August 8, 2013

A Not So Modern Human Need for the Labyrinth

By Margaret Rappaport

Origins of the labyrinth remain a mystery. Although these designs date back 5,000 years and examples are found throughout the world in many diverse cultures, there is no definitive explanation for the labyrinth. From the earliest examples in Europe on rocks, tiles, pottery and stone and wooden tablets to the reemergence of the labyrinth today, the only thing known for certain is the importance of the labyrinth for people.

Labyrinths are designs featuring a single spiral path that leads from the outside to a center space. Walking in or on the labyrinth follows the path to the center and back again to the outside. In the western hemisphere, Native American tradition features the labyrinth as the Medicine wheel and in Man in the Maze designs on baskets. In northern Europe and throughout the Roman Empire, Celtic people called the labyrinth the Never Ending Circle and it appears often and in random places. In Judaism the labyrinth is referred to as the Kabala and is thought to have mystical power. Not all labyrinths lay on the ground to be walked but when they are made of earth or stone they are usually used for walking. The labyrinth, however, is a compelling example of artistic expression as it enhances human environments whether seen on doors, wall plaques, gates or on inside floors or outside on the earth.

Walking the labyrinth or seeing it displayed may help people feel centered and more peaceful in living their lives. This has been described by some as a clarity which promotes a connection between the body, mind and spirit. People also describe a quieting of thoughts or of having an innovative, meditative state of mind. Others say walking the labyrinth fosters insight and self-reflection. Many wellness advocates say practice in walking the labyrinth reduces the stress of life and opens space within people for celebration and happiness despite external circumstances.

During the middle ages in Europe, the labyrinth design started to appear in churches, on village greens and even on off-shore islands as far north as the Arctic region. Now again, in the twentieth century, communities of people are building labyrinths because of a resurgence of interest. In the United States labyrinths can be found in parks, churches and cathedrals, schools, medical centers, spas, cemeteries and memorial parks, retreat centers and in many yards and on other personal property. The materials these labyrinths are made from are as various as their locations and uses. The central distinction, however, is that people are building them and gathering in and on them for a purpose that, apparently, reflects a human need to meet in concert to follow a meaningful path.