Labyrinths: One Path, Many Patterns

What do you suppose was going through the mind of the first human to doodle a spiral? If imagining what our ancient ancestor was thinking while doodling is difficult for you, then try to put yourself in the boots or sandals of the first humans who decided to construct a labyrinth. It’s quite likely that they were descendants of the doodler; or at least distant relatives.

Just to be clear, a labyrinth is not a maze. A labyrinth is comprised of a single pathway in and out. It’s this simplicity that adds to the labyrinth’s mystique. A maze is a puzzle.   They are each physical metaphors of our life’s journey. The maze very well could represent the playful side of one’s journey. It’s a mysterious game that baffles every entrant, leaving them longing for relief and exhilarated when it comes.

One of the most notorious labyrinths was home to a Minotaur; a man with the head of a bull and a deposition to match. Every nine years, fourteen Athenian youths, seven boys and seven maidens, were delivered to King Minos who reigned over Crete. These young men and women were to be sacrificed to avenge the death of Minos’ son, Androgeos.   One by one they were forced to wander into the labyrinth with only the agonizing hope that there was another way out. Of course, there wasn’t. Each became the Minotaur’s meal.

Theseus, an Athenian youth who was of both divine and royal lineage, took up the challenge of freeing Athens from this Minoan curse. He volunteered to be one of the fourteen unfortunate ones. With the aid of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who he had managed to seduce, Theseus found his way into the dreaded labyrinth, plunged his sword through the Minotaur’s heart, and followed the string that he had laid down to mark the pathway back to the labyrinth’s inevitable entry.

You may be asking yourself, “So what does this heroic adventure have to do with me?” The answer is, “Everything.” Which pathway are you following, the labyrinth or the maze? The Greeks had their heroes, divine and otherwise. The Theseus adventure is emblematic of hundreds of other tales of heroes who meet their primal self, the animal within, and have the courage to conquer or at least tame it. The legacy of the bull as the embodiment of virile fertility, relentless strength, and unbridled passion lives on. For example, the literal representation of Theseus’ feat can be seen today in bullrings.

We all face our own challenges. We follow our own interior pathways to see where they might go. Given the growing number of labyrinths around the world, folks apparently still need to visualize what resides within. Some people are repeatedly drawn to the labyrinth’s quiet potential, while others see it as just another primitive pattern. The lucky ones see beyond the labyrinth’s pattern and gain personal insight.

Such was the case for Sally Quinn, a columnist for The Washington Post and Editor-in-Chief of On Faith, an online conversation on religion. She first encountered a labyrinth at a spa in California. Despite her skepticism, traveling its path lead Sally to see her son, herself, and her life as never before. I think Sally would agree that we each have one path. Those most fortunate know what it is before reaching the end.

Sally is one of the fortunate ones. I hope you enjoy her story.