Mazes and Spirals
by Tala Bar
The maze is a riddle, known in modern times as a puzzle made for the purpose of amusement; it is connected in English with the verb to amaze, meaning “to confuse.” The maze is usually square, built around a meandering path leading from the outside to the center; this one path is surrounded by many others, which lead to dead ends, leaving only one true path. The right course is discovered by trial and error, walking through various paths that lead to dead ends until finding the right one that leads to the center.
The maze is an intellectual structure, built by humans for human purposes and is not known as a natural phenomenon; it has been used, however, not only as a design drawn on paper in the form of an intellectual riddle, but also as a planted design made up of various shrubs between which one can walk and search for the right way to the center. Such live mazes exist in England, at Longleat Estate, for instance, and the very well-known one at the palace of Hampton Court; others are the Ashcombe Maze in Australia, and the one at Cherry Crest in Pennsylvania, USA.
The word “maze” is translated into other languages as labyrinth, which has a slightly different meaning in English. The traditional labyrinth is round in shape, and it contains only one meandering path leading from the outside to the center; it is conceivable, though, that the maze with its additional dead-end paths was developed from the original one-course labyrinth for the special purpose of confusing the walker. Evidence for such development can be shown as the existence of a square Roman labyrinth, which may be considered midway between the usual round labyrinth and the usual square maze. The labyrinth, also an artificial construction rather than a natural phenomenon, appeared in human culture around 4000 years ago. The best known is the one known to have been at Knossos, ancient palace of Minos, King of Crete, which supposedly housed the half-man, half-bull man-eating Minotaur; no sign of this mythological labyrinth has ever been found, although the construction is known from other fairly ancient sites around the world.
The labyrinth myth of ancient Crete tells the story of Queen Pasiphaë, representing the local Great Goddess, who mated with the sea god Poseidon in his form of King Minos while taking the shape of a bull; the Cretans were seafaring traders, and the Bull appeared as a sacred powerful divinity all round the Mediterranean basin, from Canaan (Israel) in the east to Spain in the west, through Phoenician Lebanon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Carthage and Gaul, representing both strength and fertility. By having intercourse with the representation of the Goddess, Minos became king of Knossos and Crete.
The result of this mating, Pasiphaë, gave birth to the half-human, half-bull creature called the Minotaur, who came to live in the Labyrinth that the clever engineer Daedalos built for that purpose. The labyrinth symbolizes the mythical way every living creature walks through life toward death, passing through all the events and meanderings in between; the center of the labyrinth represents the Underworld, and the way back from it toward the outside stands for resurrection. The function of the Minotaur was to represent the strength of Crete, and he must have been ritually sacrificed every year, thus coming to rule over the Land of the Dead, then resurrected back into life and so on in an endless cycle.
The story tells that at a certain period of history, Crete subdued the Greek town of Athens, forcing it to send young people to be sacrificed as food to the Minotaur at the center of the Labyrinth. Theseus, son of Aegeus, King of Athens, joined one such mission of young people to Crete. Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, gave him a ball of thread to find his way back from the center of the Labyrinth after he fulfilled his plan to kill the Minotaur. This event shows two beliefs: one, that this Labyrinth was built as a maze with its many dead-end side paths; and two, that by killing the Minotaur, Theseus destroyed Crete’s culture and the influence of the Great Goddess, thus clearing the way for the rule of the Olympian gods.
The story continues to tell that Ariadne accompanied Theseus on his way back to Athens, but on the island of Delos, where they made a break in their voyage, she was claimed by the god Dionysus. Ariadne was an ancient fertility goddess known in the Mediterranean area, appearing as a doll hanging on fruit trees. As such, she obviously belonged more to the orgiastic, goddess worshipping culture of Dionysus than to that of the male gods of Theseus.
