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What is a Labyrinth?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A labyrinth is a complex series of winding paths, similar to a maze, although slightly different, because it is usually not a puzzle. Instead, it forces the walker to follow a specific serpentine path. Labyrinths have been an important part of many cultures spiritually for thousands of years, and have also been used to create decorative art in the form of earth berm labyrinths, hedge mazes, textile designs, ceramic art, and intricate floor patterns. Walking through one is usually intended to be a meditative and contemplative act, and many religions, including Christianity, integrate walking meditation into their spiritual practices.

During Greek and Roman times, the term was used to refer to a structure that was located partially underground and had a confusing series of connecting passages. In Greek mythology, one on the island of Crete was used to house the minotaur, a fearsome mythological creature who was part bull and part human. An annual sacrifice was made to the creature until Theseus arrived and successfully killed him. Theseus, in turn, was led out of the labyrinth by Ariadne, who laid out a trail of string for him to follow.

During the medieval period in Europe, labyrinths started to appear in Christian churches as well as formal gardens. Medieval ones represent some of the most elegant and extensive examples of the art form. Most classical gardens include at least one hedge or berm labyrinth for guests to wander through. In one with hedges, the plants will be trained to grow far above head height, so that the person inside is totally cut off from the outside world. Berm labyrinths are usually low to the ground, allowing a viewer to see the entire layout from above, and to walk it if he or she desires.

In Christian tradition, labyrinths were walked by pilgrims and penitents. Pilgrims would walk one at the end of a journey to contemplate their experiences and reach a spiritual state of closure, while penitents would shuffle on their knees through it while praying. Christian labyrinths tend to be laid out in four quadrants, suggestive of the shape of the cross. Several famous churches, including Chartres Cathedral, have them in their flooring.

Other religions also incorporate labyrinths into their spirituality. Buddhists walk them in silent meditation, and they are frequently laid out in sacred shapes that encourage contemplation and thoughtfulness. Spirals and meanders are two common shapes, because they are thought to hold immense spiritual power. These are usually found outdoors, and can appear in a variety of forms, including those made of raked gravel or a series of complex canals.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By backdraft — On Oct 17, 2012

I have a friend out in Oregon that has been constructing a wood labyrinth on his land for the past 12 years. He has built it entirely from wood that he has harvested sustainably from the land around him.

It is hard to say how large it is right now but it is really impressive, trust me. He is only 54 and still going strong so I imagine that by the time he is done it will be something truly spectacular.

By Belted — On Oct 17, 2012

@gravois - I feel the exact same way. There is one really cool one close to me that is like a haunted house around Halloween. They have all kinds of gory displays built into the maze and people hiding in scary costumes to jump out and terrorize you.

I know that it sounds pretty country but the production values are pretty high. You really do feel like you are trapped on some kind of twisted farm and the whole being lost in the maze thing makes it even scarier.

By gravois — On Oct 16, 2012

I love when autumn finally comes and all the corn mazes start to pop up. Honestly, I probably go to three or four different ones every year.

I have been obsessed with mazes ever since I was a little kid. The frustrating part though is that there really aren't many around. Once farmers started carving them into their fields to make extra money after the harvest I knew that they were on to something exciting.

By anon160031 — On Mar 14, 2011

why was there a labyrinth?

By PurpleSpark — On Jan 29, 2011

@carrotisland: Yes, the movie Labyrinth came out in 1986 and starred David Bowie as the character “Jareth” who was the Goblin King. The movie is about a girl named Sarah who is trying to rescue her brother from Jareth. She was mad at her brother and wished for the goblins to take him away and they did.

She was told that the only way to rescue her brother was to solve the great maze, the labyrinth. If she doesn’t, Jareth will turn Toby into a goblin. The pathways of the maze would change and consisted of several riddles and logic puzzles. In the end, she beats the labyrinth and rescues her brother. It was a great movie.

By Denha — On Jan 29, 2011

There is also a Spanish film called Pan's Labyrinth, totally unrelated, about a young girl who meets a faun in a labyrinth near where she is living. It's about World War II and manages to be both political and magical. While its themes are totally different from those in Labyrinth, it shows how much our imaginations are sparked by the idea of a mystical maze where you could have great adventures and meet strange characters.

By sapphire12 — On Jan 28, 2011

One of my favorite movies is the often-forgotten Jim Henson film, Labyrinth. It starred a young Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie. While it did not do well at the box office, it is a really entertaining film for children, and teaches a valuable lesson about family without being at all preachy about it.

By CarrotIsland — On Jan 28, 2011

Wasn't there a movie several years ago called Labyrinth?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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