The labyrinth of the ancients is a physical representation of the spiritual quest. It’s a journey with a goal or treasure, but one must avoid dangers and traps to reach the prize.
Labyrinth Maze Meaning
A labyrinth or labyrinthine is a pattern of paths or passages symbolizing the trials and benchmarks of the spiritual journey. They often design these structures to confuse and test the traveler. So one must be prepared to undertake the journey.
There is a goal or prize in the maze, but the route is obscured and uncertain. Trial and error are often the only way to find the correct path. There is frequently only one path to the goal and you must avoid the traps along the way. Sometimes the goal is at the center of the maze. Other times, the goal is to traverse through the maze to reach the other side.
The maze is a physical representation of the spiritual journey. These structures or patterns often contain typologies which correspond to specific tests or benchmarks. Sometimes, these tests are dangerous. These physical dangers symbolize the dark corners of our psyche. We are to find the hidden treasures of the mind while dealing with unpleasant things we keep locked away in our memories.
“Things outside you are projections of what’s inside you, and what’s inside you is a projection of what’s outside. So when you step into a labyrinth outside you, at the same time, you’re stepping into the labyrinth inside.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
The inward journey can be like entering a maze. Our psyches contain riddles and tests, obstacles, and even traps. One must solve these to reach the goal. Each of the physical barriers is a symbol of our mystical journey.
The maze is not always physical. A piece of paper and pen can take us on the inward journey. Techniques like automatic writing allow us to access the unconscious mind. The writing is often just scribbling, which makes no sense, but sometimes nuggets of truth are revealed. Our psyche may not use words to convey the message it wants us to know. It often reveals itself in pictures or symbols.
Similarly, we can write with intent to create symbols which convey messages. Some cultures draw characters using ancient runes and sigils to focus their energy. It’s the process that we find in Reiki. These are miniature versions of the typology which enables the practitioner to focus their intent.
“A labyrinth is a symbolic journey… but it is a map we can really walk on, blurring the difference between map and world.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
The journey inside the mind takes us on a rabbit trail. We can venture through the subconscious to our soul. The maze constructed on the physical plane is a tool to help us decipher what’s going on internally.
The Labyrinth Of The Ancients
There are two basic types of labyrinthine (1). The first maze is the unicursal; it is a puzzle with a single route leading to the center. Sometimes the path leads through the center and out again. There are no choices with this type. One walks through the maze to confront and overcome obstacles.
They take the traveler through challenging terrain. The passages’ subterranean mazes can have long, narrow passageways or require one to jump over frighteningly sizeable holes. It’s common to find paths that need balancing and jumping from rock to rock. These are all designed to test the traveler.
The second labyrinthine is multicursal; it is a maze with many options and many dead-ends. The idea is to cause the traveler frustration and confusion. They also contain clues and riddles. The traveler must decipher these clues to navigate the course.
Sometimes, there is no way to solve the enigmatic riddles. They design the puzzle to be an unsolvable trap. Once the traveler is in the structure, they must solve the puzzle. If they cannot resolve the mystery, they must be rescued or perish.
Where Are They Found?
We can find the labyrinth of the ancients in underground caverns or caves. They intentionally obscure the maze from being viewed from vantage points when constructed above ground. The builders do not want travelers to see how to negotiate the puzzle. Crete and Egypt’s ancient cultures built these for religious acolytes to prove their worth. Many of these were underground structures.
When Christianity took over these sacred sites, they constructed Churches on top of them. Thus, making the maze catacombs for the dead. The closer they buried you to the center, the higher your status.
Today we can find this pattern in the pavement designs in French cathedrals, the nave at Notre Dame Chartres, for instance. Following the winding puzzle, a person would walk over 800 feet before arriving at the center.
We find similar patterns in Paris at Reims and Amines’ cathedral, where the stone floor has inlaid brass imaginary of a maze (2). Some suggest they created these tiles to substitute the pilgrimage of the holy sites. It was for those who could not undertake such physical hardship. So, they brought the labyrinth of the ancients indoors.
The Scripture of Western religion is a multicursal labyrinthine. It contains many contradictions and inconsistencies. The theology is mitigated dualism from the Assyrian and Babylonian mystery religions. Therefore, it requires priests and prefects to lead the initiate through the maze.
The center is the symbol of salvation. Those worthy reach the center and receive the reward, an afterlife in heaven. Those who fail suffer an eternity in hell, wondering about the maze forever.
Some believe the Nazca Lines are the earliest of the labyrinths. When they built the lines about 500 BCE, Peru’s area was a high plains desert. Creating these trenches from four to six inches deep in this hard soil must have been a dangerous venture.
From an airplane, we can make out the animals and symbols. However, as a traveler on the ground, one must interpret the image by seeing only one part of the pattern. The combined length of all the lines is over 1,300 km or 808 miles. The group covers about 50 sq km or 19 square miles. Imagine trying to walk their path?
We also find these sacred sites in stories. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the maze is an integral part of the story. It serves as an entryway to an imaginary realm with magical beings. The wealthy aristocrats of Europe would create these mazes out of hedges. Some secret societies still use these mazes in their initiation rituals.
Symbol of the Mystical Journey
This puzzle is a graphical representation of the mind and spirit. The symbolism of this pattern can take on a variety of meanings. The path to or through the center is a typology of transformation found in many spiritual ways. It can symbolize death, rebirth, attaining realization, successfully navigating trials and tests.
“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” ― Stanisław Lem, Solaris
It presents the initiate with a picture. It foretells what to expect if when we embark on the spiritual journey. The labyrinthine is The Great Mother’s domain and walked by a man. The Judge sits at the center to acknowledge all those who find the correct path. There are many parallels in Egyptian and Sumerian mythology mirrored in Western theology.
Walking the labyrinth of the ancients is not to be taken lightly. It symbolizes the mystical journey, a commitment to your inner quest. People create these patterns as a way of rededicating their spiritual practice. Or, it can also be a ritual used to honor ancestors.
“For you know that I myself am a labyrinth, where one easily gets lost.” ― Charles Perrault
One way to interpret the labyrinthine in dreams is the search for sexual fulfillment. Shamanic traditions tell us the maze is different for everyone. It’s not uncommon to find these mazes in our dreamscapes. If they occur in your dreams, automatic writing is one of the best ways to determine what this means to you.
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known … we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a God. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” ― Joseph Campbell (3)
Today you’ll find labyrinth or mazes in gardens and public places. They may not have the historical power of those created by the ancients, but they are a reminder of the importance of our spiritual journey.
(1) An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper 1978: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/211588.Illustrated_Encyclopaedia_of_Traditional_Symbols
(2) The Catholic Encyclopedia and International Work, Vol. 14 1907: https://www.worldcat.org/title/catholic-encyclopedia-an-international-work-of-reference-on-the-constitution-doctrine-discipline-and-history-of-the-catholic-church-in-fifteen-volumes/oclc/07470918
(3) Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces