Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism (2015)



Why was the inscription, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter” placed over the door of Plato's academy?

Do some Gothic cathedral designs derive from Pythagorean and neo-Platonic knowledge of geometry, number, harmonics, and measure?

And what is a labyrinth and why were they built on the floors of some medieval Gothic cathedrals?

Importance of Geometry: “Number in space”

Cathedral designs placed geometry in a supreme position, one result being the aesthetic beauty and majesty of medieval Gothic buildings. Historically, when delving into the role of geometry, number and measure, existing records show that although the cathedral's building geometrical design was most often drawn up by the Master Mason in conjunction with the major patron, the patron's personal intervention was understood to be kept strictly at the non-technical level. Abbot Suger, for instance, was said to be notoriously “uninterested” in the most technical details of the new Gothic choir built for him at Saint-Denis.

A key patron of a major cathedral could impose his own taste on the design details; sometimes this included specific suggestions for certain geometric designs or patterns. For instance, in England, Henry VI directed that the ornate chapel at King's College, Cambridge should be built in a very specific way. Deference to a patron's wishes, as we might expect, is shown in contracts, like one in the year 1398, between John Bell and the Durham Cathedral priory. It states that the prior shall choose the precise design for the great window in the south gable of the new dormitory.

Some patrons insisted on the freedom to change design templates during the construction process. Situations could get quite heated over the specific design of a cathedral's features. Thus, some patrons went so far as to ensure including a special wording in their contracts for what they personally envisioned. Consider the rather humorous wording of the contract involving the wealthy and powerful patron of Vale Royal Abbey, William de Helpeston. He managed to legally secure the right to “change and ordain his templates as he wishes.... without challenge from anyone”—no doubt a phrase that many homeowners, architects, and donors of large building projects would relish today!


Durham Cathedral, England, the first in Europe to recognize in pointed arches a means of improving rib vaulting. (Dr. Gordon Strachan)

Imagine the Master Mason's long-term tedious planning and the extensive work that went into the high nave of Durham cathedral in England, for example. It was, “the first in Europe to recognize in pointed arches a means of improving rib vaulting,” according to Christopher Wilson, a leading British architectural cathedral historian. (1) Such a unique and courageous decision reflected well on its patron.

The Master Mason was the powerful expert designer of the entire Gothic cathedral building project. He was the architect—often seen walking around the cathedral site with his special drawing instruments. These special architect's geometric “tools of the trade” were highly valued in medieval times; the Master would rarely let them out of his sight. (2)

Gothic designs spread quickly because a Master Mason would sometimes repeat a tracing house pattern at another building site, or because he had already copied down the main idea from somewhere else and brought it over to the current building site. Certain design patterns were jealously guarded; absolutely no one was permitted access to them except the Master Mason and his trusted inner circle of stonemasons and the patron himself. These were the “trade secrets” of their day.

In the medieval period, there was no such thing as a “copyright,” “patent,” or “intellectual property.” So a Master Mason's designs—especially those involving new or unusual techniques, such as intricate geometricpatterns—were often very jealously guarded. (3)

The tracing floor is where the masons would work out the intricacies of their design and experiment with various measurements and drawings, similar to the idea of a contemporary draftsman's drawing board or architectural modeling. Medieval plaster tracing floors survive at Wells Cathedral and York Minster. (4) Tracing floors could be made wherever it was convenient. The geometric designs and experimental drawings would be preliminarily laid out and carefully critiqued before making the final templates. These were then cut out of board, canvas, parchment, or reinforced paper and then taken to the stone quarry, where the template provided the outline for the design (and geometry), and the setting marks to guide the stonecutting mason. (5)

The whole ground plan was drawn out on the building site itself. Working drawings (called “plats” in England) were prepared by the Master Mason down to the last detail. The drawings for the west front of Strasbourg cathedral by Michael Parler from 1385, and the spire of Ulm Cathedral by Matthias Boblinger are still in existence today. Each part of the intricate design is related to the whole, by geometry. (6) The operative mason, provided with such a diagram, could then take one dimension as the starting-point, and then use straightedge and compass geometry to arrive at a full-sized plan for the parts for which he was responsible, from which his wooden templates were made. The final stones were then cut and carved exactly as indicated.

The number of stories and height of the elevation were decided between the Master Mason and the patron. The few surviving tracing floors show only details of specific elements of the construction. (7) Sometimes, designs were incised on walls, but these were much harder to work from than those traced on the floor.

Geometry and the mason's tools: straightedge, compass, and square

Written evidence of the design methods of stonemasons is contained in a series of instruction manuals, mostly in Germany, except for a treatise on vault design by the Spanish architect Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon. The most famous of these are the manuals written by Mathes Roriczer and Lorenz Lechler, which give detailed instructions on various design techniques. (8) But strangely enough, all of these manuals appeared very late—not until the 15th—16th centuries. As their contents clearly reflect an ancient tradition of some type, it seems as though they suddenly decided to write it all down—after centuries of secretly transmitting by oral tradition. Did they fear, as some art historians believe, that a precious, ancient tradition was dying out? It would appear so. And if that were the case, our question must be, why?

Some experts believe that the writings of the Germans Roriczer and Lechler may have been a “northern response” to the writings on architecture by the famous Italian Renaissance author Alberti. His treatise had been circulating since the 1450s, finally appearing in print in 1485. A growing number of scholars believe that although, on the surface, the northern masons seemed to have a more “disorganized approach” than the polished certainties of their Florentine humanist counterparts—there could well be a connection between the two. (9) This idea is being explored by leading art historians at the Courtauld Institute who have done important research on the relation between late Netherlands painting techniques and the Italian Renaissance.


Geometry image; a man portrayed with a compass. (Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier)

Geometry is one of the seven liberal arts and sciences, and was a subject studied deeply in the medieval universities. But, interestingly, modern experts maintain that much of the earliest medieval stonemason's geometry was not necessarily Euclidian—even though the word “geometrie” appears in early masonic writings. The reason for this is that Euclid's works had only survived in Arabic and were not yet translated in contemporary medieval European language. But by the tenth century, famed works on geometry such as that of Boethius' De geometria, as well as key material from Books I, V, X, and XI of Euclid's Elementa became available. These writings referred to the classification and construction of angles, planes, and solids. (10)

Interestingly, Chartres and Soissons cathedrals established the polygon as the norm for both radiating chapels and main apses. The polygon shape replaced the traditional semicircular form. However, the older form did not disappear right away according to British cathedral architectural expert Christopher Wilson. (11)

Medieval masons did not necessarily need to know the entire theoretical basis of their projects to demonstrate that their solutions were mathematically correct in advance. What they absolutely did need to know, was how to manipulate the geometry and materials of construction with great precision to get the desired end result. We know from history that they did this very well indeed.


