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6 Labyrinths To Get Lost In (not counting the David Bowie movie)

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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 Père 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.

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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.

Saffron Walden

saffron walden

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.

Nazca Lines

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.

Chartres Cathedral

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.

3-D Labyrinth

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.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.


Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.


Raw dough.

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.


Kids trick-or-treating.

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.


The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.


Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.


Kids knocking on a door in costume.

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.


Sugar skulls with decoration.

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.


Little girl trick-or-treating.

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


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