Sacred spaces can take many forms and have been a part of human life for thousands of years, recognising our deep need to connect and communicate with the Divine and the spiritual dimensions. Some are naturally occurring phenomena, often related to natural features in the landscape, whereas others are carefully constructed to complex geometric proportions.
The labyrinth is an archetypal form of sacred space that has been used in many different cultures around the world for at least the past 2,000-3,000 years, although its roots seem to date back much further. Primarily used as ceremonial or ritual walkways, labyrinths were also depicted in woven patterns and on pottery.
A labyrinth is a unicursal maze with one path leading from the entrance or mouth, all the way through to the goal at the centre. Generally, one follows the same path back out to the mouth again, though occasionally the path leads all the way though to another exit point. Its power lies largely in the backwards and forwards motion that seems to reflect the shape of the human brain and perhaps encourages us to re-forge connections between both the right and left sides of our brain.
Unlike a normal maze that is a left-brain puzzle, the labyrinth is a right-brain tool that works in an intuitive and creative way. It generally has very low walls, often no more than a line marked out on the ground, so we can always see where the goal lies. Even though we know that we cannot physically get lost within the space, we loose track of where we are, becoming disorientated so that our confused brains temporarily get out of the way, allowing us to find stillness and hence to delve deeper within as we move beyond the mundane to a more meditative, intuitive, or creative state of being.
Walking the labyrinth, which can be seen as a metaphor for our Life’s Journey or our Spiritual Journey, allows us to enhance our connection with Spirit, with the Divine. It gives us the space and time to open up to our intuition, to our awareness, to silence, to creativity, to transformation, and to healing. It ultimately allows us to meet with ourselves, presenting each of us with the opportunity to confront and acknowledge our Self / Shadow, the Beast or Minotaur at our centre. Therefore, the labyrinth is a space that can bring healing on many levels, a benefit surely not overlooked in the decision to site labyrinths at a number of large and influential American teaching hospitals, for the use of patients, relatives, friends and staff alike.
There are a number of different types of labyrinth. The Labyrinth Society, an international focus and resource for all matters labyrinthine, has evolved a classification system to simplify the discussion of labyrinths. The main families are: Classical, Medieval and Other.
Two of the earliest datable examples of the Classical labyrinth are a clay tablet from Pylos, Greece, dated to 1200 BCE and a coin found at Knossos, Crete, dated at 550 BCE. In style, the Classical labyrinth looks somewhat like a cross-section of the human brain, weaving back and forth from left to right. The most common form has seven circuits, though three, eleven or even fifteen have been used at one time or another. This design is also one of the easiest to draw, beginning with a very simple seed pattern. See the animation on the right, or for more details check out Sig Lonegren’s labyrinth pages.
Although generally acorn-shaped, the Classical style labyrinth may also be square in form. The strongly classical nature of their origin is reflected in the tradition of calling them names akin to “Troy”, such as “Troytown” or “Walls of Troy”.
Derivations of this type include the “Hecate” (or chakra-vyuha) and the “Baltic” forms, both of which incorporate a spiral to the goal. The first known representations of the “Hecate” date from 16th century India, but its existence seems to have been referenced much earlier in the India epic, The Maharabatha, where it was considered to be a magical defensive dance for some of the great armies. The “Baltic”, as suggested by its name, seemed to evolve in Scandinavia and Germany, and features an elongated central region, often Goddess-like in form, and frequently allowing a tree to be planted in the goal. It is also unusual in that it has two mouths.
Of the Medieval types, the best known is the Chartres style labyrinth that takes its name from the great Gothic Cathedral of Chartres in France, where the master masons installed a black and white tiled labyrinth during a re-construction process that ran from 1194 to 1260. The Gothic period was a time of great flowering of interest in the labyrinth, at a time when those in Western Europe were turning their attention to the riches (on many levels) of the Middle East, and specifically the sacred lands around Jerusalem, in other words, the Crusades. Much more complex in design, in their use of sacred geometry, and in their ritual usage, these labyrinths were often used as an analogy for pilgrimage, sometimes being called “Jerusalem”, and serving as a substitute for the many who could not make the full journey to the Holy Land. Some of the more devout penitents are even known to have followed this pilgrim’s path on their knees.
The Chartres labyrinth has recently been given a new lease of life, largely due to its re-discovery by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, formerly Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Lauren, a qualified psychotherapist, quickly perceived the advantages of the labyrinth and endeavoured to bring it into use in her ministry at Grace, eventually establishing two labyrinths, one indoor, one outdoor and creating the Veriditas labyrinth programme. In form, the Chartres style labyrinth normally has eleven circuits, broken down into four different quadrants, with a flower-shaped goal.
There are a number of other variations on the labyrinth design, some ancient, others currently being created. Nazca, a unique site in the Pampas is the extraordinary legacy of the Nazca people – numerous large-scale line drawings of animal forms and other designs whose origin or meaning we can only guess, as well as designs strongly reminiscent of the Classical style labyrinth. Some of the most famous of all are a huge long-tailed monkey and a giant spider. These are remarkable in that one walks the entire pattern on a single line but also in that they also depict very distinct species that were not found in the immediate area.
The patterns are believed to have been ceremonial walkways, possibly allowing the participants to connect to the spirit of the power animal or totem represented on the plain. Amazingly, these designs are that they are so large in scale that they cannot be seen properly from the ground; they were only re-discovered in all their glory with the advent of aerial photography. So, how did the Nazca people manage to put these sacred spaces out there?
Labyrinths are experiential sacred spaces so why not create one for yourself, or visit one of those already established in your own country. You may find these by using the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator. See the Google Earth placemark link on this page to find labyrinths in the UK and Ireland.
Even if you do not have the physical space for a permanent labyrinth in your home or garden, you can still derive benefit from this transformational tool by drawing a labyrinth on paper and walking it with your finger. (Try swapping between your left and right hands (at the end of a walk) and see if this makes a difference to your experience). Another idea is to make a portable labyrinth, perhaps on fabric; you can lay it down when you wish to use it and then put it away again afterwards. Or the next time you go to the beach, take a copy of the seed-pattern with you and draw one on the sand or lay it out in pebbles for you and others to enjoy.
As with all sacred spaces, labyrinths can be fine-tuned for different purposes depending on where and how they are located, and the intention in the heart of whoever is creating them. If you would like any advice regarding the installation of a labyrinth or other sacred space, we would invite you to contact us.
The labyrinth has myriad uses and each of us will find or own way of walking it and using it. If fact, those who chose to walk the labyrinth frequently will probably find that you use it in a number of different ways.
Here are some of the common uses that you might like to explore:
- Walking meditation
- Dealing with grief, bereavement or loss
- Healing and balance
- Releasing what no longer serves in our lives
- Pilgrimage or quest
- Confronting and dealing with Self/Shadow
- Celebration, Commemoration or Giving Thanks
- Enhancing creativity for writers, painters etc
- Focussing intent (wish making etc)
- Communicating more effectively with Spirit
- Problem solving
- Enhancing feeling of well-being
- Trust building
- Community and group building
- Ceremony and ritual
- Marriage and hand fasting ceremonies
- Naming ceremonies
- Rights of passage
- Acknowledging divorce or separation
- (Labyrinths can also be used to balance landscapes)
Walking the labyrinth can bring up many different emotions. Some people feel completely elated; others are overcome with a need to weep. Whatever your response may be, please do not “judge” whatever the labyrinth brings up for you; just go with it rather than trying to fight it. Each of us needs, and finds, our own particular path to healing.
© Maria Hayden 2008
Some labyrinths by members of The Geomancy Group:
Edinburgh Labyrinth (opens in new tab)