FEATURE - June 2015 - Santa Fe
Labyrinths: History and Healing
By Victoria Erhart
What do medieval Christian pilgrims, Greek myths of the Minotaur, modern brain research, Southwest Native American basketry, ancient fertility rites and modern energy healing share? All are connected in some way to labyrinths, curvilinear patterns traced on caves walls or embedded in cathedral floors. Labyrinths have been used for communal and personal healing, decision making, storytelling and spiritual transformation across cultures for tens of thousands of years.
Labyrinths can be constructed in complex or simple patterns, in circular or rectangular shape, from whatever materials are available – stone, sand, pieces of tree, tall grass, fabric, tracings in dirt. Neolithic peoples used labyrinths in fertility rites. The labyrinth symbolized the womb, the Sacred Feminine. Entering the labyrinth symbolized the act of creation of a new human being. Winding one’s way out of the labyrinth symbolized birth or emergence, a concept still embedded in “man in the maze” basketry woven by present day Southwest Native Americans, especially Hopi.
Ancient Greeks used labyrinths in their mythological tales. King Minos of Crete had his architect Daedalus construct a labyrinth to imprison the dreaded Minotaur, a half-bull, half-human creature. Daedalus and his son Icarus could only escape by building wings to fly over the labyrinth walls. Elated at his escape, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melted the wax holding his wings together, and plummeted to his death in the Icarian Sea off the coast of Greece.
The Romans used labyrinths constructed of stone and lumber for very non-mythological purposes. Roman cavalry horses were trained in labyrinths to make them more sure-footed in open country and to learn to execute complicated maneuvers with other horses in very tight spaces, both necessary skills on the battlefield.
Labyrinths were very popular in medieval Christianity, as evidenced by ornate carved stone labyrinths built into cathedral floors, most notably the eleven ring labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral near Paris. The Middle Ages were known for both crusades and pilgrimages. Many people could not participate in either venture, yet wanted the blessings associated with each activity. If a would-be pilgrim walked a labyrinth with the full intention of making a pilgrimage, performed charity and meditated on the events that occurred in the holy places such as Jerusalem, then a labyrinth pilgrim was considered to be united in spirit with those making the physical pilgrimage, and emerged from the labyrinth a person transformed in mind, body and spirit. Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy will recognize labyrinth imagery and metaphors as Dante spirals his way down through Hell filled with darkness and suffering, only to emerge moving in the opposite direction as he ascends the Mountain of Purgatory finally to emerge into the light of the Beautific Vision.
Onward, Upward, Inward
All of these historical labyrinth associations are present in modern labyrinth design, construction and usage, in which the labyrinth is viewed as an archetype of consciousness itself. Modern brain research shows a connection between walking clockwise (sunwise) coupled with walking counterclockwise (moonwise), exactly the movements involved in labyrinth walking. The result is greater balance and communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Ancient Scandinavian sailors used stone labyrinths to capture winds. The idea that labyrinths hold energy connects them with healing. Many people connect the seven circuit labyrinth found on Crete with the seven primary chakras or energy points of the human body. As a locus for walking meditation, labyrinths hold the energy of individual travelers, each of whom walks a unique journey of intentional consciousness that is at the same time a communal path. The labyrinth is a diagram for an individual’s place in an energy field larger than one’s own self.
Labyrinths in Schools
The Labyrinth Resource Group in Santa Fe has constructed labyrinths in public elementary schools. Children incorporate the labyrinth into their play. Teachers use walking the labyrinth to help students deal with conflicts with their classmates, when a child has experienced trauma at home or when a child needs a few minutes to calm down before returning to class. Long time educator Julianne Wagner of Desert Montessori School believes in the power of labyrinth walking for students. “What sense does it make to tell a child to calm down when the child does not know what calm feels like in his or her body. Walking the labyrinth allows the student to experience calmness, to know what that feeling is and to access it the next time it is necessary.” Children find the labyrinth experience very helpful, as is clear from their own comments.
“My dog died two weeks ago and I have been very upset. After I walked the labyrinth, I realized my dog would live in my heart forever.”
“I figured out a way to talk to people to get their attention. It is better to talk than to grab someone’s neck when they are bugging you.”
Walking a Labyrinth with Intention
To walk a labyrinth as an exercise in mindfulness, first focus energy on a single intention or question. Keep that intention in mind, step over the threshold stone onto/into the labyrinth. With measured breath matching measured steps, walk the labyrinth slowly and quietly. At each turning point, pause briefly and continue to focus inwards more deeply. Move out of head-centered intellect into more heart-centered wisdom.
Labyrinth pathways become sacred geography, carrying a type of knowledge not accessible in our everyday reality. Feel the energy of perhaps centuries of uttered prayers. Upon reaching the labyrinth’s center, pause for several deep breaths. Note how the body and mind feel, quieter, more in sync. Be open to whatever spirit guide may be present in the labyrinth. Carefully retrace the labyrinth path as it opens wider and wider further from the center. Pause briefly to breathe deeply before stepping back over the threshold stone. As one frequent labyrinth walker stated, “A labyrinth is not magic. But taking time to walk a labyrinth with mindfulness makes me feel less stressed, less anxious. I am better able to focus my concentration and energies on positive thoughts.”
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The easiest way to locate a labyrinth worldwide is through Labyrinth Locater: www.labyrinthlocator.com. Public labyrinths in Santa Fe are located at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (outdoors – always available, can be crowded), Unity Church just off Highway 599 (outdoors – always available), Christ Lutheran Church (outdoors – always available), Frenchy’s Field (outdoors – always available). Milner Plaza on Museum Hill (outdoors – open museum hours; after hours parking lot locked). At least a dozen labyrinths of various types are available on private property. Please contact property owners through www.labyrinthlocator.com for conditions of access.
Victoria Erhart teaches World Religions at UNM-Los Alamos. She is also a would-be farmer and freelance journalist who writes on spirituality, sustainability and companion animal welfare.