Labyrinths

Anne here, and today I’m not going to talk about my upcoming book (for a change) but about labyrinths, because tomorrow (4th May) is World Labyrinth Day.

Quite a few people use the words ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ interchangeably, but they’re not the same at all. I also thought they were the same thing with different labels until many years ago I read Mary Jo’s The Spiral Path, which made the difference quite clear, and since then I have become fascinated with labyrinths.

The difference between a maze and a labyrinth.

A maze contains many different pathways toward the centre, dozens of which have dead ends. A maze is designed to be confusing and difficult, and if you’re persistent (or know the design) you will be able to reach the middle.

A labyrinth, on the other hand, has only one pathway — you can’t go wrong. You start at the beginning and follow the path, which although it may double back and have you going around in circles will inevitably lead you to the centre.

The confusion starts with the history. In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate, confusing structure designed and built for King Minos of Crete at Knossos in order to imprison the Minotaur, the monster eventually killed by the hero Theseus. These days, we would call it a maze, because the way in and out was designed to be difficult and confusing. In fact, the Knossos labyrinth was so tricky that its designer, Daedalus, could barely escape it after he built it.

But even back then, it seems maze and labyrinth were used interchangeably, because look at this silver coin from Knossos displaying the 7-course “Classical” design to represent the Labyrinth, 400 BC. Follow the path with your finger, and you’ll see it’s an uninterrupted route to the centre.

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This coin, unlike the home of the Minator, clearly shows a classical one-path labyrinth. But mazes still continued to be called labyrinths, and archaeologists still debate it. So who knows how the confusion came about? Not I.

Mazes are fun, and there are some stunning hedge mazes, which take a long time to grown and are expensive to maintain. Turf mazes are easier to create, but they also need to be carefully maintained. In the UK  there are some turf mazes at Wing, Hilton, Alkborough, and Saffron Walden.

Labyrinths are used by many as a meditation tool — religious and non-religious. You will find them in some churches, such as Chartres Cathedral in Paris which was built in the 13th century. (More info here.) The one on the left is very like the Chartres one, but is in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

But labyrinths can be found in all sorts of places — in fields, in parks, on the beach. Some people have built them in their own gardens. There is even one near me, where I walk my dog. I walk the labyrinth — she never sticks to the path. I don’t think she’s interested in meditation. This is it, below.

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Many years ago I was on a writers’ retreat by the sea. It was just after I read Mary Jo’s book so, inspired, I drew a labyrinth in the sand and we all walked it. Next morning of course it was washed away, but I still remember my first labyrinth.

Labyrinths have been found all over the world, some from antiquity, others more modern. In the UK there are some turf mazes at Wing, Hilton, Alkborough, and Saffron Walden. And there are 270 enamel labyrinth plaques in London’s underground stations. In Scandinavia there are hundreds of stone labyrinths, thought to have been constructed by fishing communities: trapping malevolent trolls or winds in the labyrinth’s coils might ensure a safe fishing expedition. There are plenty in other countries, too.
You can find a labyrinth near you from this site.

I just know that I find mazes fun and labyrinths fascinating. If you want to know more about labyrinths, you find info on wikipedia, and also from the Labyrinth Society. In fact I recently found and joined a FB group page for lovers of labyrinths. You’ll find lots of interesting photos there, including these very cute little biscuits (cookies — photo by Janice Lewis).

So what about you — have you ever walked a labyrinth or a maze? Tell us about it.

31 thoughts on “Labyrinths”

  1. Thanks for the interesting article and the explanation of the difference.
    I have been to the maze at Hampton court, fun but ran into a few dead ends before i made it into the center! I have done other hedge mazes, but don’t think i have ever done a labyrinth.

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    • Thank you Jane — the maze at Hampton court sounds wonderful. I always wanted to walk a big English maze — especially a historic one — but I never have. One day, perhaps . . .