In its spread around the world, the labyrinth has acquired a variety of meanings. In Amerindian culture there is a drawing called the Man in the Labyrinth, where a human figure is shown standing at the entrance to a labyrinth, ready to begin the journey of life. The interpretation says that the man's goal is to discover a deeper meaning to life by walking through its meandering stages. The legend helps children to understand the meaning of life, showing various experiences and choices that we take while traveling through life. It describes the search for physical, social, emotional and mental balance, and in its center are all human dreams and goals.
Other legends claim that when we reach the center of the labyrinth, we are welcomed by the Sun deity, who blesses us and transfers us to the other world. This is evidence that the turning point of the spiral that makes up the labyrinth denotes the site of the World of the Dead, as the sun sinks beyond the horizon in the evening and spends the night in the world beneath the Earth before it rises again in the east.
From its ancient existence, the labyrinth was passed on to Medieval times. A well-known labyrinth forms part of the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. It is supposed to symbolize the tortuous path that pilgrims would have followed to visit Catholic shrines and cathedrals.
In some Christian legends, the labyrinth center houses the Holy Grail; in her fantasy-thriller book The Labyrinth, Kate Mosse makes her hero and heroine achieve their death, and a great treasure which the author denotes as the Holy Grail, at the center of an ancient labyrinth drawn on the floor of an old church hidden in a cave. Miraculously, the couple is saved when reaching that very place and brought from there back to life.
Looking closely at its basic structure, it is easy to conjecture the labyrinth's direct development from the spiral, and the spiral is a form that exists in nature in abundance. It can be seen in the structure of snails and conches and the fossilized form of the ammonite; it appears in spider webs, in the spiral growth of parts of plants and animals, and in the structures invisible to the naked eye of magnetic fields and distant galaxies.
Humans have long been fascinated by the form of the spiral, regarding it as a symbol for many different ideas, some connected with physical powers, with the ways of growth, and with the tides and winds; others, more spiritual, have connected the spiral with dreams, desires and aspirations. Almost all these symbols are related to ideas of eternity, and the eternal trips between life and death.
Many peoples and individuals around the world, both ancient and modern, have used the form of the spiral in drawings, paintings, or carved in stones, as representing all kinds of mysterious and mystical ideas which can be interpreted in many ways.
In a book called Goddess, Adele Getty connects the ideas of the spiral with that of the labyrinth, saying:
"Spiral dances lead us in and out of the labyrinth of life, as past, present and future are linked together by the thread of time, woven by the Fates, or Moirae…
They were believed to be present at the birth of a child to bestow the curses and blessings that would weave themselves into its personal destiny… Among the Navajo, the weaving of the world is in the hands of Changing Woman, or Spider Woman… Even in the darkest hour when the web of life appears to be broken, she keeps on spinning and weaving."
According to Andreas Lommel's book Prehistoric and Primitive Man, the form of the spiral has been used by humanity for no less than 6,000 years. A map shows the spread of the spiral motif in the pretechnological world to almost all ancient peoples, from Iraq 6000 years ago, through pre-dynastic Egypt 5400 years ago, to the Danube basin 5,000 years ago. Lommel thinks that it represents the snake connected with Earth, symbolizing Life and the idea of eternal resurrection.
The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols has this to say about the meaning of the Spiral: “[It is a] highly complex symbol which has been used since paleolithic times and appears in pre-dynastic Egypt, Crete, Mycenae, Mesopotamia, India, China, Japan, pre-Columbian America, Europe, Scandinavia and Britain [and Oceania]”. Its symbolic representations are too numerous to cite here, but the main idea is the same as appears in the Labyrinth: the continuation and connection of the various themes of life and death, growth and decay, winding and unwinding.
The Celts attached a special importance to the spiral, as appears in a site of ancient mysticism of Celtic spirals; most scholars believe that its general symbolism represents a spiritual balance between the internal and external consciousness, and some say that the Celtic spiral represents the seasons of life and the cycle of time. The simple spiral begins inside and continues outward, the way Life goes from the personal center toward the outside world; but the double spiral begins outside and goes inside, then comes back outside (as does the labyrinth), thus symbolizes the eternal cycle of life, death, resurrection, while the innermost part represents the internal world of the Underworld.
