Symbolism of the Labyrinth

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 Minoan double axe

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.

“The Minotaur” by George Frederic Watts

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.

Cathedral in Chartres – the Labyrinth

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.”

Sources:

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

 

 

 

 

 

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13 Responses to Symbolism of the Labyrinth

  1. A great reminder. Love the clarity of your presentations.Will share on Twitter.

  2. I truly appreciated and resonated with the wisdom of this post, Monika…the quote from Jung’s Red Book holds a profound truth.

    Have you read my February 2019 review on Astrodienst of Liz Greene’s commentary on Jung’s Red Book? If not, I thought you and perhaps some of your readers might find it of interest…
    https://www.astro.com/astrology/in_rev_libernovus_e.htm

    • Dear Anne, thank you very much for the link. I did not know you had posted a review of Liz Greene’s book. I love how you engaged with it and supplied your own rich references. It must be so because this is perhaps her toughest book – it took me extremely long to finish it, I must admit. I find it at times frustrating that Jungian circles are basically cold towards astrology (as far as I can tell of course) and much as I had hoped the book would change that, I think it probably wouldn’t.
      Right now I am reading “The Red Book Hours” by Jill Mellick. It is quite a detailed analysis of Jung’s creative process – at times too technical for me, but also delightful in many ways. It is astonishing how that man was versatile – a true mercurial spirit, adept at every medium. An art historian and calligraphy expert could not apparently believe that it was Jung who did ALL the calligraphy for The Red Book. “But this is impossible! It is so well done!” he exclaimed.
      I guess what I am trying to say is that it is astonishing how one man created this inexhaustible spring for all of us to drink from.

      • Well, Monika, I couldn’t agree more with your final sentence especially. Jung’s work has influenced me both personally and professionally more than anyone else except perhaps Liz Greene – and it was important to me in writing this review to bring some juice and passion to it. Jung was a person full of both!

  3. lampmagician says:

    A marvellous post again dear Monika, in German, there is two words to explain the situation; Labyrinth is the same but the Maze is “Irrgarten” (as you might know 😉 ) and I would like to add that Ariadne knew the clue because a Labirynth is very similar to the woman’s soul, it is very beautiful as man looks from above but when gets inside…. 😏😉🤣 I will repost it with your kindness dear friend. sincerely Aladin 💖🙏

  4. Pingback: Symbolism of the Labyrinth – lampmagician

  5. Thank you Monika!
    This is a really interesting post!
    Interestingly, there’s a “Walk the Labyrinth” being set up tomorrow at our local library. They’re putting one on the floor of a meeting room. I’m looking forward to it.
    I am skeptical about a couple things, though. The double-edged axe is a symbol of the mother goddess? That sounds like an odd symbol choice to me. I think the number one symbol for the Minoan mother goddess was the snake. And the word Labyrinth deriving from the axe-word? That also sounds suspect. I checked my favorite etymology website, “etymonline” by Douglas Harper. Here’s what he had to say about “labyrinth”:
    Apparently from a pre-Greek language; traditionally connected to Lydian labrys “double-edged axe,” symbol of royal power, which fits with the theory that the original labyrinth was the royal Minoan palace on Crete. It thus would mean “palace of the double-axe.” But Beekes finds this “speculative” and compares laura “narrow street, narrow passage, alley, quarter,” also identified as a pre-Greek word.

    The “Beekes” person is, according to Wikipedia: “Robert Stephen Paul Beekes, latterly emeritus professor of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics at Leiden University, was the author of many monographs on the Proto-Indo-European language.”

    Incidentally, do you know the art of Meinrad Craighead? She was so wonderful. Again, using Wikipedia: she “was an artist, scholar, and visionary, influential in the field of woman-centered religious art. Her work explores the human relationship to the Divine, particularly feminine images of God.” But no matter. The labels can’t do justice to her. She was a real genius and her art is truly unique. She often makes use of labyrinths. And she’s a gold mine for symbol lovers (symbolists? symbologists? symbolians? symbolizationists?) Check her out!

    Chris

    • Thank you for a thoughtful and detailed comment. You are right – the etymology is speculative. But it is actually true that on Crete the double axe, along with the snake, was associated with the goddess. I often follow my intuition rather than strict academic requirements – and I’m open to many theories. We really do not know much about the Minoan religion for certain.
      Most importantly, thank you so much for Meinrad Craighead! I had never heard of her and she is astounding.
      I’ll stick to the self-proclaimed label of Symbolreader😊
      With gratitude,
      Monika

      • Well . . . why shouldn’t a self-respecting mother goddess carry a great big axe?
        All the best,
        Chris

      • I don’t know what she might have used the axe for. But I think divine wrath is not a prerogative of male gods. I think also that she was the great goddess, not just the mother goddess. Scholars seem to believe this was a matriarchal society…

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