The myth of Minotaur tells the story of greed and tyranny, which led Minos to deny a sacrificial bull to Poseidon. The angry god punished the king by making his wife fall in love with the bull. The fruit of this union was the monster Minotaur, half-bull, half-man. Full of shame, Minos imprisoned the monster in a labyrinth – a word which comes from the Greek “labrys” and refers to the double axe – the symbol of the supremacy of the Cretan Mother Goddess. The deeper meaning of the labyrinth is associated with the feminine life giving force, the earth-bound instinctual nature of our bodies. The centre of the labyrinth is the goddess’s womb.
The power of nature and instincts, the Greek zoe, the sheer life force – this is how the ancients perceived the bull. Only a woman – Ariadne – knew the way around the labyrinth into its centre. It seems that this first labyrinth was designed to guard the darkest heart of nature and to keep its secrets from the solar, upper-world consciousness. Alternatively, it symbolized the fear of Minos, that is the ego consciousness, of the bestial instincts, which he tried to repress.
Interestingly, also in Christianity the labyrinths were constructed to worship Mother Goddess. The most famous example is the stone Labyrinth from the cathedral in Chartres. It is believed that originally it had the image of Minotaur in its centre, but it was later removed. Now the centre of the Labyrinth features the Mystic Rose, emblem of Mary on the one hand and the ultimate symbol of the Self and the union of the opposites on the other.
Some researchers make a point of differentiating between the maze and the labyrinth. Karen Ralls explains:
“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.”
Those who walk the labyrinth do so to find inner peace, to meditate and find a way through silence to inner truth. Cirlot adds that at the centre of the labyrinth conjunction occurs between the conscious and the unconscious. Perhaps the seeming duality of the confusing maze and the orderly labyrinth can be reconciled by invoking human and divine perspective:
“From within, the view is extremely restricted and confusing, while from above one discovers a supreme artistry and order.
In Mercurial fashion, the movement through the labyrinth veers back and forth, round and round, creating a dance whose steps eventually weave a vessel strong enough to hold what was at first intolerable experience.”
The Book of Symbols
The maze, thus, seems to symbolize our human limited perspective, our entanglement in the world of the senses and desires, our getting lost, taking the “wrong” path, occasionally feeling lost and desperate. The labyrinth would stand for the spiritual path of circling the Centre. Neither, it seems, can exist without the other. Spiritual heights will not be reached without the entanglements of the flesh. This is what Jung seemed to be saying in The Red Book:
“Only he who finds the entrance hidden in the mountain and rises up through the labyrinths of the innards can reach the tower, and the happiness of he who surveys things from there and he who lives from himself.”
Juan Carlos Cirlot, The Dictionary of Symbols
Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate
Karen Ralls, Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism
The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, ed. by Ami Ronnberg