Statue of Euclid in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. (Mark A. Wilson, WMC)

Geometry and geometric symbolism

A number of the great Gothic cathedrals—such as Chartres, Canterbury, and Gloucester to name just three—were built on the locations of ancient sites already acknowledged and long honored by various spiritual traditions, depending on the locale and circumstances. Such sites may have been been geomantically chosen so that they might employ the best of the telluric earth energies and align with certain influences of the heavens. Sadly, a number of these earlier sites and/or stone circles have been deliberately destroyed and the environment damaged by different groups and people over time for various reasons. For instance, at times, crushed stones from the earlier pre-Christian sites were deliberately used as part of the mortar in the buildings that would succeed them, revealing a rather ironic “reverse validation” of what some Christians in that era chose to automatically label “superstitious nonsense!” By ensuring that crushed stones from an earlier “too overtly Pagan” site were to be carefully included within the design of their new one is also—implicitly or otherwise, consciously or unconsciously—directly acknowledging an inherent ancient “power of place” at that particular location.

Some contemporary researchers maintain that the geometry of stone circles and dolmens may have been related to the telluric earth energies at that particular spot. Such energies varied with the seasons. People believed that consciously creating and participating in sacred ceremonies, meditation, music, and other activities at particular sites at particular times were especially efficacious. Today, some proponents call these energy currents “ley lines”; while others refer to them as “energy pathways,” or “energy circuits.” A number of scientists maintain that the electromagnetic field of the earth varies from place to place, and that such variation can affect human energy levels. Others claim that it has little or no influence. The debate continues. Nearly everyone has, however, occasionally experienced the feeling of being unusually energized in some places and far less so in others. It is obviously highly subjective as to how one individual might experience a place as compared to another at any given time, or, even the same individual experiencing a site quite differently upon a return visit. Such subjective variations make it difficult to “prove” anything definitive.


A Woman teaching Geometry from Euclid's Elements, detail of a scene in the bowl of the letter “P” with a woman with a set-square and dividers; using a compass to measure distances on a diagram. In her left hand she holds a square, an implement for testing or drawing right angles. She is watched by a group of students. In the Middle Ages, it is unusual to see women represented as teachers, in particular when the students appear to be monks. She is most likely the personification of Geometry, based on Martianus Capella's famous book De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, [5th century] a standard source for allegorical imagery of the seven liberal arts. Illustration at the beginning of Euclid's Elementa, in the translation attributed to Adelard of Bath” (British Library, WMC)

British author Philip Carr-Gomm provides some sound advice for visitors to sacred sites today:

As yet there is no real proof that leys affect us or even exist. Scientists point out that there are so many ancient sites in Britain that it is possible to connect many of the lines purely on the basis of chance. But there is plenty of evidence of the deliberate alignment of individual sites to celestial phenomena. In Carnac in France we see the extraordinary sight of hundreds of standing stones aligned in rows, and in Peru the Nazca lines stretch across the desert in alignment for miles. The most sensible approach to ley lines and to dowsing seems to lie in being open-minded and unattached to any particular theory... (12)

Geometry—as well as a sense of place—was to the medieval mindset often viewed as a symbolic link, connecting both earthly form and the intangible celestial and spiritual form. Many of the ancients viewed geometry as a special sacred science, one that could, at the right times and places, assist in connecting humanity more deeply with the mysteries of Nature. The natural geometric shapes and symmetry of flowers, snowflakes, the chambered nautilus seashell, and other organic forms in nature from the smallest on earth to the mysteries of the planets, stars, and nebulae in the sky are keys to Nature's unity.

In medieval times, there was a fairly universal acceptance of canonical measure—a special measure that the ancients believed is divine in nature. In many cultures, the fundamental mathematic and geometric units of measure are ultimately believed not to have had purely earthly origins, but to have been handed down from the Gods themselves via the inherent mysteries of nature. The visionary expositor of these sacred measures is usually described as a man or a demi-god, often the legendary founder of a tribe or nation. Harmony, music, and number were seen as important areas of study and knowledge. (13)


Nautilus shell

Contemporary authors such as Dr. Graham Robb, Keith Crichlow, and others have examined the vast topic of sacred geometry and sacred places in their various works in a careful and serious manner, shedding more light for modern-day visitors to European sites. As one London-based author states, “an adaptation of geomantic principles for the modern world might help re-educate us on the finer aspects of the care and maintenance of a small planet and to help redress the imbalances we have created between the human way of life and the workings of the natural world.” (14)

The quest for geometric uniformity, when followed consistently, gives Gothic cathedrals their characteristic overall flowing, organic unity. (15) Every part of the building is linked logically, harmoniously, and proportionally to the whole. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that in the floor plan of Salisbury Cathedral, we see that the eastern bay of the high nave is duplicated nine times. (16)


Jewish scholar and Hebrew University professor Raphael Patai clarifies gemetria in his groundbreaking 1994 book, The Jewish Alchemists:

Gematria (pl. gematriyot; from the Greek grammateion) was introduced into talmudic hermeneutics from ancient Near Eastern Gnostic and Hellenistic cultures to serve as a basis for midrashic interpretations of biblical words and passages, and to attribute to or derive from them totally extraneous meanings...The gematriyot are based on the fact that each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet has, in addition to its phonemic value, also a numerical value. The opening up of the hidden mysteries of the Kabbalah to the Christian scholarly world also made the secret methods of the gemetria calculations available to it. This in turn led rapidly to their adoption by Christian alchemists and their utilization in the theoretical underpinning of the Great Work. It was thus that “kabbalistic alchemy” developed—not, as one would have imagined, among Jewish alchemists, but among their Christian colleagues. This led the latter to a revival of the Hellenistic alchemical attitude: the attribution of mysterious potency to Hebrew words in general... (17)

The depth and breadth of the variety of topics studied by the philosophers and theologians during the High Middle Ages—in twelfth century Paris, for example—are often not fully acknowledged or widely known, to many in the West today. Medieval scholars knew and studied ancient Greek philosophy and texts in-depth, and also read a variety of other works as well. Such prominent churchmen as Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus were conversant in ancient languages and made serious studies in alchemy, as did Ramon Lull, Roger Bacon, and many other learned individuals at that time—some risking their lives in the process, “from within” the church. Visitors to the great Gothic cathedrals are now more aware of one of the most famous carvings at Notre Dame de Paris—the alchemist, carved high up on the exterior of the building.

