The Cretan Labyrinth revisited

Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Do you know how to draw a labyrinth? Do you know the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?
If the answer to any of these is yes, you may well be puzzled by the major Greek myth that links Crete to a labyrinth: the story of Theseus and the minotaur.

That is because if you've walked a labyrinth, or many labyrinths as I have, you'll probably know that the experience is calming, meditative, dreamlike, and often illuminating. Some people experience it as healing. Some find it helps them solve problems by tuning into a deeper level of intuitive intelligence. The labyrinth is being used increasingly as a tool by people interested in personal and spiritual development. Children also love to draw and walk - or run - labyrinths!

If you've walked or drawn a labyrinth you will know that, unlike a maze, you don't get lost in it. A labyrinth is what is called a unicursal maze, because it has only one (very circuitous) path in to its centre and out again. So if you simply follow the path you will reach the centre and come back out the same way. There is nothing to block you.This is true whether it is the Cretan, 7 circuit labyrinth, (often called the classical labyrinth )or a more elaborate one like the 11 circuit one found on the floor at Chartres and other Cathedrals in Europe. Any sense of disorientation comes simply from our logical mind trying to understand what is happening, and why we seem to be going in the opposite direction to where we're heading. And it is this need to let go of logical understanding, that seems to bring to the fore the more intuitive or 'right-brain' intelligence that people find changes their perceptions of things when they walk the labyrinth's path.

So, if the labyrinth is so benign, why does it get such a bad press in the Greek myth? In other parts of Europe there have been found ancient labyrinths and old myths connected to them. Often these myths put a woman or young girl at the centre, with it being a man's challenge to reach her and win her. Often this involves dancing towards her along the circuitous path. This seems a congruent form of myth, since to let go of the logical mind and following one's intuition can be seen as relating to the feminine side of oneself.

But in the Greek myth, there is a male monster - the minotaur - at the centre of the labyrinth, whom the hero, Theseus, the great superstar of Greek heroes, has to slay in order to survive. What's more, he needs help from Ariadne to find his way out. But if he needed help to get out, the implication is that that he's in a maze and not a labyrinth. Or at least that he perceives it that way. Which may tell us more about the classical Greek heroic mentality than it tells us about ancient Crete or Knossos.

And that is what the whole myth does: it tells us about the Greek mind of a very different era from that in which the labyrinth of Knossos was concelved and built. The world of the myth is one of heroes (Theseus), vengeful Gods (Poseidon in this case) and Kings (Minos). But the myth was first written down, as far as we know, by Homer, a thousand or so years after the Temples of so called Minoan Crete had been destroyed by natural disaster and ensuing invasions and wars.

Knossos was built over a long period which predates King Minos, who probably entered the scene after the cataclysm. But his reign was confused by later ancient historians with the era of several thousand years that preceded it. In this era the names Pasiphae and Ariadne were the names not of a King's wife and daughter, but of aspects the Great Goddess. Ariadne was associated with the stars, and her silver thread the connection between the human and spiritual realms. Pasiphae was the Moon Goddess, also known as the great white cow Goddess, whose celestial milk formed the milky way. She was therefore worshipped as the embodiment of fertility and abundance. In rituals she would have made a sacred union with the great bull, whose ubiqiutous image in Minoan art symbolises the male strength and fertility principle. The Greek myth overlooks this sacred union when it depicts Pasiphae's love of the bull as an 'unnatural lust'.

So where did the labyrinth come in? No one knows for sure. 7circuit labyrinths are found on coins and sealstones as a symbol of Knossos, but this too was at a later date. Searches for an actual labyrinth at or near Knossos have been in vain. But recently some Minoan paintings found in Egypt (now on display in Heraklion Museum) have revealed that the floor of the great court at Knossos was tiled elaborately in meanders, and meanders are the core pattern of the labyrinth. Since the ancient Cretans were always famous for their intricate dances, it seems likely that they followed a labyrinthine pattern. Apparently the word for dance 'choros' also meant dance floor, so the pattern on the dance floor and the dance itself were intimately connected.

The other explanation for the link between Knossos and labyrinth is that the temple itself was a labyrinth, ie a sacred journey that priestesses and priests, pilgrims and initiates, perhaps people needing healing or artists inspiration, would take at significant stages of their lives, or the life of the community. The journey might involve them in cleansing rituals in the lustral basins, making sacrifices at the various shrines, spending time in the dark before emerging into light, perhaps receiving healing from herbalists, shamans, priestesses that used snake medicine. Then perhaps they would have emerged onto the central court into a riotous seasonal festival with dancing and bull leaping. Or just back into their lives revived or ready to be promoted or become a parent - who knows? We will never know, but we can know for ourselves at first hand the effect of walking the labyrinth's path: the inner knowledge, inspiration and equilibrium we can gain from it, and guess that the fabulous blossoming of culture that came from the temple culture of ancient Crete must have owed some of its inner wisdom to following the winding path. The labyrinth, like the labrys (double ase) from which it may take its name, is a symbol of wholeness and unity, rather than dualism or divisions.

If you'd like to find out more about labyrinths and how to make them, contact me. I have also a list of books and articles if you want to find out more.
Do try it, teach it to your children. And make them on the beach, in your garden!


Copyright Cora Greenhill 2005

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