any classical writers, there were examples of winding paths suggestive of such. The hedge mazes, such as the elaborate examples found at Hampton Court and Versailles, were forms of both leisure and aesthetic beauty. These topiary labyrinths were most often multicursal in pattern; full of puzzling turns, statues, fountains and other ornaments, and usually terminated in an arbor or goal of some sort. Many of the mazes had the component of a 'blind wall'. This wall, which defined the path, was designed to be taller than those walking the labyrinth, making it impossible for the walker to see any other part of the path. This 'blind wall' would undoubtedly add to a sense of disorientation, even if the labyrinth pattern was unicursal in design.20

It should be noted that although the design of topiary labyrinths were multicursal, many of the attributes associated with the multicursal labyrinths were not meant to be present. Specifically, the fear and terror that can occur if lost in a multicursal labyrinth, is diminished by putting the experience in the context of a leisure activity. Although the hedge maze still holds the unbalancing potential of the inextricable maze where one could get lost, the fear of meeting one's daimon is not one of the elements encountered.

Perhaps the best-known examples of labyrinths are those found in the medieval churches and cathedrals of France and Italy. These labyrinths are constructed in the floors and walls of the cathedrals and churches. They are referred to as 'pavement labyrinths',
and although there are many examples of these pavement labyrinths, their exact use is not known. Nevertheless, there has been much speculation that they were used as a type of pilgrimage for the elderly and sick. It has also been suggested that they were used as a form of penance, with sinners traversing the labyrinth's path on their knees. These theories have become so commonly held, that they are more often than not, assumed as fact. However, in truth, they are indeed just theories, originated by J.B.F. Gerusez in 1817.21,22

Ecclesiastical labyrinths are apparently all unicursal in design. The most famous example being found on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral; and the oldest example found in the ancient basilica of Reparatus at Orleansville (Algeria), dating from the fourth century AD.23 Andre Peyronie has suggested that these ecclesiastical labyrinths reflected the medieval concept that the path of life is "long and tortuous, but there is only one way. The true way lies in God and it would be ungodly to claim or to represent the contrary. The labyrinth therefore came to represent the way to salvation, as it was its own thread." 24
I think it is important to note the ecclesiastical preference for the unicursal labyrinth pattern. If one compares the ecclesiastical labyrinth to the Cretan labyrinth in the Theseus myth, for example, and similarly view Christ as a personification of Theseus, then Christ's actions, as well as Theseus', act as a guide for human kind on the path of life. From this perspective, if the symbolic path was multicursal, a hellish life of confusion and disorientation might be lived. However, if one were to follow the path of Christ, as represented in the unicursal pattern, a connected life of rhythm and stability could be found. Thus, the unicursal labyrinth may be thought to symbolically represent the One or true path of God.25

Today the labyrinth as metaphor has once again woven its way back into prominence. The current revival of interest in the labyrinth has drawn attention to the fundamental dual nature that it contains. Many today have been raised in a world filled with paradox. Thus, the inherent paradox in the labyrinth image as the ideas of order and chaos, and the link between the known and the unknown, are understood and particularly relevant.

The labyrinth as metaphor has resurfaced in both the spiritual and leisure realms of our culture. In society today, there is a yearning for myths and rituals that are alive within the soul. People are actively seeking rituals that instill a basis of meaning in their lives. To this end, there has been much exploration into a myriad of cultural rituals. With a lack of cultural rituals of their own to draw upon, the search for a ritual basis to life has been focused outward toward other cultures and their ritual heritages. Quite often, appropriated rituals are then adopted as one's own. This practice of course lacks true authenticity. In contrast, by recreating ritual involvement based on the labyrinth, an archetypal image that is indigenous to the land and the people on it, particularly European descendants, can provide an authentic experience of continuity with the past.