But many scholars of the period felt the need to curtail their investigations of ancient knowledge, returning to more traditional subjects in ideological fear. Still others, whose names we do not know today, had their works hidden or burned; some even changed their name and appearance, choosing to leave the Church or their specific monastic Order altogether. Studies are being done on these and related issues in universities and elsewhere today.

Those late medieval scholars, doctors and other highly knowledgeable individuals who chose to continue their explorations were often forced to do so in extraordinary secrecy, as the dangers were great in studying what the Church labelled “forbidden arts and sciences.” One area of their studies was the kabbalistic tradition involving numbers and letters—gematria—and some attempted to apply this knowledge to New Testament manuscripts as well as the Old Testament. Especially from the mid-fifteenth century onward, eminent European scholars such as Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) and Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) began to more openly study and write in-depth about such esoteric subjects as gematria and related topics, making the doctrines and methods of the Kabbalah more accessible to Christian alchemists of the day. (18)

Gothic cathedrals and sound

Visitors today describe certain Gothic cathedrals as especially effective “temples of sound.” The word “temple” itself has its roots in the ancient Greek temnos, “to cut off or enclose a sacred area,” as well as in the Latin word templum (space), which has survived in the modern word as “template” and tempus (time). (19) The cathedrals are particularly well-designed for choral resonance as many modern visitors, choir directors, singers, and musicians can attest, as well as to the harmonies of instrumental music.

The suggestion has been made in some quarters that the ancient stones of megalithic structures, in addition to absorbing telluric earth energies, may have also acted as instruments of vibration. We know that people in the ancient world would deliberately sing, play instruments or conduct rituals involving sound in or near stone circles and at other ancient sites. Since the cathedrals were built of stone and often placed on the same locations as earlier sacred sites, it has been suggested that perhaps the walls and vaulting of the cathedral may have helped to act as “resonators.” To proponents of this theory, the near-continuous singing of the Gregorian chants in the cathedrals by monks—at regular intervals through the day, known as the canonical hours—would help enhance the vibratory qualities of the building's geometrical harmony. Such auditory and structural harmony would produce what we would now scientifically call alterations in brain wave frequencies to foster greater concentration and peace of mind among the monks. Are such vibrations further enhanced by the stone, as some researchers believe?

The effects of the geometry inherent in Gothic design were powerful indeed, often transformative. Architectural historian William Anderson comments that a Gothic cathedral, “creates a new state in us, the state of intensified aesthetic delight which is like singing in the mind.” (20) The instant “number one” musical chart success of the Gregorian chants performed by the monks of Silos, Spain in 1999—and similar recordings since by many other spiritual traditions—have surprised many, including the monks themselves! In in our fast-paced, technological modern age, inner peace and serenity are often more desired than ever.


Roger Bacon in his Observatory at Oxford, 1867 engraving

The Seven Liberal Arts

In the High Middle Ages the seven liberal arts (sometimes called “sciences”) were branches of the medieval curriculum that all liberi, or “free men,” would study. They were the basis of education in the cathedral and monastic schools, and later, the first European universities. The Church long remained divided on how to use the erudite philosophy and “Pagan learning” from earlier times as embodied in the seven liberal arts. Medieval theologians feared that such learning might ultimately be quite dangerous to souls. They often fiercely argued with each other as to whether the knowledge of any pre-Christian civilization should be incorporated at all, or to what extent, or if it would simply be best to toss it aside altogether.

Ultimately they concluded that to best further their own interests, as one historian termed it, it would be best to simply “take the gold” of their predecessors, i.e., picking and choosing only those elements they wanted to include and ignoring the rest. In other words, to create their own “Christianized version” of ancient philosophy. Medieval churchmen knew Greek well, had studied ancient philosophy appreciated its intrinsic value, and deeply immersed themselves in its wisdom. Because such teachings originated from Pagan scholars and philosophers, it was a difficult dilemma for them. They felt it would be better to strategically re-work this important knowledge from the past into the new educational curriculum they were trying to further develop. Colloquially, they were careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The two parts of a medieval student's curriculum were the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of the subjects of Grammar, Rhetoric (Latin literature), and Aristotelian Logic. The quadrivium was comprised of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. (21)

In the late 12th and 13th centuries, a man who had studied the trivium at a university and passed his exams received a baccalaureate or Bachelor of Arts degree—i.e., the B.A. degree of today is rooted in the medieval period. Likewise, if he were then to go on and study the more advanced subjects of the quadrivium, upon completion he would receive the Magister Artium, or a Master's degree, (M.A.), allowing him to teach. For those who opted to go on to even further study, they could choose to specialize in theology at a university like Paris or Oxford, in civil or canon law at Bologna, or, perhaps, medicine at Salerno. Graduates would then receive a doctorate (Ph.D.) degree in their field of study—but not until being thoroughly “grilled,” in person, by their professors about their original research, theory, and sources at their viva (oral exam). If they were fortunate enough to pass the oral exam and obtain their doctorate, some of these students chose to teach at a university, while others decided to work as doctors, ecclesiastics, or civil lawyers, for example.

Contrary to the stereotype of the Middle Ages being largely a “cultural backwater,” educational standards were more stringent in the twelfth century at many universities, especially Paris, than many might realize today. Neoplatonists debated the works of the Greek philosopher Plato, whose writings and philosophy were studied by nearly all of the scholars in medieval Paris. (22) There were also the medieval Aristotelians, lively debaters of logic and rational thought, a tradition which became a key cornerstone of what was to be called “scholasticism.” Both sides often fiercely argued over certain philosophical points.

Alongside their scholastic Christian counterparts like Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, or Boethius, one would also find the brilliant Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, or leading Islamic philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes. At this time, the influx of Islamic knowledge was coming into western Europe primarily via Spain, and many Christians also knew about and studied these works, as new translations from Arabic were coming in rapidly.

An interesting case in point is Roger Bacon—the scintillating 13th century English philosopher, renowned lecturer on Aristotle at Oxford, theologian, alchemist, and early scientist of optics, astronomy, mathematics, languages and much more, was educated at Paris. He produced three major works, the Opus Major, Opus Minor, and Opus Tertium. His dream was to introduce the natural sciences to the universities of Europe. A Franciscan, he believed his scientific work would contribute to a greater understanding of the world and so of God; but, perhaps not unsurprisingly, he soon ran into major trouble with the Church. We will learn more about him shortly.

