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Walking the Labyrinth

Unicursal labyrinths, are labyrinths that consist of a path, which twists and turns but has no dead ends. This particular pattern can be found on cave walls as rock paintings, which date back thousands of years. In fact, the earliest coin that has ever been found in the world has a labyrinth on its face. Labyrinths have played an important part in the history, myths and legends of many different cultures. Several thousand year old labyrinths in Europe have been discovered crafted from turf and stones cut into hillsides.

People often refer to labyrinths as mazes, but there is a difference between the two. Mazes do have dead ends, and a person can lost within a maze, but one can never get lost within a labyrinth.

Both labyrinths and mazes hold a large amount of symbolism. Both provide the walker the means to become lost, and then to find oneself again. The very act of walking a maze or a labyrinth reminds us that there is a destination to be reached, even in the midst of chaos and confusion, if we can find the patience and fortitude to keep going forward, despite the twists and turns that life throws our way.

It was not unusual to find a unicursal labyrinth incorporated into the floor of a church during the medieval days. You can still see them today in some of the older, larger cathedrals. During those days, a person’s journey through the labyrinth was representative of his or her journey through life, and hopefully towards redemption. Many early Christians were encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. For some, who could not physically make the journey, the labyrinth provided a suitable metaphor. Some people crawled through on their knees while praying, hoping to find spiritual redemption at the end of their journey at the heart center of the labyrinth.

Labyrinths were also a feature in many noble medieval gardens, though not nearly as complex as those found in the cathedrals. Conjecture has it that labyrinths were originally fertility based. If you look closely at the formation of a unicursal labyrinth, it is not hard to picture the walk from the dark heart of the labyrinth and through the long winding canal and into the light as a symbolic re-birth. Maypole dances are a danced version of a labyrinth, winding and unwinding the ribbons around the central center pole, representing the aspects of life and birth.

Some early labyrinth legends speak of a woman at the center of the labyrinth who gives blessings to the brave of heart who find their way to her. Some say that she might represent the Great Goddess figure, prevalent in many early cultures and societies.

During the later days of the medieval period garden labyrinths became very much associated with romance. They were the perfect place for clandestine affairs. In fact, according to legend, Harry II built a labyrinth in his garden in order to hide his mistress Rosamund from his jealous wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine. French garden labyrinths were called Houses of Daedalus, taken from the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Some were simple and others very complex, featuring buildings at the center, twisting mazes of arbors, and even staircases leading to upper levels, and in all cases, a perfect place for secret and forbidden dalliances.
And, of course, what is wound can also be unwound, according to what happened in the cities of Troy and Jericho. Ancient Aegean cities very often were protected by the Game of Troy, which was a protective enchantment that was woven through the labyrinth by dancers. The line of dance was called Ariadne’s thread. Invading forces in Troy and Jericho managed to unwind this thread by circling the walls of the labyrinth and playing music to a set pattern.

By the sixteenth century, hedge mazes and labyrinths were commonplace in the gardens of the nobles. Ranging from waist high to towering, they were the perfect place to show off costly statuary pieces among the many twists and turns. Some of these maze gardens were magnificently large. One Italian maze was two miles long-- or much longer if one got lost along the pathways.

The general popularity of maze and labyrinth gardens declined during the late eighteenth century. Many were destroyed or allowed to become overgrown. The loss of popularity was due partly to the labor-intensive maintenance, but also to the fact that the carefree frolicking of the medieval days had been replaced by a more prudent society, which saw the romantic dalliances in these mazes as “serving purposes not permitted in public spaces.”

During the last couple of decades, mazes and unicursal labyrinths have once again become popular. Some are located in public parks and private gardens, and some are found in the courtyards of churches of different faiths. Labyrinth walks and meditations are springing up almost everywhere around the world. It is amazing how walking an ancient structure like the labyrinth can still bring about a feeling of calmness and serenity even in our fast-paced, chaos driven world of today.

And, did you know that when you played hopscotch as a child, or indulged in the game of avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, that you were actually playing the ancient Game of Troy? By not stepping on the lines, you were avoiding the monster in the dark heart of the labyrinth. Both the game and the superstition connected with it date back thousand of years.

The attached links will take you to some very interesting and interactive pages concerning the topic of labyrinths. Enjoy!

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