As a spiritual tool, the labyrinth as a physical structure has resurfaced throughout America and Europe. The primary uses of these newly created labyrinths are as walking paths of meditation. Often called 'sacred paths', these labyrinths are used as powerful metaphors for the spiritual journey, a journey where the destination is a metaphorical place to quiet the mind, and open the soul.26

This ritual use of the labyrinth provides a physical means for the individual to focus on issues or problems. Consistent with past usages, the journeyer can experience a transformation, from confusion and chaos, to understanding and order. Current proponents for the labyrinth as a tool for such transformation are, The Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress and Sig Lonegren.27 Both have written about this use of the labyrinth. Lonegren has actually created a series of inner reflections when walking the labyrinth with a question in mind. He describes the process in this way, "I have found that if I have an issue that is up for me, I begin to work with it by standing at the mouth of the Classical Seven Circuit Labyrinth and stating the issue. Then on each path, while I am walking it, I relate to that issue from one of seven points of view, one for each path. These range from (three) what do I think about it, (two) how I feel about it, (one) how does it effect my wallet and physical health, and (four) how it effects my spiritual life. On the seventh innermost path, I invoke my Deity of Choice (DOC) to be with me, and on the last two paths, my intuition comes into play. On the sixth path I open myself to a vision of a possible solution to the issue, and on the final (fifth) path, I seek the first step I need to take to manifest this vision/solution."28

As a vehicle for metaphorical transformation, it is interesting to note that the most common form of labyrinth in use today is the unicursal model. Perhaps this is a reaction to the chaos and anxiety that is pervasive throughout our culture. Also, the simple form of a unicursal, circular path, that winds into and then out again, is calming to the mind. By comparison, when walking a multicursal path one may experience errors of judgment, bewildering ambiguity, and difficulty in 'threading', without some form of insight or assistance.

The central labyrinthine idea of order out of chaos is as relevant today as it ever has been. We are yearning for ways in which to heal and cope with the chaos in our daily lives. The metaphor of the labyrinth is a powerful way to embrace this 20th century reality.

Doob discusses this distinction of order and chaos as well. "The multicursal maze usually makes the wanderer and his own errors of judgment responsible for his fate; in a unicursal maze, individual responsibility diminishes." She goes on to say, "The multicursal maze exemplifies the constant choice demanded of an individual, but unicursal pattern describes the inevitability to which everyone in that particular maze must be subject. In effect, a unicursal maze-walker is Everyman, not an individual."

Yet, if one puts Doob's observation in the context of one of the core myths of American culture, the strength of the individual, we can see a new cultural myth evolving. From the Lone Ranger, and the lone cowboy on the great American frontier, to the Self-Made man, such as Donald Trump, Americans have admired those who make it on their own. This exemplifies the traditional path of false ends, with twists and turns, ending inevitably in the center, to slay the Minotaur of commerce, and make the Mighty Buck. This is the multicursal model that we are so familiar with and one we have embraced as a culture.

In contrast, it is interesting to note that the labyrinth model chosen for the modern spiritual transformation, is the same as the ecclesiastical pavement labyrinths of the twelfth century, the unicursal labyrinth. Thus, both models of the labyrinth are actively alive within our culture, acting as paradigms for incongruous life styles, and divergent approaches for transformation.

If we examine the metaphorical labyrinth within the context of play and leisure activities today, we will find that the multicursal model is prevalent. Children's board games, video games, Internet activities, the halls of mirrors at county fairs, and television, all reflect a maze of confusion and ambiguity. There are also many electronic examples of Labyrinth sites on the Internet. These sites have been created to simulate a maze of rooms, where one tries to select the correct door or hedge to pass through, that will then lead to another room / hedge, and so on. If correctly chosen, the path will eventually lead to the central room, where the Minotaur awaits. If successful, one can win the prize for the day. As a game, there is no fear involved, unless one becomes fearful of not winning. These labyrinth games take away the fear of actually encountering the symbolic Minotaur, which is typically associated with the multicursal labyrinth. In these games, if one reaches the center, and thus the symbolic Minotaur, there is no battle.29

The fundamental life experience of chaos and order, as contained in the metaphorical labyrinth continues in perpetuity. There also remains a persistent danger of confusing the confrontational labyrinth with the transformational labyrinth. However, if the labyrinth is fully understood as an archetypal metaphor for the transformation that can occur within life's journey, no restrictive definition or clarification need be made. Whether following a multicursal path, bumping into dead ends, or spiraling on the serpentine unicursal path, cognizant journeyers will eventually come to their own centers to face their daimons, and thus embrace transformation; only to retrace the way out, with the help of Ariadne's thread, and begin all over again. Thus, either labyrinth form contains the potential for archetypal resonance, as has been seen in the rituals and uses since antiquity.