So, not only theologians and religious or esoteric philosophers from within the Church could potentially be a target of the Church itself, but also, those with a more scientific focus in their work as well. Yet, overall, this period was more cosmopolitan than we have been led to believe, with an influx of a variety of cultural impulses from abroad. In addition to certain Christian scholars, the very real contributions to western European cultureby Jewish, Islamic, and other philosophers, artists, and spiritual teachers from a number of different traditions simply cannot be ignored.


Geometric shapes envisaged as the Elements, the Platonic figures and their associated numbers. (James Wasserman)

Systems of medieval geometry

When the Gothic cathedrals were erected, there were basically two systems of geometry in common use by stonemasons. The older one was known as ad quadratum; it was based on the square and its geometric derivatives. The one that came later was based on the equilateral triangle and called ad triangulum. (23)

In Ad quadratum, the square gave birth to the octagram. The initial square, orientated in a way approved by the masons in charge, was overlain by a second square of the same size. This was set at an angle of 45 degrees to the first square and formed the octagram. In masonic tradition, the octagram was invented by a master mason of Strasbourg named Albertus Argentinus. In later German masonic writings, this figure is called acht-ort or acht-uhr, meaning eight hours or eight places.

Another geometric figure used by medieval architects was the dodecagram or twelve-sided design. The floor plan of Durham cathedral, for example, made use of this figure.

Showdown at Milan Cathedral

Sometimes, issues over which type of geometry to use when building a cathedral were very hotly debated—perhaps none more so than at the Milan cathedral building site in Italy. The cathedral began construction in 1386. It became the center of a bitter controversy over sacred geometry: in this case, over whether to use the ad quadratum or ad triangulum design. A large number of experts gathered together at the beginning of the project to determine how to build their masterpiece for the city of Milan.


Medieval books on book shelf

The experts soon began to argue over the benefits of the ad quadratum and the ad triangulum systems. Their discussions degenerated into a very bitter dispute. Initially, the ground plan had been laid out according to ad quadratum, or square-based system, with an accentuated central nave and aisles of equal height. However, this was soon replaced by the ad triangulum, or triangle-based system, for the elevation. This is where the trouble really began, as the height of an equilateral triangle is unequal to its side. Put upon a ground plan of ad quadratum, the use of a triangle would make nonsense of the commensurability of sacred geometry; the whole proportions of the elevation would be wrong.

In order to get some semblance of logic back into the process, a brilliant mathematician, Gabriele Stornaloco from Piacenza, was called in. (24) He recommended they round-off the incommensurable height of 83.138 to 84 braccia, which could then be conveniently divided into six units each of 14 braccia. Stornoloco's scheme was further modified, producing a further reduction in height and bringing the cathedral closer to classical principles. However, the German Master Mason Heinrich Parler was absolutely infuriated by what he considered to be a compromise of true measure. His passionate protests led to his being dismissed from the post of consultant in 1392. By 1394, Ulrich von Ensingen from Ulm took the post of Master Mason, but stayed only six months before he left in disgust.

The Lombardic masons struggled on to build their cathedral unassisted by a master, until 1399, when Master Mason Jean Mignot was brought in from France to oversee the works. But, unfortunately, Mignot did not last long, either. His criticisms of local masonic principles were so vitriolic that a major meeting was called to discuss the overall points he raised. Such an ignorance of Gothic geometrical and mechanical principles was shown by the Lombardic masons that they attempted to argue that pointed arches exerted no thrust to justify their aberrant geometry. By this time completely exasperated, Mignot declared Ars sine scientia nihil est; i.e., “Art without science is nothing.” (25) To this, he received from his rival the Lombardic retort: Scientia sine arte nihil est, or, “Science without art is nothing.” So Mignot returned to Paris in 1401, having been unable to come to any agreement at all with the Lombardic masons.

To the sheer amazement of many, the Italians soldiered on and finished the choir and transepts by themselves, by 1450. However, the whole cathedral wasn't finished until the west front was finally completed on orders from Napoleon in 1809! Milan's geometry was preserved in an edition of Vitruvius (1521). It shows the plan and elevation of the cathedral as an illustration of Vitruvian principles. (26) This is evidence of the essential unity of the Classical and stonemasons' systems of sacred geometry. The scheme shown in the engraving is based on the rhombus or vesica piscis.


Milan cathedral. (WMC)


The Mandorla, a saint's halo carving, at Vezelay. This image depicts the geometric almond-shaped design of the Vesica piscis. (Jane May)

But this example of the intense dispute over the sacred geometry of Milan cathedral also shows the changed attitude towards the Gothic style exhibited by writers of the Renaissance. It is directly in the tradition of Matthaus Roriczer—briefly mentioned earlier—a mason who revealed his art by breaking his sworn oath of secrecy. Roriczer (d. 1492) was of the third generation of a family who served as Master Masons at Regensburg Cathedral. He was also the head of a lodge where all the building work was designed and executed.

Although Roriczer's only published work is a small pamphlet which gave the solution to a geometrical problem, it is of utmost importance to medieval historians because it is the only surviving key to the stonemasons' sacred geometry. Entitled On the Ordination of Pinnacles, Roriczer gave the solution to the problem of erecting a pinnacle of correct proportions from a ground plan. As late as the end of the medieval period—around 1450—masons were producing the masterworks of Gothic architecture by the simplest means, as described earlier when discussing the tracing floor plan system.

Labyrinths and Mazes: “at the still point of the turning world”

Although sometimes confused, labyrinths and mazes are actually quite different. A labyrinth eventually takes one to a Center. A maze does not, but has many twists and turns in its path, even the occasional “dead end.” (27) The unique twists and turns of both labyrinths and mazes continue to intrigue. Some are of stone, as in a medieval cathedral, others are of earthen turf. Labyrinths have their own unique form, usually a circular or similar geometric shape (with as many as seven, eleven, or another numbers of circuits) that provides a path for a walker, who often meditates, dances or sings, concentrating on an inner silence and truth. (28) Mazes can be large or small, intricate or simple, but they are all designed to challenge the walker with some level of difficulty in navigating the path.

