The Medieval Labyrinth: It’s Pagan Roots, Its Spiritual Values, and It’s Unfortunate Associations

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AmienCathedralLabyrinth

Before we leave the Medieval Period, let’s explore a Christian practice which was first introduced to the Christian church in the medieval period, and has again become common in contemporary Christian practice: the labyrinth. As so many times happens to me, and I suspect it is not limited to me but is experience, also, by others, at crucial points in my life, including the posts of this to blog, something happens that just “fits” my circumstances of that time. In fact, I know that such relevant, opportune moments are commonly experienced by those with perceptive minds and eyes of faith: While studying at the University of Nebraska law school, in one of the final classes that I had with Professor Snowden, Legal Ethics, he sent us off with some wisdom. As one can imagine a long, white-haired, bearded and wise professors or wizards in the Harry Potter movies, Professor Snowden intoned, “If you ever have a problem, read a good book, and there you will find your answer.”

The labyrinth originates in Greek mythology, in which we are told that it was built to hold the Minotaur, which was half man and half bull. Forms of the labyrinth were also common to the Egyptians, to the Romans and throughout ancient civilization. Although the design of the labyrinth, which can vary, appears to take the traveler close to the centre and then back to the edge, in and out, and finally to the center, a labyrinth is not a maze. One does not become lost in a labyrinth. One trusts that the path will lead from the point of entry to the center although it may appear to wander aimlessly. Once in the center, one trusts the path to the exit, sometimes seeming to approach the edge, and yet returning toward the middle, and about. It may appear to be a complicated path, and it is by design, and yet if one trusts the path through all of its winding and seeming meandering, it will take that person to where “one is going.” Whatever its historical or Christian use, one of its effects was, and still is, spiritual. The person who walks it must yields his or her will and perceptions “to the path.”

While the gift of the labyrinth does not justify the horrors of its contemporaries, it was a beautiful introduction into Western Christian practice at about that same time as the Inquisition and the Crusades. It appeared in several Gothic cathedrals of that time, including Chartres and Reims. Some were crude, with stones laid upon the ground to provide a pathway, and some were highly refined, as those in the Gothic, ornate cathedrals. It is said that the labyrinths were laid out on the central floors of the Gothic cathedrals that were built throughout Europe and were symbolic of a pilgrim’s travel to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It is now also popularly believed that those Christians who could not undertake a Crusade to Jerusalem might, as a substitute, walk the labyrinth of those various cathedrals. Whatever its history, Christianity has rediscovered the spiritual benefits of that ancient practice.

For pictures of medieval labyrinths and their settings, I have obtained the following photos from the google search:
https://www.google.com/search?q=Photos+of+medieval+labyrinths&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=050qUf_tH475qAGYh4DwCQ&sqi=2&ved=0CDAQsAQ&biw=1600&bih=731

http://www.labyrinthos.net/photo_library.html

See, also, https://www.google.com/#hl=en&sugexp=les%3B&gs_rn=4&gs_ri=psy-ab&tok=PAD5p_HfPyCvt73NwAQzXA&cp=29&gs_id=1&xhr=t&q=Photos+of+medieval+labyrinths&es_nrs=true&pf=p&output=search&sclient=psy-ab&oq=Photos+of+medieval+labyrinths&gs_l=&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.42768644,d.cGE&fp=edc2cdd6c0fe230d&biw=984&bih=463

For a concise history of the labyrinth at the Cathedral of Chartre, France, see http://www.bc.edu/content/bc/alumni/association/labyrinth/history.html

For an excellent a resource in one location concerning the church history of the use of the labyrinth, see
http://www.labyrinthos.net/ . As an introduction to the labyrinth and of resource for more casual exploration, I will rely upon that site for background, designed, use, photos, and graphics.

For spiritual uses and benefits of the labyrinth, see
https://www.google.com/#hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=labyrinth+medieval+spiritual&oq=labyrinth+medieval+spiritual&gs_l=hp.3..33i21.4288.30030.0.32861.28.24.0.4.4.0.950.4996.0j19j2j5-2j1.24.0.les%3B..0.0…1c.1.4.psy-ab.IOBu9fHY3_4&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.42768644,d.aWc&fp=edc2cdd6c0fe230d&biw=984&bih=463
http://www.sacredwalk.com/
http://labyrinthsociety.org/
http://www.labyrinth.org.uk/historypage1.html
http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=21292
http://www.bc.edu/content/bc/alumni/association/labyrinth/history.html
http://medievalcastles.stormthecastle.com/essays/medieval-castles-mazes-and-labyrinths.htm
http://www.labyrinthos.net/chartresfaq.html

For other a treasury of links concerning labyrinths, see
http://www.labyrinthos.net/links.html

For an excellent list of resources for labyrinth studies, see, http://labyrinth.georgetown.edu/display.cfm

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