Labyrinths and Mazes

Places to find or lose yourself in the garden.

June 21, 2007 | | Back Issues | Summer 2007

Take a deep breath, step into the labyrinth, and let your cares and duties slip away along the circular path.

Walking a labyrinth’s single path to the centre and back “is a form of meditative prayer. It’s a process of letting go of what you need to let go, and taking in what you need to take in,” says Penny Lewis, a retired Anglican priest who regularly walks a simple labyrinth mown in the grass at the back of her Mono property.

For centuries the labyrinth has symbolized a mystical journey that quiets the mind and opens the soul. Ancient labyrinths are believed to have served either as traps for evil spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In Medieval times, labyrinths symbolized a solid path from birth, at the entranceway, to God, at the centre of the sphere.

The terms labyrinth and maze are generally used interchangeably (the Oxford English Dictionary lists them as synonyms). However, “labyrinth” is more specifically used to designate the unicursal, or single-path, form, suitable for meditation and reflection – a place to find yourself. “Maze,” on the other hand, designates the multicursal form which, with its confusing turns and dead ends, constitutes a stimulating, intellectual puzzle – a place to lose yourself.

The often elaborate designs of both forms have been incorporated in garden designs for centuries, and with the contemporary gardening craze, labyrinths and mazes are in vogue again as landscape accents. But interest in the spiritual dimension of labyrinths has also been reawakened.

“It’s a demanding culture; we are always short of time,” Penny Lewis says. “But an important part of living is putting aside time for reflection.”

The labyrinth, she notes, is a centuries-old tool to help relieve frustration and anxiety. The circular path that laps back and forth toward the centre creates a sense of even flow. Once you reach the centre, she says, you stay there to meditate for as long as you need. The goal is to leave the labyrinth with a feeling of restored balance, energy and replenished hope.

Penny, who belongs to a women’s spirituality group and frequently offers her farmhouse as a retreat for others, was inspired by a friend’s labyrinth after reading about the well-known labyrinths at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. A good friend, Ray Harsent, designed her labyrinth five years ago with his lawnmower. It’s a six-ring formation cut from a ragged patch of meadow at the far end of her pond.

“It’s rough, but I like it that way. Life is rough. It’s not about perfection,” she says. “Anybody can make one.”

That may be, but two local musicians have added an entrepreneurial twist to the spiritual journey. John Haines is a musician and artist, perhaps best known for his hand-drawn maps of the Georgian Bay area. David Wipper is a composer/musician who has played guitar for such artists as Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall and Dan Hill. Recently, the two men launched a labyrinth-building service they call Grandmother’s Thread.

David became fascinated with labyrinths when his wife, Hazel, attended a reading by author Gailand MacQueen in Creemore and brought home a copy of his book, The Spirituality of Mazes and Labyrinths. With John’s help, David built a labyrinth in his own backyard, then noticed that people were intrigued by it and wanted their own – and the idea for a business was born.

What’s the appeal? Probably the same thing that has attracted people to labyrinths across cultures and through time: “It gives people a chance to slow down and reflect. Following the spiral pattern, one step at a time calms the mind,” David says.

Adds John, “To me, it’s a nice, old idea in a high-tech society. It’s a peaceful zone, very therapeutic and certainly absorbs stress.”

Using mainly rocks – “the older and mossier, the better” – to delineate the grassy paths, they plan, survey and weave the sacred geometry. “What struck me the most was how ingrained labyrinths are to the human experience; the spiral nature of it, it’s found everywhere in nature,” says David.

There are many styles of labyrinth, but John and David specialize in the ancient Cretan form, based on designs built at Knossos on the Isle of Crete. This classical style consists of seven rings. “We just thought it was the simplest and most elegant design,” says David.

It is most famously found in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos of Crete hired craftsman Daedalus to construct a labyrinth to conceal the half-human, half-bull Minotaur that the king kept to frighten his enemies.

Whether Daedalus built a maze or a labyrinth, according to the modern distinction, is a matter of debate. Although it is often depicted as a labyrinth, it was more likely a maze: Daedalus himself was nearly lost in his own creation, fashioning wings for himself and Icarus to escape; and the Minotaur needed the silken thread supplied by Ariadne to navigate his way out.

Rather than calming, Brian Bixley finds his maze “constantly stimulating and provocative.” Brian has an extensive series of garden “rooms” on his Mulmur property and he built his maze in 1991.

“I grew up in London, England, not far from Hampton Court, and so a maze formed part of my collection of childhood memories,” he says.

The famous Hampton Court Palace Hedge Maze, planted between 1689 and 1695, covers a third of an acre and contains a half a mile of paths. Like many mazes, the paths of the Hampton Court maze are hedged, increasing the sense of dislocation and uncertainty. However, like Penny Lewis’s labyrinth, Brian’s is mown in a meadow. An arch at the entry supports two Japanese crab trees and a Manchurian cherry tree is at the centre.

While Brian acknowledges that the links to his childhood and the pure playfulness of the maze appealed to him, he was also attracted to its metaphorical significance.

As Penny’s profession, a priest, draws her to the spiritual labyrinth form, so perhaps does Brian’s profession – he is a retired economics professor – draw him to the intellectual maze form. He suggests the unicursal labyrinth “requires no decision, no choice, on the part of the walker. There is no room for stumbling, for backtracking, for hesitancies and wrong decisions. It is the path of certainty.”

By contrast, he says, the multicursal maze “offers something much more painful. Kierkegaard describes man as ‘a lonely anguished being in an ambiguous world.’ And it is precisely this ambiguity and anguish that is captured when the walker must choose for himself.”

Quoting Alexander Pope, Brian continues, “ ‘A Mighty Maze, yet not without a plan.’ He may have been right, but what the multicursal maze represents is the human effort to puzzle out whether such a plan exists and, if it does, what it might be.”

From Brian’s point of view, “It seems possible that this is a more worthy, more dignified metaphor than the metaphor of certainty.”


Karina Campbell is a freelance writer and musician who lives near Creemore.

About the Author More by Karina Campbell

Karina Campbell is a freelance writer and musician who lives near Creemore.

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