Spiral designs are seen at many ancient Celtic and other sites around the world and were often incorporated into buildings. (29) Most of the labyrinths in the Gothic cathedrals are of the unicursal type, where a single paths leads one to the center, without any other choice. A labyrinth can be seen as a symbolic journey towards the light or into the darkness. T S. Eliot in his famous poem, Four Quartets, quotes a passage saying that the journey into the darkness and the journey into the light are ultimately the same; enlightenment comes with seeing the full significance of what is happening now—in the present—for the visitor or pilgrim. Eliot adds that within thedance of life there is a still point. Were it not for the still point, there would be no dance. (30)

The experience of the maze is different. As one walks in a maze, various “choices”—or “barriers,” depending on your point of view—are offered at certain points along the way. You may get lost at times. Some paths do not reach any particular goal. Eventually, the idea is that you find your own way out. (31)

History of labyrinths and mazes

What is a labyrinth, and why were they built on the floor of some of the great Gothic cathedrals like Chartres, Amiens, or Reims? Let us take a brief look at the history of these intriguing patterns.

Labyrinths have been around a very long time, with roots in the ancient world. Contemporary authors remind us of the antiquity of the labyrinth design in Egypt. In the History of Herodotus, near the center of the Egyptian kingdom, we learn that the they had built a huge, famous labyrinth. Dubbed “indescribably wonderful” by Herodotus (“the father of history”), he estimated it to be a greater work than all the Greek temples and public buildings put together. It stood between twelve covered courts, six on the north side and six on the south, and consisted of three thousand apartments, half of them above ground and the other half below, a massive complex. “Herodotus was given a tour of the upper chambers and galleries, but he was not allowed to see the lower part, which contained the tombs of kings and the sacred crocodiles.” (32)

The enigmatic word “labyrinth” remains unexplained today, in spite of many efforts by experts to specifically trace it. The most commonly cited theory has been the term labyrinthos, the house of the double-headed ax (labrys), a palace of Knosses on Crete. However, this is considered to be untenable according to labyrinth historians today. Dr Hermann Kern says “all we can be certain of is that the suffix “-inthos” was usually employed in place names in a language that the Greeks encountered upon migration (ca. 2000 BCE). At the very least, this suffix could be an indication of how long the word has been in use. An analysis of the rest of the word leads one to assume, with some reservations, that it is associated, somewhat mysteriously, with ‘stone.’” (33) Interestingly, the labyrinths in medieval Gothic cathedrals are often made of stone.


Image of a Minotaur at the center of a labyrinth on a 16th-century gem; from Maffei, P.A., Gemmae Antiche, 1709, Pt. IV, plate 31. (WMC)

The labyrinth in Knossos, Crete is the most ancient labyrinth design we know. It has seven circuits. However, other labyrinths exist with more than seven circuits. The earliest known image of a labyrinth is found on a small Mycenaean clay tablet found at Knossos, which dates from around 1400 BCE. No wonder, then, that a 13th century prayer to the goddess Ariadne also hails from the Minoan site of Knossos, Crete: “Honey to all the gods, but the most honey to the Mistress of the Labyrinth.” (34)

The next known reference to a labyrinth appeared in the now lost work of the Samian architect, Theodorus the Heraeum, which he had built on Samos—the home of Pythagoras—in the sixth century BCE. In a eulogy of self-praise, Theodorus likened himself to Daedalus, the legendary labyrinth builder and the “father of all architects” (for more on whom, see below).

Labyrinths have a very ancient, documented history in certain carvings and written forms as well. Since as early as late antiquity (3rd century BCE), there have been written accounts in which the labyrinth is used as a literary motif. In these descriptions, the labyrinth is more properly a maze—a path with many “choices”—in which the walker must make decisions on a journey that presents difficult options as to which way to go, some of which lead to “dead ends” and blind alleys.


Theseus fighting the Minotaur by Étienne Jules Ramey, French sculptor, marble, 1826. In the Tuileries Gardens, Paris. (Marie-Lan Nguyen, WMC)


An example of a complex labyrinth design whose winding path leads to the center. (Sebastián Asegurado, WMC)

Interestingly enough, mazes are not mentioned in any of the earliest historical reports to which we have access—only labyrinths. For example, we also don't see any descriptions of mazes accompanying the labyrinths that are repeatedly mentioned in the building records for temples such as that of Apollo at Didyma, in the third century BCE.

As we have mentioned, a true labyrinth, in its original sense, provided the walker with only one path, one “way out,” with no unexpected dead ends. Often circular, but varying in design, these are the type that have survived in some Gothic cathedrals. In contrast to the confusion in the literary tradition between labyrinths and mazes, all visual illustrations of labyrinths up to the time of the Renaissance offer no possibility of going astray on the winding path, which eventually leads to the center.

As a linear figure, a labyrinth is best defined first in terms of its overall geometric form. Its round, rectangular, square, or octagonal shape really makes sense only when viewed from above. Seen this way, the lines appear as delineating walls; and the space between them as a path. The path, not the walls, is the most important part of a labyrinth, as it defines the pattern of movement of the walker. It begins at a small opening at the edge and eventually leads to the center with many twists and turns along the way. Every labyrinth consists of lines that may be thought of as a sort of ground plan for a sophisticated pattern of movement. If you picture yourself walking the path between the lines of the labyrinth, you can begin to comprehend this pattern. The perimeter determines the shape of the inner circuits the traveler makes while inside the labyrinth.

As opposed to a maze, the labyrinth's path is not intersected by other possible paths; there are no choices to be made. The only end, the only “goal” is at its very center. The walker or dancer has no choice but to follow the one true path and end up at the goal. In the medieval Christian mindset, a labyrinth was viewed as a metaphor for following the special path to the very heart of God.

Why do we find ancient labyrinth designs in Gothic cathedrals? Dr Hermann Kern explains in his seminal work Through the Labyrinth that he believes the medieval Christians themselves perceived the labyrinth as relating to the doctrine of salvation:

The immutable, unambiguous nature of the Christian doctrine of salvation shows the way out of the labyrinth. This is one of the reasons why all medieval Christian labyrinths are necessarily unicursal and do not encompass dead ends or choices...The Christian Church simply could and would not, in light of the way it viewed itself, have entertained the remotest notion of multiple paths leading to salvation. (35)

Some would add that a medieval Christian pilgrim may have well believed it was not only necessary to get to the Center of the labyrinth, but to follow the one true path of salvation, i.e., Christ, in order to get back out of the labyrinth. According to medieval Christian belief, the idea was that, by following the Path, one would never get “lost” in life, or stuck within the labyrinth of life's experiences. The idea seems to have been that the seeker or pilgrim would “walk the labyrinth” in a meditative, prayerful manner to the center, and back out again, purified and redeemed. Only then was he or she ready to proceed onward to explore the rest of the cathedral and head for its major shrine.