I have had the opportunity to walk two types of unicursal labyrinths, both of which were created in the classic seven-circuit model. One was a turf labyrinth, the other a stone labyrinth reminiscent of the Icelandic models. This stone labyrinth, like its Icelandic predecessor, is also located close to the seashore. Before starting upon my meditative journey, I was asked to select a few rocks from a pile by the entrance of the labyrinth. Then as I walked, I placed the rocks along the way, thus participating in the creation of the labyrinth by adding to the pattern and height of the stone walls.

Both times I walked the labyrinth, I did indeed feel at peace. As is customary with many of these newly made labyrinths, I walked with a question in mind. And although upon reaching the center, I did not perceive an 'answer' as such, I did come to reflect upon the possibilities of the question in a quiet manner, not always easy to do in this age.

Walking the labyrinth connected me to the past, to those who have walked the labyrinth before me. Whether in an ecclesiastical setting like that of the Chartres cathedral, or playfully running a turf labyrinth, part of a timeless ritual of walking the spiral of life has been shared.



1. Lauren Artress, Walking the Spiritual Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool ( New York: Riverhead, 1995) pp.50-51. and Sig Lonegren in "The Classical Seven Circuit Labyrinth Coming To Terms," Labyrinth Letter April 1995: 4-7.
2. Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1990) p.3.
3. Ibid., p.38.
4. C.N. Deedes, "The Labyrinth," The Labyrinth: Further Studies in the Relation between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World. Ed. S.H. Hooke. (New York: Macmillan, 1935) pp.17-22.
5. W.H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development. (New York: Dover Publications, 1970) pp.42-46.
6. Doob, pp.40-44.
7. Lima de Freitas, "Labyrinth," The Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade,
(New York: Macmillan, 1987) p.414.
8. Jill Purce, The Mystic Spiral: Journey of the Soul (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1974) pp. 29-30.
9. Freitas, p. 413.
10. Edward F. Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology.(Boston: Shambhala, 1994) p.75.
11. Andre Peyronie, "The Labyrinth," Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. Ed. Pierre Brunel, (New York: Routledge, 1992) pp.687-688.
12. Matthews states: "This dance was called the "Geranos," or Crane Dance, probably on account of the fancied resemblance of the attitude of the dancers to that of cranes in flight, or perhaps on account of actual adornments of the dancers [the dancers being dressed up in the skins of those birds." pp. 158-160.
13. Freitas states: geranos: a word coming from the Greek for "cranes," probably because these birds fly in a straight line" p.414
14. Peyronie, p. 688.
15. Matthews, pp. 158 - 160.
16. Virgil, Aeneid V. 581- 602
17. Doob, pp. 123-125.
18. Matthews, p. 160.
19. Matthews explains "the 'Shepherd's Race' as a turf labyrinth near Boughton Green, Northamptonshire, has been dated to 1353. The 'treading' of it was formerly a great feature of the three days' fair in June, and event dating from a charter by Edward III." pp. 73-75.
20. Matthews, pp. 110-111.
21. Doob, p. 119.
22. No churches west of the English Channel have been found to have a pavement labyrinth design within their structures. Matthews, p. 71.
23. Matthews, p. 54.
24. Peyronie, p. 690.
25. Doob, p. 133.
26. Advertisements for spiritual retreats and journeys using the labyrinth as a spiritual tool, can be found in various magazines. Examples include the recent listing of "IONS Travel Program 1997" Noetic Sciences Bulletin and the December 1996 issue of Common Boundary .
27. Lauren Artress, Walking the Spiritual Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool ( New York: Riverhead, 1995).
28. Sig Lonegren, "The Classical Seven Circuit Labyrinth Coming To Terms," Labyrinth Letter April 1995: 4-7.
29. Internet sites:


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