The Labyrinth and the Consciousness of the Land
The labyrinth is an ancient mystical tool that has been used by humans for thousands of years. It has figured in cultures worldwide as a symbol of the three-fold path of life, death, and rebirth. For those who encounter it, it can lead to profound healing, transformation, and a deep connection with the land.
The pattern itself takes many forms. The most familiar to us are probably the classical, or Cretan, pattern dating from around 1500 B.C. and the pattern from Chartres Cathedral in France, dating from the 13th century. Two precursors to these labyrinths are the spiral or triple spiral found on passage graves in Western Europe dating from at least 3000 B.C. and the meander pattern found on pottery shards in Eastern Europe dating from as early as 14,000 B.C.
The pattern has been established as ancient, but where did it come from, and what was its purpose? We can only glean its function from fragments in myth and oral tradition, for, sadly, it seems that in our own time we have forgotten its true meaning and use. Dance was a major element in its function, and many authors from ancient Rome and Greece make reference to dance in the ritual of the labyrinth. The meander pattern found on pottery shards existed in a culture that gave homage to the Goddess, and many of her symbols are known to be equated with the labyrinth: the path of the snake, a spiders web, the mating dance of the crane, and the flow of water.
Mythological tales of the labyrinth in ancient Crete, and in the Malekulan tribe of Melanesia today, tell of the devouring creature of the labyrinth that promises a rebirth if we can but ascertain its secrets and discover our relationship to it. In the Cretan tale, the half-man, half-beast Minotaur terrorizes the community, while in Malekulan mythology, the devouring spider goddess, Le-Hev-Hev, awaits the soul that wishes to cross over into the cave of rebirth.
We know from study of the many labyrinth forms that the pattern is made using the principles of sacred geometry. This is the pattern of numbers that is inherent in nature and in the patterns of the stars. It is the dance of atoms by which spirit infuses matter and by which the planets orbit the sun. To construct a labyrinth using these principles is to invoke our inherent wholeness and evolutionary pattern. It is the human in concert with the mysteries and sacred patterns of the universe.
To walk the path is to discover all of these elements anew through the senses of the body and through our intuition. A new doorway is opened to the unseen world that we sometimes encounter in prayer, meditation, or dreams. Accessed through the senses, it is another dimension of reality whose existence we have all but forgotten, but which speaks to us of nature: of the body and the body of the earth.
The labyrinth appeared most notably in the Christian consciousness in the Middle Ages. All that remains to us is a fragment of its use in the church, however. We know from Chartres that it was used at the Easter rites when the dean of the cathedral would dance into the center, together with the congregation, in a symbolic act of Christs death and resurrection.
Until recent times, the cathedral at Chartres told pilgrims nothing about the labyrinth or its history. To learn about it you had to walk across the street to another bookstore and purchase a copy of Louis Charpentiers The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral. In it, you would find a history and references to the healing Earth energies that emerge from the land on which the cathedral sits and which were honored for centuries as a place of worship before the site became a Christian cathedral.
With this information, pilgrims began to wonder why a Christian church is now on an ancient Druidic site of healing and why this information was not made available to people who visited the cathedral. This is changing, however, with the resurgence of labyrinth interest around the world, particularly in the United States, and its likely that if you were to visit the cathedral today, you could get some information about the pathway as a walking meditation. However, youll still have to look up Charpentiers book to get information about the Druids, sacred geometry, and earth energies.
Walking the path of the labyrinth is one way to bring back this ancient wisdom for our use today. My own experience with the labyrinth has led me through death into a rebirth. I began working with labyrinth dances in 1987 on a pilgrimage to Britain, but did not actually walk the pathway until a workshop in 1989 when I was studying spirituality at the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality.
One month before the Bay Area quake of October 1989, I had an earth-shattering dream in which a coiled snake rose up out of the gravel on a mountaintop where a new roadway was being cleared with earth-moving equipment. The snake bit me hard in the large knuckle of my right hand so hard that blood and a bit of bone spurted out. I was very alarmed by the dream, but did not know what message it was bringing me (other than to watch out for toxic effects!).
In the spring of 1990, on St. Bridgets Day, I was introduced to the Chartres labyrinth pattern through the death of a woman in our spirituality program. I did my masters project on the subject and discovered the patterns ancient use as a pathway for the soul to cross over at death. It wasnt until June of 1993, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, however, that I discovered the true meaning of my powerful dream and began to explore the healing power of the labyrinth.
The dream had shown the venom of the snake travelling up my arm, and I was given instruction that I could control the bite of the snake, depending on the time of day. I was told that 5:00 in the evening is the best time. Since my treatment for cancer, I have been giving workshops on the labyrinth and have come to learn the significance of 5:00 p.m. Five is the number of change and transition. It also represents the five senses and, as the hour between afternoon and evening, it represents the threshold time of dusk a symbolic letting-go of daytime energies and activities for the quietude and contemplative time of evening and twilight.
In Celtic cultures, the time between the worlds was always honored as sacred. Known as a liminal space (for "space" and "time" are connected, as anyone who has lived through an earthquake can attest), this nether time, when the veil is thin, allows access to that other plane of existence generally unseen in ordinary consciousness. These liminal times were celebrated at the cross-quarter days or Earth festivals: those times halfway between the solstices and the equinoxes. Bridgets Day is such a time, falling as it does in February halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
These are the times particularly at Beltane (May 1) and Samhain (or Halloween) (October 31) when communication with the ancestors and the spirits of the land is easiest. The elements of nature are changing, repositioning themselves for the next stage of growth or decay. It is a time when fields of opportunity open to us, and the pendulum can swing in any direction. For humans who tune into these energies, these are powerful times of co-creation with the forces of the universe.
In our culture and religious traditions, we have denied these aspects of spirituality and our human connection to the land. The traditions from the old country have died out. We most often dont know who are ancestors were, and our communication with the land is limited to how we can landscape it or exploit its resources. There is another way, though, and this way is represented by the labyrinth.
For those who walk the path, its ancient wisdom begins to reveal itself. To walk it is such a simple act, yet so is kneeling in prayer. We must do it again and again to awaken the mystery and power of nature inherent in its pattern. The pattern is a great gift, seemingly embedded in our DNA; it is not one that nature will allow us to forget.
It is just at this turn of the millennium that the labyrinth is re-emerging for creative artists to teach us in the spiritual traditions about a way of spiritual awareness that we have all but forgotten. In the tide of history, there are great patterns of consciousness that sweep in only once every thousand years. The labyrinth is announcing one of those tides. As William Irwin Thompson says in his book The Celtic Consciousness, "The task of the seer is to bear witness to the truths of the sea, to keep up the cultural memory, through myth and legend, of the greatness of the ocean. So when youre living in a puddle and have forgotten the sea...its the task of [the seer] to...lift us beyond our puddle-vision to the sea and the stars...The fish with a memory of the ocean cannot reconnect his puddle to the sea. He can only speak of oceans and wait for the tide..."
The tide is near. The labyrinth is speaking to us of oceans and waits for us to dance with the stars.
Linda Sewright is director of the Northwest Labyrinth Project, gives workshops and classes on the labyrinth throughout the West, and is leading a pilgrimage to sacred sites and ancient labyrinths in Britain in May. NWLP will hold a vigil on shamanic aspects of the path January 30 - February 1 in Seattle. Phone (206) 780-1710 for information and to register.