The octagonal labyrinth on the floor of the Basilica of St. Quentin in Aisne, France. (Rattana, WMC)

Labyrinths were also viewed by medieval pilgrims as a path to a symbolic Jerusalem—one that was fraught with many “twists and turns,” as life often is, before one finally gets to the final destination—the place where one could re-connect with the spiritual. The labyrinth in the local cathedral was perceived as a “direct beeline” to the cosmos, right in your own community,. The center of a labyrinth was akin to a still, cosmic point of peace where peace, spiritual reconciliation, and healing would be more likely to take place.

But there were many circuits to walk or dance, before finally reaching the center in a labyrinth, ranging from seven to eleven or thirteen circuits,. The Chartres labyrinth is probably one of the best surviving medieval examples today of the eleven-coil pattern. (36) Located in the center of the nave, it measures some 13 meters in diameter, and is similar to a labyrinth illustrated in Villard de Honnecourt's 13th century notebooks. The way to the central point at Chartres is 230 meters (755 feet) long. The thirteenth-century Amien labyrinth is octagonal in shape.

As modern visitors often note, labyrinths feel intrinsically old, as if one is following a path of unknown, ancient footsteps from the mists of time. For example, at Chartres, the original etching at the center of the labyrinth at the entrance to the cathedral was said to be that of the minotaur, a beast featured in ancient Greek myths. How and why did such an incorporation of an obviously Pagan symbol get approved by those in charge? (There is some debate as to whether it was actually an image of a minotaur.) Today, the older copper plaque that was in the center is no longer to be seen, as it was destroyed in earlier times. Charles Challine, who died in 1678, referred to this plaque and said that it represented the combat between Theseus, the hero, and the Minotaur. (37) Sadly, the old copper plaque and the cathedral bells of Chartres were melted down in 1792 during the Napoleonic wars to make canons. Witnessed by the mayor and bishop of Chartres, such behavior happened elsewhere in France as well.


Ely cathedral floor maze. (Simon Brighton)

Daedalus: The Labyrinth or Maze, and Ariadne's Thread

While the debate continues as to exactly what the original copper plaque may have depicted, most historians today believe it referred to the minotaur myth. As we will see below, certain Italian cathedrals also incorporate the theme of Daedalus; one of them, at Lucca, dates from the twelfth century, and features a labyrinth design exactly like that at Chartres. The mythological connection between Daedalus, the ancient world's “father of architects,” and the minotaur myth of Crete, is well known.


Chartres floor labyrinth, color, open view. (Jeannette Hermann)

The medieval architects who included labyrinths in their designs were providing a pattern which could be used for prayer, ritual pilgrimage, dances—one that could be contemplated by the pilgrim as an allegory of life itself. But these architects were also showing that they believed themselves to be the heirs of Daedalus, the builder of the labyrinths and the chief architect of many buildings in the ancient world in countries such as Egypt, Sicily, Sardinia, Greece, and Italy.

Daedalus, the cunning artificer, was revered by the artists' Guilds of the ancient world, especially in Attica. An accomplished architect, Daedalus was supposed to have invented the axe, awl, and bevel. His nephew, who invented the saw, the potter's wheel, the lathe, and other tools, attracted the jealously of Daedalus, who slew him, and buried the body.... He was detected, fled to Crete, where he designed and built the great labyrinth at Knossos for the Minotaur; he entrusted Ariadne with certain secrets (symbolized by the clue of yarn) by which she guided Theseus through the maze... (38)

After Daedalus built the labyrinth or maze for King Minos, designed as a prison for the Minotaur, he entrusted the king's daughter, Ariadne, with certain secrets. These were symbolized by her long string of yarn. She guided Theseus through the dangerous, dark passages of the maze, that he might do battle with the Minotaur, kill the monster, and find his way out. This is reminiscent of certain early mystery schools of the ancient world whereby an initiate would be guided through the dangerous, dark passages of the labyrinth or maze by his intuition, the feminine aspect of divinity—the Soul.

Daedalus is shown flying from the labyrinth in a relief by Pisano at the cathedral of Florence. A Master Mason named Anselm described himself as “the second Daedalus” in a 12th century inscription in Milan. At the 12th century Lucca Cathedral in Italy, as mentioned, is a labyrinth like the one at Chartres, only smaller. Beside it is a Latin inscription which reads:

This is the labyrinth built by the Cretan, Daedalus. No one has ever found the exit, except Theseus, thanks to Ariadne's thread. (39)*

Certain Gothic cathedral labyrinths pay direct tribute to the Master Masons who designed the cathedral; the labyrinths of Amiens and Rheims portray the architects and the bishops who actually laid the foundation stones. (40) By the late thirteenth century, the practice had arisen of putting the master architects' names in labyrinths laid out on the floor. So the master builders of Amiens and Reims cathedrals are known only because their names were inscribed within a labyrinth—rather than from old historical records, illustrations, or archives, as might be expected.


Amiens octagonal labyrinth. (Karen Ralls)

God, of course, was perceived in the late medieval era as the supreme architect of the univserse, the Architectus Mundi, often portrayed with compasses. A medieval version of this is used as the frontispiece for this book and it was later revived by William Blake. So Daedalus, according to Architecture Professor James Curl, was likely to have been seen by the medieval architects as an Architectus Mundi, along with other luminaries from the ancient world.

In addition to symbolizing the inward journey of the solitary initiate as used by numerous mystery cults, another ancient association is that labyrinths and mazes had a special connection to the Feminine side of God. This was true among Pagans with the great goddesses of antiquity, and among Christians of the medieval period with Mary, including her portrayal as a Black Madonna, an image often found in the very roots of a cathedral, in its crypt. It is interesting to note that Chartres, in particular, was perceived from quite early on as having had a special connection to the Feminine. In addition to its much earlier history (see the “Black Madonnas” chapter in my earlier publication, Medieval Mysteries, for details), as early as the eighth century, a royal decree by Pepin the Short (751–768) specifically refers to gifts to the “Church of St. Mary” at Chartres.

