The Labyrinth and the Old Coach House St Martin by Looe Cornwall Tel: 01503 262671 The Labyrinth and the Old Coach St Martin by Looe Cornwall Tel: 01503 262671
The Labyrinth and Old Coach House St Martin by Looe Cornwall Tel: 01503 262671
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The Labyrinth - History, Mythology, other labyrinths

History
The Labyrinth is a symbol of great antiquity, appearing in the 10–30,000-year-old palæolithic cave paintings in southern France and in Spain, and elsewhere throughout the world.  It is often inscribed on Celtic monuments, where it is understood to signify water (symbolically the Water of Life, or of Death / the unconscious) – one of the most famous labyrinths is in the passage of the spectacular New Grange passage grave in the Boyne Valley north of Dublin. And there's another not so far from here, at Rocky Valley, near Tintagel.

The symbol has appeared at some time or other in many media (carved in stone, on pavement, in turf and in basketry), throughout most parts of the world, from Java to Native North and South America, Australia, India and Nepal.

The word Labyrinth appears to stem from the Minoan civilisation of ancient Crete, which arose as early as 180,000 BCE, and reached its peak from 2700 to 1500 BCE. The word’s probable origins are labrys, the iconic double-headed axe, and inthos, meaning place (as in Corinth).

In the 3rd century BC, coins from Knossos in Crete were struck with the simple seven-circuit 'classical' labyrinth. It has often been thought that royal – and extremely complex – palace of Knossos in central Crete was the original labyrinth; whether or not this is true, certainly by the 1st century BCE there was some (currently unknown) feature at Knossos being presented to early tourists as a labyrinth. 

In the 12th and 13th centuries, 500 or more labyrinths were constructed in Scandinavia. These labyrinths, generally in coastal areas, are marked out with stones, most often in the simple classical form. They often have names which translate as 'Troy Town' ('troy' means 'turning'). They are thought to have been constructed by early fishing communities, to trap malevolent trolls/winds in the labyrinth's coils in order to ensure a safe fishing expedition. There are also stone labyrinths on the Isles of Scilly, although none of them is known to date back as far as the Scandinavian ones.

The labyrinth has been associated with many religions, one of the most famous examples being the elevenfold design on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.

Mythology

According to Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete hired the brilliant craftsman Daedalus to construct the Labyrinth in order to conceal the Minotaur, the half-bull, half-human child of Minos' wife Pasiphae after she’d fallen for a large white bull. This liaison may seem bizarre at first sight – but the simple explanation is that Minos had failed to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon as promised, so Poseidon, with the connivance of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, hatched a cunning plan that resulted in the unlikely coupling. (Rather unnervingly, although it was Pasiphae who was most directly and seriously affected by the plot, the act of revenge was perceived as being not so much against her as against Minos.)

After Daedalus had completed the labyrinth, Minos wanted to keep the secret of its construction. His NDA took the form of imprisoning Daedalus in the toils of his own creation, along with his son, Icarus. This, however, resulted in the original blue sky thinking; Daedalus made wings of feathers and wax, and the two flew out, leaving Minos gnashing his teeth on the ground. But Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax melted and he fell out of the sky, to drown in the Icarian Sea, near what is now Turkey.

Daedalus made it to Sicily; Minos’s attempts to recapture him ended in his own death. And Daedalus lived peacefully at the settlement of Kamikos, continuing to invent stuff; the ancient Roman writer Pliny credits him with the invention of carpentry, along with the saw, the plumb line, the axe, the drill and glue. Although this may seem unrealistic, once you know that the Greek word daedalos means craftsman/cunning worker, this part at least of the myth suddenly starts to make sense.


Other labyrinths

There are many wonderful labyrinths around the world,and there's a great website dedicated to them - the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator: http://labyrinthlocator.com.

One of my very favourites is down at the western tip of Cornwall, in the garden of Boswedden House, near St Just. It's a wonderfully comfortable and peaceful place to stay, with kind and thoughtful hosts, who often arrange healing weekends and other similar events. Have a look at http://boswedden.org.uk/ .

And a special recommendation goes to www.pilgrimpaths.co.uk. It's primarily Christian, and has all sorts of labyrinth-related information, including retreats, workshops yoga, books, games and so on - not just Christian, I'm glad to say, but open to all of us, wherever we're at, and whatever direction we're taking, on our spiritual path.


The Labyrinth and Old Coach House, St Martin by Looe, Cornwall   Tel: 01503 262671
 
(c) Last updated on 6th April 2017
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