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Beyond the Lone Islands

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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Labyrinth of Life

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In my Picture Book blog today I posted some pictures from yesterday’s Midsummer celebrations in our museum park. It was very crowded there yesterday, so not a good opportunity to get photos of details. I mentioned however that the stony ground in one of those pictures was a stone labyrinth. In a comment I was asked “What did they do with it?”

I went back to my photos from a less crowed visit to the same park last summer, and managed to “track down” (ha) the pictures above, where you can see it a little better. It’s still hard to make out the pattern (you’d need to take the picture from above I think) but it is of the single-path spiral kind, which means you are inevitably led into the middle and then back out again.

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Classical Labyrinth picture from Wikipedia

As the very interesting Wikipedia article on Labyrinths points out, there is a difference between a labyrinth and a maze. A maze is a complex construction in which you have to guess your way among a lot of choices. In a single-path labyrinth you just follow the path laid out for you (and contemplate the mysteries of it).

In Swedish we use the name labyrint for both kinds. But there is also an old name “trojaborg”. This name refers back to the city of Troy from Greek legends. The walls of Troy were said to be constructed in such a confusing and complex way that any enemy who entered them would be unable to find his way out. In Britain too, there are some turf mazes which include Troy in their name.

Most likely they were used for ritual purposes. Quoting the paragraph on Cultural Meanings in the Wikipedia article:

Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth).

Labyrinths can be thought of as symbolic forms of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Many people could not afford to travel to holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer substituted for such travel. Later, the religious significance of labyrinths faded, and they served primarily for entertainment, though recently their spiritual aspect has seen a resurgence.

Many newly made labyrinths exist today, in churches and parks. Labyrinths are used by modern mystics to help achieve a contemplative state. Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind.

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(original source of picture unknown)

And Plato in his Socratic dialogues describes the labyrinthine line of a logical argument in these words (again quoting Wikipedia):

"Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first." ... Thus the present-day notion of a labyrinth as a place where one can lose [his] way must be set aside. It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but, provided [the traverser] is not devoured at the midpoint, it leads surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning.

For me, putting together this post, my thoughts are led back to some words repeated with slight variation throughout the Book of Revelation:

I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End.
(Rev. 22:13)

4 comments:

GB said...

It's good to have one's mind refreshed every now and again. If you'd asked me I'd have said that I knew what a labyrinth is and given a description But there would have been a lot of detail missing. Thanks.

Ginny said...

Of all the things you've taught me, this is probably my favorite!! I had no idea that labyrinths represented the search for God, or that people who couldn't travel used them as a substitute. In fact, I didn't know about most of this. I did know some have been found in Britian and other places, old ones. And the walls of Troy thing is fascinating. You also found some very neat pictures to go with your story!! AND an amazing bible verse that fits right in!! Thanks for remembering my question.

Sandra said...

I just KNEW it was our ginny that asked the question. and boy did you answer it. this is so much i have never heard. I am with GB i thought i new what it was, now I know I did not. really interesting and I like that unknown source photo of the head with the maze in the top. cool!

DawnTreader said...

I enjoyed writing this post and it was a bit of repetition for myself as well. I did read up a bit about labyrinths and mazes a few years ago in connection with my 'Harry Potter research'. (A maze plays a big part in book 4.)

On one of our family trips to Britain back in the 70s we visited the famous Hampton Court maze, about which there is a hilarous chapter in one my favourite books of all times - Three Men In A Boat by J.K. Jerome (from 1889).

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