Drawings and carvings of various spirals appear in a number of places around the world: at the 5000-year-old passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland; in ancient wall carvings of mythical legends; and as petroglyphs all over the world. The Celtic image called a triskele, or Triple Spiral, appearing at many Irish Megalithic and Neolithic sites, has a number of different interpretations, among them that of the Triple Goddess Brigid as maiden, mother, crone; or the abstract idea of fertility—birth, life, death.
Although in nature the spiral is a separate and special phenomenon, the human mind has at some time or other made the mental leap and connected the spiral with the phenomenon of concentric circles. This construction appears as the spreading waves in a body of water; as the threatening eye of some birds or animals, and its imitation on the wings of a butterfly; as the development of rings of trees or certain stones; and in the rings of the planet Saturn.
Here is a comment from an anthropological study of the natives of Australia: "Concentric circles are among the most complicated symbols in the Aborigine's way to knowledge, because they represent relations between all the symbols and all processes in a system… In general, concentric circles represent processes, relationships, completion, and the systematic look of Nature and the Cosmos; usually they represent a place or site from which all stories and experiences emerge, and through them all peoples and stories are connected historically. Together, they form layers of meaning."
We find the use of concentric circles by ancient peoples as places of worship or ritual constructed in a way that looks very much like spirals. Such are 4000-year-old Stonehenge in England, and 5000-year-old Gilgal Refaim (Circle of Ghosts) on the Golan Heights in Israel; because of some connecting lines between the circles, the Gilgal looks from above very much like a spiral. A comparison between the two Amerindian petroglyphs Snake Spiral and Devil Hiding the Sun show plainly how similar these two formations look to human eyes. Both Stonehenge and the Gilgal were supposed to have been used for the purpose of fixing the longest and shortest day of the year, thus connecting it, like the spiral, with the natural cycle of life and death; in addition, it has been shown that Stonehenge has also been a site of sacrifice, thus connecting it, like the Labyrinth of old, with death and the Underworld.
Although spirals and circles have existed in nature at the same time as separate natural phenomena, it is not hard to assume that as symbols created by the human mind, the idea of the spiral has developed from the symbolism of the single circle. In nature, the circle appears in "fairy rings" in the grass, or in rings of mushrooms growing in rich soil for the purpose of efficient exploitation of nourishment; it is seen in the shape of droplets and bubbles; and in the appearance of the sun and the moon, and in the ring around each of them during a certain kind of weather that is considered ominous.
The circle is the most perfect geometric shape existing in nature; and it is one of the most important natural shapes humans have been aware of. It is a wonderful manifestation with no beginning, no end, and no direction. Based on such ideas, the world itself, or perhaps the idea of the cycle of life, is sometimes seen as the figure of Ouroborus—which shows a snake or a dragon swallowing its own tail—has been known from ancient Egypt, the Americas and Greece, from alchemy writings of the Middle Ages through to modern times. Its meaning is connected with eternity, eternal return, the cycle of time, self-completion, infinity, wholeness and immortality.
In spite of the fact that the two basic forms—the spiral, and the circle with its variant, the concentric circles—have existed separately and at the same time in nature for millions of years, the human mind has created a linear development of ideas from the simplest toward the complex, from the circle to concentric circles, through the spiral and up to the labyrinth and the maze—all these forms encompassing a great variety of ideas, all of which are based on those of completion, eternity, and the cycle of life and death.
Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols – J.C. Cooper
Prehistoric and Primitive Man – Andreas Lommel
Goddess – Adele Getty
The Labyrinth – Kate Mosse
The White Goddess – Robert Graves
Mazes and Labyrinths – http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/ml/ml04.htm
Seafaring Crete – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minoan_civilization
The Labyrinth – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labyrinth