Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Maze of the Labyrinths

Maze: must have choices in its pathway.
Labyrinth: design should have but one pathway leading to the centre.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World edited by John Roberts "the labyrinth is a complex building constructed by Daedalus for Mino king of Crete and commonly identified with the Minoan plaace of Knossus. The labyrinth's confusing system of passages, from which no one could escape, concealed the Minotaur, which fed on human victims until destroyed by Theseus. The hero imitated its twists and turns in a ritual dance on Delos. A plausible derivation of the non-Greek word from (Lydian) 'double axe' connects the labyrinth with a potent Minoan religious symbol labrys."

The labyrinth is a design and comes to us from pagan Greece and Rome. It was the name given by the ancient Greeks and Romans to buildings, entirely or partly subterranean, containing a number of chambers and passages that rendered egress difficult. (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Gilchrist Heraldy Cathedral labyrinth
Pliny's Natural History mentions the following four famous labyrinth's of antiquity:
  1. The Egyptian: situated to the east of the Lake of Moeris, opposite the ancient site of Crocodilopolis (Arsinoe) - the word means "the temple at the entrance of the lake". The entire building contained 12 courts and 3,000 chambers. The roofs were wholly of stone and the walls were covered with sculpture. It was the work of Amenenbet III of the 12th dynasty who reigned 1842 to 1797 BC.  Herodotus' Egyptian labyrinth was near the place called the City of Crocodiles (Greeks named it Crocodilopolis). The city worshipped a sacred crocodile (Petsuchos) that was embellished with gold and gems. The crocodile lived in a special temple, with sand, a pond and food. When the Petsuchos died, it was replaced with another. The city was renamed Arsinoe during the 3rd century. The Arsinoite nome contained various pyramids, the necropolis of Crocodilopolis, and a celebrated labyrinth. Today the city remains a titular see of the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. The Cretan: The labyrinth at Knossos, Crete in which the minotaur was slain by Theseus. Greek mythology did not recall that in Crete there was a Lady or Mistress of the Labyrinth who presided over it. A tablet inscribed in Linear B found at Knossos records a gift "to all the gods honey: to the mistress of the labyrinth honey". This implied all the gods together receive as much honey as the mistress of the labyrinth alone. It is possible that the Cretan labyrinth and the Lady were connected with a cult which was transmitted later to the Eleusinian mysteries. 
  3. The Lemnian: similar to the Egyptian with 150 columns. 
  4. The Italian: was a highly intricate series of chambers in the lower part of the tomb of Porsena at Clusium. This tomb is said to be recognisable in the mound named Poggio Gajella, near Chiusi.
With reference to the Egyptian labyrinth, there was an extinct order of amphibians that comprised the dominant animals of Late Paleozaic and Triassic time which were called labyrinthodants (labyrinthodontia). These animals first appeared in the late Devonian. Many were large as alligators, some as small as salamanders. They were aquatic creatures but later some had become terrestrial.

Theseus slaying the minotaur
The main mythical story is of Theseus who slays the minotaur beast found in the centre. The minotaur beast required children to be sacrificed and brought to it. The story has been contextualised in Christianity to mean overcoming the devil in our journey, or Christ harrowing of the devil in hell. The widespread adoption of a four-fold division of the labyrinth with a cross at the centre in an attempt to Christianise a pagan symbol. This was the accepted form for use in the church with obvious Christian symbolism built into its structure. It is reputed that these labyrinth's in churches were walked as substitutes for the long pilgrimages after the popularity of the Crusades had abated; also manypeople could not afford to travel to the holy sites and lands, so these labyrinths were used in prayer and meditation, and when people walked the path they saw it as allegorically ascending toward salvation or enlightenment.
Chartres Cathedraul
It was Christianised via Roman Algeria and has been used numerously in some great cathedrals, notably Chartres Cathedral in northern France. There was also a Christian basilica at Al-Asnam in AD 324 which combined the familiar design of a square Roman labyrinth with a word-square spelling out "Sancta Eclesia" (Holy Church) occupying the central goal, instead of Theseus and the minotaur.

The traditional design is a cross, angles and dots, which are all drawn first and then the remaining concentric circles are simply connected to the points around the central core of the design.

Technique in drawing a labyrinth
Some of the cathedral labyrinths were the scenes of symbolic games and dances; a ball game known as pelota was played at Easter by the clergy on the pavement labyrinth in Auxerre Cathedral, central France. The labyrinth design symbolised the tortuous path that the good Christian followed towards redemtpion, both in everyday life and on pilgrimage.

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth
Reverend Harry Cheales in 1950 had a dream which he was instructed to build a maze in the rectory garden at Wyck Rissington in Gloucestershire, southwent England. He spent five years planting  his maze and decorated it with signs to remind visitors of the progression through childhood to old age and, finally, death. The choices and turns in the pathway represented the decisions and mistakes inevitably made in life, a tree already in the garden formed the central goal and symbolised heaven and eternity.

In 1968 a hedge maze was opened at the garden in Van Buuren Museum in Brussels, Belgium. It has a cedar tree at its goal and a simple pathway that leads through a series of alcoves containing sculptures that illustrate the Jewish 'Song of Songs'. It contains a wealth of religious symbolism.

In 1980 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie also had a dream of a maze which he made into a sermon. The inspiration of this sermon resulted in building the "Archbishop's Maze" at Greys Court in Oxfordshire, central England. The design is adapted from medieaval cathedral labyrinths and can be followed as either a labyrinth or a simple maze to an inscribed pillar with a sundial at the centre; the pillar stands on a Byzantine-style cross of stone, inset with a Roman cross in contrasting stone. The reconciliation of the various branches of the Christian Church was central to Runcie's life work, and the design of the maze, by its very nature and the marking of key points on the path, abounds with Christian symbolism. It also heralded the resurgence of the labyrinth as a tool for spiritual and psychological renewal and growth which has taken off with New Age and the Sacred Geometry religious philosophies departing from Orthodox Christianity. The New Age cult and Mysticism see the dance of Christos and Sophia being the interplay of the sacred masculine and sacred feminine principles, as they manifest in Christian mystical tradition.

Villa Pisanill Labirinto
Meanwhile finger labyrinths are used by spiritual counsellors and mental health workers for its therapeutic benefits. These are tactile objects carved into wood or stone, or made from embossed paper structures or papier mache, which allow the fingers to do the walking. When not in use the wood and stone labyrinths make striking wall ornaments.

(Extracts taken from Magical Paths - Labyrinths and Mazes by Jeff Saward)

Symbolism: protective device, meditation.

Inspiration images:

No comments:

Post a Comment