According to the enigmatic but learned initiate in Le Mystere des Cathedrales, the labyrinth in the cathedrals, or the Labyrinth of Solomon, is, as Marcellin Berthelot tells us, “a cabalistic figure found at the head of certain alchemical manuscripts and which is part of the magic tradition associated with the name of Solomon. It is a series of concentric circles, interrupted at certain points, so as to form a bizarre and inextricable path.” (41) Berthelot maintains that the picture of the labyrinth is “emblematic of the whole labour of the Work, with its two major difficulties, one, the path which must be taken in order to reach the center—where the bitter combat of the two natures [within one] takes place—the other, the way which the artist must follow in order to emerge. It is there that the ‘thread of Ariadne’ becomes necessary for the hero, if he is not to wander among the winding paths of the task, unable to extricate himself.” (42)

We have seen in this short discussion that the labyrinths in the cathedrals have been interpreted differently by various authors. Churchmen have tended to see them as illustrative of the inner difficulties, twists and turns that an individual or pilgrim may encounter on his or her way on the path to the allegorical “celestial Jerusalem”—when reaching the center of the labyrinth in a cathedral, one is seen to mystically reconnect with God and spirit. And we have seen that there is a more esoteric view as well in which the labyrinth could be interpreted as an alchemical allegory for an individual's inner spiritual work. As the path of a labyrinth is complicated and requires perseverance, so the person who reaches the center of the labyrinth is transformed in the process. For both the religious person and the esotericist, the journey of the labyrinth is the labor of the Great Work.

By the seventeenth century, labyrinth and maze motifs were also used in a more secular way, as in hedge and turf mazes.


Mary gardens, flowers, ornamental plants, and trees

In the High Middle Ages, we see the emergence of what became known as the “Mary garden” and much greater use and acknowledgement of various flowers, plants, and ornamental trees and shrubs in her honor. We also encounter beautiful visual illustrations, paintings, illuminated Books of Hours, and sculptures that were commissioned to reflect the realities of secular and religious life. In these we often see some women depicted in their gardens. She may be a queen, a female noble, and/or a lady-in-waiting portrayed within a beautiful, ornate, enclosed garden, embroidering or reading an illuminated Book of Hours for daily meditation.

In other Books of Hours of a more overtly religious nature, the Virgin Mary is shown, surrounded by herbs, ornamental plants and shrubs, and beautiful flowers: such as red roses, white lilies, irises, myrtles, hollyhocks, daisies, columbines, violets, cowslips, strawberries, and other favorites. Also rather commonly seen are cherry trees, apple trees, and rose trees.

A definitive tradition arose throughout Europe known as the “flowers of Our Lady.” The identification of flowers with the Virgin Mary was spread by itinerate lay preachers, mendicant friars, wandering musicians, poets, and other traveling performers who all sought to honor Mary in her various guises. Apparently, it was known to his contemporaries that “St. Francis of Assisi was said to have taken care never to tread on the least wayside flower, as it was a symbol of Mary, the Rose of Jericho. The earliest record of a plant actually named for Mary known to us is ‘Seint Mary Gouldes’ (St. Mary's Golds or marigolds) for the Pot Marigold or Calendula officinalis, in a 1373 English recipe for a potion to ward off the plague. The oldest botanical record we know of in this regard is that of ‘Our Lady's Slipper,’ as recorded in the herbal of Vitus Anslasser published in Germany in 1497.” (43)

Many of us today have seen or heard of a Rose Window high above the nave in a Gothic cathedral—the “gardens of glass”—large, beautiful windows featuring many symbols, including flowers. The rose in particular was seen as the “queen of flowers” and, by the High Middle Ages, became especially associated with the Virgin Mary.

Mary was often depicted in a rose garden. The five-petalled “wild rose” became a primary medieval rose symbol for her, often appearing in paintings and in stone or wood carvings in buildings such as those on the ceiling of Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. Scotland. Medieval gardens, from the monastic to the secular, featured roses and lilies in honor of the Feminine. The red (“Mother”) and the white (“Virgin”) rose were planted in some gardens, and the symbolism of the red and white rose was adopted by certain alchemists as a symbol of the vas spirituale, the sacred womb from which the filius philosophorum would be born.


Goddess Venus statue in a modern-day shade garden, northern California. (Karen Ralls)

The rose has a long history of association with the Feminine and the Goddess. In earlier Roman times, for instance, the rose was dubbed the “Flower of Venus,” and when the image of the goddess Cybele was paraded through the streets, roses were strewn about her statue by the jubilant crowds. Depictions on medieval ivory sculptures often feature ornately carved images of roses or a garden. The famous fourteenth century ivory cup entitled Pleasures in the Garden of Love—on display at the museum in Vannes (France)—illustrates the theme of love. Such secular art often features a couple in love in a garden, in this case among the trees, where they play music to each other and exchange fruits.

Flowers that were later associated with Mary during the High Middle Ages are also deeply intertwined with ancient Pagan lore. This has been pointed out by art historians and Christian horticulturists like Harold N. Moldenke, co-author of Plants of the Bible, writes:

Ivy was a plant dedicated to Bacchus ... plants that had hitherto been Sacred to or dedicated to Venus, or to her Scandinavian counterpart, Freya, or to some other great female divinity, now became associated with Mary ... [so] “Freyje's Heir” became Our Lady's Hair, and “Maria's Fern” in England now is known as maidenhair. Its scientific name, Adiantum capillus-veneris, indicates that in more ancient times, it was dedicated to Venus. A rose which is said to have been the favorite of Hulda now is called “Frau Rose” in Germany and “Mother Rose” in England ... one of the plants called mayweed (Matricaria inodora) was sacred to Athena during the Age of Pericles, but in the Christian era became dedicated to Mary Magdalene and was called St. Mary's herb. The laurel (Daphne mezereum) connected in Greek mythology with Apollo's... Daphne, was called Our Lady's laurel. (44)


Roses, a pink bouquet (Karen Ralls)

The honoring of both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, and other female personages via attributing flowers and plants to them, was—and is—a tradition popular even today. In addition to some professional medical herbalists and others today, many devout Catholics still plant Mary Gardens in religious and secular environments with the same medieval flowers and plants listed above. People have formed modern-day societies, exchanging horticultural and historical information.

Although we find little mention in the religious records of England regarding flowers—other than roses or lilies grown in monastery gardens—some accounting records from the past occasionally reveal information about gardening practices at a religious site. At Norwich Priory, for example, we have a list of plant purchases for a pre-Reformation “S. Mary's Garden.” In his book The Englishmans Flora, author Geoffrey Grigson lists the specific counties of the U.K. in which several hundred Mary-names of flowers were once current; other horticultural investigators are working on this in other countries as well.

