According to legend, the first maze was built for King Minos on Crete. Terrorized by the half-bull, half-man minotaur, he commissioned a labyrinth constructed by Daedalus to contain the minotaur near his palace. His creation proved so complex that Daedalus struggled to escape it himself. The form appears again in Egyptian, Indian, and Native American history. It also became common in medieval Europe as churches employed walking a maze as a kind of substitute for going on an expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous pilgrimage.
The labyrinth’s complexity and beauty are echoed in the intricate knot-like woven patterns in Egyptian Coptic as well as Scottish and Irish Celtic artwork, jewelry and sacred texts. Today, labyrinths persist in popular culture – in gaming, in fantasy literature, and in film (Jim Henson’s 1980s version of Pan’s Labyrinth, featured David Bowie, and Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning film by the same name).
This sustained interest hints at the form’s power — seen in its revival for therapeutic or spiritual use. As you enter the labyrinth, you move away from the chaos of the world and into an ordered space that presents a problem to solve or a quest to fulfill. It is a space that may invite contemplation, meditation, or prayer. As you move toward the center, solving the problem or fulfilling the quest, you navigate around difficulties and press on toward peace or centering, God or a higher power, at the heart of the space.
As Stephen Diamond, PhD, writes in Psychology Today, the labyrinth is a “symbol of the psyche … that twisty, unpredictable, tortuous, serpentine path toward wholeness and authenticity. The goal is to reach the center, the Self, the core of our being. But this is only half the journey.” The other half, he says, is finding a way back out.
“Psychotherapy itself can be such a labyrinthine process,” observes Diamond, who visualizes a parallel to the therapeutic relationship: The patient enters the maze, enduring disorientation and overcoming confusion, to encounter and defeat some internal, virtual minotaur. The patient then returns safely from this quest with the help of a guide, in the form of the therapist.
Whether used as a virtual quest or simply as a tool for meditation and reflection, the ancient form of the labyrinth’s twists and turns continue to engage the imagination.