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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.