Mary gardens, and depictions of Mary as the mystic Rose, were—and are—still favorite themes for certain artists and ornamental gardeners. The “Rosa Mystica,” a medieval term for Mary from the famous liturgy of Loreto, symbolically lives on via her ever-abundant greenery. After the Reformation, interest in Mary gardens understandably declined considerably, but interest in labyrinth and ornamental garden patterns remained.


Troy Town maze at St. Agnes, Scilly Isles, United Kingdom. (Simon Brighton)

Ornamental garden designs in England: “the knots”

Labyrinth patterns are often conceived as the “ancestors” of the knots, or ornamental designs, found in gardens in England beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the end of the fifteenth century, for instance, a “knot” was synonymous with a maze. Labyrinths and mazes are symbolic of a type of protection, enveloping walkers or dancers as they move. Labyrinths and mazes were thought to have magical connotations as one journyed upon the path to spiritual rebirth. (45)

Earthen turf mazes were prevalent throughout the ancient world. Yet, as Professor Ronald Hutton reminds us regarding England: “There is no maze recorded in the British Isles which can certainly be said to have been in existence before the Romans arrived.” (46) But there are still in existence a number of quite old turf mazes, albeit undated, or hard to precisely date today. Some of these do have interesting folklore associated with them, such as the turf maze at Wing (Rutland). (47) The turf mazes in the Scarborough district (48), the now famous “Troy Town” maze, Scilly Isles, (49) and the fascinating array of their many different designs are certainly worthy of a separate study in and of itself. (50)

Labyrinths made of stone, earthen turf, or other materials grace the exteriors of some of the major Gothic cathedrals. They have long been quite popular, and some folklorists believe they are probably the origin of certain hopscotch games, still a favorite with children in many countries.


Saffron Walden turf maze, England. (Simon Brighton))


Hilton turf maze, Hilton, Cambridgeshire, England. (Simon Brighton)


Winchester, St. Catherines Hill, turf MizMaze, England. (Simon Brighton))


Iona contemporary stone labyrinth, St. Columb's Bay (Julia Cleave)

The floral motif also made its appearance in the more formal stone labyrinths of cathedrals. In 1288, an octagonal labyrinth made of dark blue Belgian stone was inlaid in the paving at Amiens cathedral. In its center was an octagonal slab, a dedication to those who had built it; also, in the center, “was an engraved flowering cross, not aligned with the axis of the cathedral, but with the cardinal points of the octagon, with an angel, Bishop Evard de Fouilly, the founding bishop, and the three master masons...” (51)

As we have seen, labyrinthine designs in medieval cathedrals are associated with pilgrimage; “the obscure maze-dance by the clergy during pilgrimages to cathedrals appears to have been connected with an allegory of a journey through life to the City of God. Maze-patterns in masonry (as at Chartres Cathedral) repeat those of turf or hedge labyrinths, and of course, hedge-mazes. were often enclosed gardens themselves...” (52) So when a pilgrim would finally reach a major cathedral like Chartres, after what was likely a long and arduous journey, it was both a joy and an occasion for more serious reflection as one walked or danced the labyrinth. To finally arrive at the center was an act of spiritual meditation.

It is interesting to note that the disciples of Pythagoras valued dance and saw certain dance movements as having a celestial component—where one could connect not only to the earth, but also, to a higher force like the planetary movements as well. They saw dance as an attempt to replicate the movements of the planets and stars; Sufis, witches, and many others also made connections between the earth, energy, and circle dancing. Historically, we often see geometry, dance, music, and spirituality intertwined. King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant; Sufis dervishes do their whirling dance; and modern travelers and pilgrims walk or dance the labyrinth. Many cultures attribute spiritual significance “to whirling, vortex-like dances, which generate extreme exaltation or an otherworldly trance state. The idea of the expansion of consciousness evoked by spiral ascent is seen throughout the world.” (53)

When one enters the labyrinth in a cathedral, walking in front of the high nave, it is as if the environment communicates an ancient teaching: “you can find your inner peace first, by walking, or dancing, the labyrinth. Then you are ready to proceed into the depths of the cathedral itself....” It is interesting to reflect on the Latin word meditere, “to meditate,” which literally means “to find the center.” (54) Also of interest is that the Latin word re-ligio, for religion, originally meant to “link, tie, or bind back,” i.e., to return again, to find and go back to one's origin, the center. Metaphorically and literally, walking a labyrinth is about reaching the center, as well as going back to, and re-linking with, our deepest spirit and finding an inner peace.

In the pre-industrial era, for many, walking a maze or a labyrinth undoubtedly may have been viewed with reverence and joy, and great respect for the genus loci, the spirits of the place.” One would feel oneself within a sacred space, deeply connected with the earth, where a pilgrim's ritual journey around a maze or labyrinth provided yet another new voyage of discovery. One modern teacher, Lauren Artress, the Founder of Veriditas, The World-Wide Labyrinth Project, puts it in terms of igniting the inner spark: “That is what the labyrinth does: It births people's creativity.” (55)


Contemporary design incorporating geometric imagery, sea and stellar themes (Genevieve Lucette)

A path towards Wisdom ...

In closing, we might ponder the words of Jacques Attali, author of The Labyrinth in Culture and Society, who sums up how labyrinths tend to affect people differently, and how they remain a universal metaphor for the larger human condition:

It is forgetfulness that could kill humanity. The memory of what we have read in the tracks of our nomadic predecessors will save us, opening up the way towards a civilized use of our creations, an economy based on pleasure, freedom, and humor. Courage will be needed, for at the exit of every kind of labyrinth, humankind will never find anything but other labyrinths. Labyrinths of labyrinths. Some will believe they are meetingGod; others, the truth; and others will experience an ironic skepticism or a despairing panic. And finally, still others will find an enigmatic and fragile path towards Wisdom. (56)

Once someone had made the journey through the labyrinth, the Big Question always lingered: what is now at the center? The answer is simple: you are.

As many psychologists, spiritual seekers, artists, and others point out, it is entirely our own responsibility to make the effort, to attempt the journey—not something that anyone else can do for us. Your life path is yours to determine.

But in doing so—as many a medieval pilgrim did and many labyrinth walkers still do today—be sure to go with “all your Heart.”

As Confucius once said, “Whatever life's twists and turns may bring, journey well....”


An unusual grass-defined labyrinth at Rollright Stones. (David Kelf)

*The reader will note again the interchangeability of the terms “labyrinth” and “maze” in many of these quotes. By the strict terms of our discussion, Daedalus imprisoned the Minotaur in a maze.