I have been drawn to labyrinths for many years. There's an alluring mystery about them, no matter how familiar.
The therapy in reward of use.
The knowledge of sharing a powerful resource with beings of the past and present. A universal portal of spiritual connectedness through time that spans use across cultures through history and mythology.
Read about these wooden finger labyrinths at the bottom of the blog.
These days their popularity is increasing as an incredibly helpful tool for mindfulness and meditation, for people of all ages. While their popularity is increasing, labyrinths have been around over 4,000 years and are found on every inhabited continent.
A labyrinth is defined as having a single pathway to the center (in few cases leading further to a separate exit point) and is fundamentally different to modern mazes we have today, which evolved around 500 years ago from earlier labyrinth designs.
They come in many forms with the four main recognised categories of design being: Classical, Roman, Medieval, and Contemporary.
Labyrinths have also been used for:
-Protection against the supernatural (similarly - a barrier between the world and the underworld)
-Solar calendars (northern labyrinths) in navigational networks
-Paths for the dead to follow on their way to the world of the spirits
-Protection of flocks by shepherds
-Walks to ensure plentiful haul and safe return, heading out to sea (Nordic fishermen)
-Walks when approaching adulthood (Germany)
-Representing the three worlds. The lower world (afterlife), middle world (physical plane), and upper world (stars, clouds and gods).
While labyrinths have had many purposes the common reoccurring symbolism is of protection, consciousness, and wholeness of the human experience. Light and dark. Birth and rebirth. Entering a labyrinth representing death and coming out representing rebirth. A journey to our center and back into the world.
It is unknown how the symbol became so prominent across the world around the same time frames. While we have knowledge of many ancient labyrinths from preserved written works by ancient authors and historians accompanying stone ruins and other artifacts such as the coins from Crete, prehistoric labyrinths from other civilizations remain a mystery.
Classical labyrinths are the earliest made from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Ancient Petroglyphs baring the same pattern, have been found across Europe, India, Russia and Scandinavia. The earliest historically recorded is the Lost Labyrinth of Egypt, at Hawara. This labyrinth was built by Amenemhet III, pharaoh in the twelfth dynasty. It was mentioned by multiple historians including Herodotus, who described the wonder:
"This I have actually seen, a work beyond words. For if anyone put together the buildings of the Greeks and display of their labours, they would seem lesser in both effort and expense to this labyrinth… Even the pyramids are beyond words, and each was equal to many and mighty works of the Greeks. Yet the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids."
The labyrinth was a magnificent temple containing 3,000 chambers (1,500 above ground and 1,500 below the ground) of hieroglyphs and paintings. Tombs of the Kings and sacred crocodiles were kept in the chambers below the ground. A theory on the complex design of the Egyptian labyrinth suggests that it may have come about as measures evolved to prevent grave robbers from raiding tombs. Many scholars believe that labyrinths originated in Egypt.
The most famous is the Cretan labyrinth from Greek mythology. In the story of Theseus (Prince of Athens), King Minos of Knossos had Daedalus design a labyrinth on Crete to trap the Minotaur. It was suggested by Roman author Pliny, that Daedalus had designed the Cretan labyrinth, adapting from the Egyptian labyrinth.
Around the same time as the Greek labyrinth, a topological identical pattern appeared in Native American culture. The Tohono o'odham labyrinth, which features I'itoi (a mischievous creator god), the "Man in the Maze".
The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur was well known and quite popular with Romans. Few of the Roman labyrinths are of classical design as they showed the first significant changes to the original symbol, adapting more complexity. The labyrinth symbol was often located near doorways for protection and used as a game to test horse riding skills among boys. It was commonly used in mosaic pavements throughout the Roman Empire and this tradition was carried out into pavements for a thousand years, into medieval Europe.
Popularity in the Roman empire and the preserved writings of Greek authors transported the symbol through Europe. Writings that acknowledge Christianity throughout Roman territories allowed the symbol to absorb Christian symbolism, philosophy and architecture, as the Roman empire fell. It is from here that the medieval labyrinth was developed in Christian manuscripts and began appearing on the pavements in cathedrals and gardens of royal palaces (leading to hedge mazes). It was used in decoration of church walls and floors in Italy and spread to France by early 13th century. The medieval labyrinth has three variations: square, polygonal, and circular.
In the 15th century, the invention of printing saw labyrinth designs widely copied and adapted, leading to contemporary designs.
Walking a labyrinth is a deeply personal experience. There are some fantastic websites available to help you find the closest labyrinth to you.
If you would like to make your own clay finger labyrinth you can follow my tutorials here.
Recently I discovered an Australian small business that creates wooden finger labyrinths (pictured above) of contemporary and classical design, called Array of Whimsy. Here's a bit about Emma and her business.