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  2. Thank you for explaining the difference between the two. I’ve never thought much about it. I might try a labyrinth but I’m afraid getting lost in a maze might bring on a panic attack (smile). As a child I ran into a corn field once (to hide) and just about “lost it” before I could find my way out.

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    • Mary, I’ve never been in a big cornfield — I can see how that might be scary for a child — but I certainly had fun hiding in other forms of dense vegetation. But yes, walking a labyrinth is a calm experience.

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  3. Very interesting. I’m sure I never really thought about the difference. I’d love to meditate daily walking a labyrinth. Never had the chance to do so in my life, but who knows, there’s still time!

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  4. While traveling in Scotland, I did go to a hedge maze. It was nice, except I was there in early spring so the leaves where not quite out completely and you could see through the hedge. 🙂
    Closer to home we have corn mazes every fall and I confess I’m not a fan. Having done it once in the daylight with kids for a school activity was enough. I would not pay money to do it in the dark!

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    • Doing it in the dark, Misti? Yes, I can imagine some kids might enjoy it, but I think I’d prefer to wait outside, with a mug of something warm in my hand.
      I always assumed that a hedge maze would be made from some non-deciduous plant. Interesting that yours wasn’t.

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  5. What a neat post, Anne. I’m another who had not known the difference between labyrinths and mazes. I’ve learned something today, so thank you.
    A word appears to be missing from your post after “these very cute little.” Is it cookies/biscuits?

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    • How interesting, Pat. As I said above, I’ve never considered a labyrinth or maze formed with deciduous plants, but I imaging yours would be lovely — blossom in the spring and apples eventually.

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  6. I’ve been to the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral. I would love to try a hedge maze! There seem to be a lot of them in historicals.

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    • How lovely, Karen. You’re right about the hedge mazes in historicals — I’ve had one myself in my Devil Riders series. A lovely deep hedge maze lends itself beautifully to trysts and secret meetings and other romantic moments.

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  7. Anne-I live on one of three Labyrinth Roads-two in Baltimore city and one in Baltimore County. To make matters worse, my house is on the corner of Labyrinth and Hatton‐and faces Hatton. Yikes! Even with GPS, people get lost. I have multiple sets of directions in my laptop. Sigh…

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  8. Thanks for explaining the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. I’ve been to a hedge maze in England and there are nearby corn mazes every summer and fall. I enjoyed the hedge maze but don’t enjoy the corn mazes – they’re usually hot and dusty. I’d really like to see the sand mazes by the Sunset Beach Maze Man – an impressive amount of work, every day, that just washes away!

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    • Thanks, Anne — yes, I can imagine that a corn maze (a maize maze? ) could be hot and dusty and bits would get into your clothes, too.
      Those beach mazes look wonderful — so intricate and pretty, and utterly transient, which seems both a shame, and a little magical.

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  9. The maize at Hampton Court Castle (Herefordshire) is amazing. One can get to a tower in the center of the maize, via a tunnel from a sunken garden. Then the maize can be viewed from above and with pencil and paper, an exit route through the maize can be plotted before entry …. I know its cheating … but better safe than sorry!

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  10. I first walked a labyrinth at a spiritual Cursillo weekend. I remember beginning it with a bit of anxiety, restlessness, and uncertainty. When I stepped out I truly felt at peace and connected.

    Isn’t it strange how something so simple can be so profound?

    This is a great post. Thank you.

    Nona

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  11. Anne. rather late I’m adding my own appreciation! Long ago I walked the famous maze at Hampton Court and much, much later I created a maze so a murderous villain could chase my heroine through it. (She survived, of course!) The labyrinth I took you to was on the grounds of a nearby Benedictine convent, and it’s a lovely, peaceful place. I need to pay it a visit.

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    • MaryJo, it’s I who need to show my appreciation for your awakening me to the fascination of labyrinths through your book, The Spiral Path. And I’ll never forget that first labyrinth walk in the Benedictine convent.

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