Origins of Labyrinths

The following is an excerpt from Di Williams’s book - “Labyrinth - landscape of the soul”.

Green labyrinth

Labyrinths have been known to the human race for well over 4000 years. They seem to have emerged and re-emerged, capturing our interest in several time waves and in slightly differing forms throughout this period.

Classical Labyrinths

There is evidence of the existence of the classical labyrinth symbol (the most ancient labyrinth pattern) across southern Europe and North Africa from roughly 2000 BCE. Over time it took the form of rock carvings and paintings, inscriptions on ceramics, tiles and coins.

The same basic design began to appear across Asia, the Americas and Southern Africa in an assortment of forms including rock carvings, sand games, wall paintings, wooden sculptures and woven baskets.

Roman Labyrinths

Somewhere between c165 BCE-400 CE the classical design morphed into that of the more complex Roman one. The Roman labyrinths were mainly mosaic pavement labyrinths laid in the floors of bathhouses, villas and tombs throughout the Roman Empire. Virtually all such mosaics were too small for walking.

In Britain there are several known examples of Roman labyrinth mosaic pavements such as the Harpham mosaic (Hull and East Riding Museum) and the mosaic from the roman site at Caerleon in Newport, Gwent, now in the Caerleon Museum.

Medieval Labyrinths

The medieval period marked a new wave of labyrinth building as well as a significant development in labyrinth design.

Towards the end of the 9th century a monk called Otfrid took the classical seven circuit labyrinth pattern and added four extra circuits creating the more complex eleven circuit labyrinth design we know today as the medieval labyrinth. His drawing in the endpaper of his Book of Gospels became a precedent for the construction of dozens of 12th-13th century labyrinths found in cathedrals and churches across Europe.

As time went on, breaks or turns in the walls at north, south, east and west points were added to the pattern. The most famous of these, the Chartres Labyrinth laid down in c1201, is still intact in the floor of the nave of Chartres Cathedral, France. It is probably the most walked labyrinth in the world.

Indeed, these labyrinths were built precisely for walking. They offered a bounded space for personal reflection and spiritual pilgrimage.

The later classical and medieval stone or turf labyrinths of Northern Europe, largely laid down between the 12th and 17th centuries, were also walking labyrinths.

Contemporary Labyrinths

It is against this long history of shifting design and use that the contemporary revival of interest in labyrinths has blossomed.

Perhaps, as some suggest, there is something in the collective unconscious of the earth community of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that recognises a need for unique spaces like labyrinths. Labyrinths seem to have emerged again at a time when we need help in recovering a more balanced, reflective and inclusive way of living together on this planet.

Photo credit: Di Williams


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