THE LABYRINTH

What is the Labyrinth?

Popular films like Labyrinth, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Pan's Labyrinth all draw on the Greek literary tradition depicting "labyrinths" as disorienting and dangerous mazes. Yet, the oldest visual depiction of a labyrinth, which comes from the Greek island of Crete, and was directly associated with the myth of the inescapable maze built by Daedalus at Knossos Palace, is easily distinguished from a "maze" by the fact that it does not contain any dead-ends. Rather, the labyrinth symbol always shows a singular path that leads to the center and back out again. Interestingly, "puzzle mazes" with actual dead-ends were not invented until the 16th century. 

The earliest labyrinth drawing dates back to the Bronze Age. The symbol is considered by some to be the first work of human "art," in the sense that it is the earliest known drawing that seems to have been inspired wholly by the human imagination rather than being a copy of something already found in nature (animals, spirals, etc). It is all the more remarkable, then, to consider that this symbol can be found throughout history and in cultures not known to have had any contact with one another, from the ancient Mediterranean to the American Southwest. 

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Labyrinths became widespread in churches throughout ancient and medieval Europe. Many were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation, but recently there has been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths. In the 1990s, The Rev. Lauren Artress was at the forefront of a movement with the Episcopal Church to reclaim the Christian symbolism and practice of walking the labyrinth, noting that labyrinths were installed in churches throughout Europe as early as the 4th century. The Christian theological understanding of the labyrinth connects the ancient Greek myth and symbol to themes of death, resurrection, and redemption. Nowadays, one can find labyrinths on everything from jewelry to tapestries to tattoos, and walkable labyrinth paths have been installed all over the country, in hospitals, prisons, courtyards, and outdoor parks.

Walking the labyrinth combines the sense of being lost with the knowledge that we are never actually lost, creating a container for prayer and meditation in which we can practice the original meaning of the Greek word "faith," pistis, which means to trust. The invitation of the labyrinth is to trust the path, putting one foot in front of the other and not allowing ourselves to become too distracted by the road we have already traveled (the past), or by where we are going next (the future). On the labyrinth, we must remain present to where we are right now, and move forward in trust.

By focusing and preoccupying the physical body, the winding path of the labyrinth also allows us to quiet our minds and open our hearts, so that we can listen more carefully to the still, small voice within. In the labyrinth, we may experience a deeper sense of prayer, meditation, intuition, self-awareness, and compassion. Many people find it helpful to have a journal nearby to write down thoughts, reflections and inspiration after exiting the labyrinth. 

The following classes, workshops, and retreat offerings are available as a resource for those who want to learn more about the labyrinth from a historical, spiritual, mythological, aesthetic, or practical perspective. 

Introduction to the Labyrinth

This lecture or workshop offers an overview of the labyrinth that combines the mythological, historical, and mystical significance of this ancient symbol. What is the relationship between a "labyrinth" and a "maze"? Why the discrepancy between the myth of the labyrinth as a maze and its symbol, which is not a maze? Why was this symbol installed in churches? What spiritual or theological meaning did it have for the early Christians? How does it function as a spiritual practice today? A number of practical suggestions will be offered for how to approach walking the labyrinth. When a labyrinth is available, a guided walk will be followed by a time for discussion and spiritual reflection.

The History & Theology of Labyrinths

This lecture is based on Kristen's research into the history and mythology surrounding the labyrinth. We will look at the earliest drawings of the labyrinth symbol and consider its archetypal implications as potentially the earliest work of the human imagination. We will also examine the earliest literary references to Daedelus and the labyrinth found in Homer, and learn about the ancient Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of Crete, which laid the foundations for what later became classical Greek mythology. We will look at how the story and symbol of Theseus and the labyrinth were later taken up by the early Christians, and consider some of the reasons for the destruction of church labyrinths during the Reformation. This talk examines the relationship between history, myth, religion, culture, appropriation, and Christian theology in an engaging, scholarly, and non-reductive way. 

Guided Walks

Walking the labyrinth with a group can be a uniquely insightful experience, especially when practiced in the context of a particular season or with a particular intention. Guided walks begin with some practical instruction and a thematic introduction, and can include music (may be recorded or played live), followed by time for discussion, reflection, or spiritual direction. Some ideas for guided labyrinth walks include: 

  • Solar Seasons: Spring or Fall Equinox, Summer or Winter Solstice

  • Church Seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, All Souls Day

  • Prayer Intentions: World Peace Day, social justice issues, community concerns

  • Spiritual Themes: joy, gratitude, grief, discernment, transitions, surrender (kenosis)

  • Lectio Divina: walk the labyrinth while meditating on a passage of Scripture

How-To: Drawing or Building a Labyrinth

Do you want to install a temporary or permanent labyrinth at your home, church or facility? This how-to workshop offers practical guidance for how to design and create beautiful, functional labyrinths using a variety of materials. We will learn to draw several different labyrinths based on a variety of historical patterns, and discuss their different aesthetic, symbolic, and logistical qualities. We will also cover practical issues like materials and maintenance, as well as tips and tricks for geometrical precision. 

Resources:

Labyrinth Information Sheet

(for the McGiffert Roof labyrinth at Union Theological Seminary)

Labyrinth Worship Service

(held at James Chapel, New York on Sept 14, 2011)

"Crete: A Labyrinth of History & Myth" by Kristen Leigh Mitchell

(article with photos and research from Knossos Palace in Crete, Greece)

Professional Background

In 2014, Kristen received her Masters in Divinity (M.Div.) in 2014 from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she completed an advanced research project on the history and symbolism of the labyrinth, overseen by faculty from several different departments. In 2011, Kristen designed and installed a permanent labyrinth on the roof of the McGiffert Building adjacent to Riverside Church for the use of seminary students, faculty, staff, and visitors. She also spent several years leading guided labyrinth walks, and developing worship services centered around the labyrinth.

In 2014, Kristen traveled to Chartres, France to walk the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, and in 2018, she traveled to the island of Crete in Greece to complete her research on the history of the labyrinth, with visits to the archaeological remains at Knossos Palace and Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Click here to learn more.

Photos from the installation of the McGiffert roof labyrinth at Union Theological Seminary: 

 
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©2021 by Kristen Leigh Mitchell