So, I went for a run in the cemetery this weekend. That might sound a little odd, but it's a very park-like cemetery with a big pond and geese and ducks. People bring little kids to feed the ducks all of the time and there are always couples walking their dogs and whatnot. Also, it's an old cemetery with some really interesting tombstones and mausoleums "“ think of a smaller version of PÃ¨re Lachaise. Plus, I always feel a little bit like Nate Fisher from Six Feet Under when I run in the cemetery.
Anyway, because this is such a big cemetery I always find something new when I'm running or walking the dogs. This weekend I found a labyrinth.
I'll be the first to admit, I didn't know there was a difference between a labyrinth and a maze. In a maze, you're offered different options. You can go this way or that way, left or right, stumble upon dead ends, etc. In a labyrinth you only ever have one option. You enter the labyrinth at the mouth of the path and follow that path until you get to the center. Then you turn around and follow the path back out. "Uh, so, what's the point?" you might be thinking. A lot of people walk labyrinths for prayer or meditation. It's said to have a very calming effect.
In very ancient times, (Pliny's Natural History, written somewhere around 77 AD, mentions four ancient labyrinths) it's believed that labyrinths weren't necessarily used for prayer purposes "“ instead, they were intended to trap evil spirits. But by medieval times, the design had expanded to include religious motifs such as the path to God (the entrance to the labyrinth was birth and the middle "goal" was God).
Another misconception about labyrinths, at least for me, is that they have "walls" "“ you might be visualizing a hedge maze (I was). And they can, but that's not necessarily the norm. That's why I was a little confused when I happened upon the labyrinth in the cemetery "“ there was a sign explaining the labyrinth, but when I looked to where it pointed, I saw nothing but grass. But when I looked a little closer, there were bricks set level with the grass that marked the path of the labyrinth. That seems to be more typical of labyrinths. And they don't have to be made of grass or hedges at all "“ lots of labyrinths are painted on a floor or inlaid out of marble or something along those lines. After my run this weekend I became very intrigued by the whole labyrinth concept and did a little research, so I'm sharing the most interesting tidbits with you guys.
The First Labyrinth (we think)
There's an ancient Greek myth about labyrinths that goes something like this: Theseus was trying to save the Greeks from the Minotaur (a half-human, half-bull kind of a thing). The Minotaur was lurking at the heart of the Labyrinth at King Minos' palace at Knosses on the Isle of Crete. To find his way through the Labyrinth, Theseus used a ball of twine to get in, kill the beast and find his way back out (sounds more like a maze then a labyrinth to me, but I'm just relaying the story here).
To honor Theseus and recognize that he saved all of Greece from this horrible monster, the labyrinth was put on coins that date back to three centuries before Christ. The coins are still around "“ that's them in the picture. But interestingly, no bits of the actual palace labyrinth at Knossos have ever been found.
Apparently England used to be rampant with labyrinths "“ although there are a bunch around today, only eight of them are considered "old". The Saffron Walden labyrinth is one of them. It's the largest of the eight and has been around at least since 1699. An ash tree used to stand in the center, but now it's just open space.
Could the mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru actually be a form of a labyrinth? There's definitely a labyrinth incorporated in the designs "“ but there is also a theory that the lines themselves were walked just as a labyrinth would be walked. Hmm. I don't know about that, but it sounds just as plausible as any of the other theories surrounding the mysterious Nazca Lines.
The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in Paris is a good example of a non-turf maze (I know, I know, it's technically not a maze but I'm getting tired of writing 'labyrinth') and a good example of the medieval labyrinth revival. They fell out of fashion for a while, but during the Middle Ages people became interested in them again and labyrinths were often incorporated into church floors or gardens. This one was built in 1200 AD-ish and is an 11-circuit design divided into four quadrants.
Have you heard of Glastonbury Tor? I hadn't. But I have heard of the mythical (?) Avalon "“ according to some theories, the two places are one and the same. Avalon is where King Arthur was supposedly taken after his last battle at Camlann and also where the legendary Excalibur was forged. Avalon is kind of like Atlantis "“ no one can prove it existed, really, but no one can prove that it didn't exist, either. Some monks reportedly found the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere there in 1191. Some people think it might also be the final resting place of the Holy Grail. But what does all of this have to do with labyrinths? Well, some theories say that Glastonbury Tor/Avalon is really one giant, 3-D labyrinth.
Carved into the Tor "“ the WHOLE hillside "“ are seven deep, mostly symmetrical terraces. A person walking the terraces will eventually end up in the same place they started "“ just like a labyrinth. This is pretty hard to prove, though, so for now it's just a theory. Another (outlandish?) theory is that the Tor was shaped into a spiral maze for religious purposes and that the Tor was where the underworld king's spiral castle was located.
Northern European countries such as Denmark have embraced the effects of the labyrinth as well. Stone labyrinths along the Baltic coast have been dated as far back as the 13th century. There used to be thousands of labyrinths in this area alone, many of them close to the sea. Some think these were done by fishermen and other seafarers; they were used to trap evil spirits who brought bad luck and shipwrecks. If the spirits were trapped at the center of the labyrinth, they would not be free to wreak havoc on the seas.
I have to say, all of this talk of labyrinths plus the warm weather that seems to have FINALLY hit Iowa this weekend has me wanting to go in our (miniscule) backyard and build my own labyrinth. Maybe this summer.
Do you guys know of any labyrinths in your areas? If not, check out the world-wide Labyrinth Locator. It doesn't have my tiny little cemetery labyrinth on there, but maybe you'll have better luck than I did! Let us know if you've discovered any in your town or on your travels.