The labyrinth has fascinated my father for over 40 years when a friend introduced him to the concept of the Theseus and Ariadne myth in which the labyrinth is introduced. Over the years he has read numerous books on the topic, visited several lectures and presented his own paper on the topic a number of times. In this article I will present an introduction on the labyrinth, which I summarized and translated from his research. This short article deals with the myth of Theseus and Ariadne in which the labyrinth is introduced. The original paper takes an in-depth look at the structure and numerology build into the labyrinth of the cathedral of Chartres in which the most well known labyrinth is situated. Over the years my father has been convinced that the labyrinth and its mythical references hold the key to a philosophical approach of our life experiences.
The myth of Theseus and Ariadne
The concept of the labyrinth stems from the myth of Theseus and Ariadne. It tells the story of the King Minos of Crete who was aided into power by Poseidon, the God of the sea. Poseidon presented Minos with a bull as a symbol of approval, which Minos was required by Poseidon to sacrifice to the Gods after his coronation. He was so captivated by the bull’s beauty however, that he decided to keep it and sacrifice a different bull. When Poseidon got wind of this he took revenge by letting Minos’ wife, Pasiphea, fall in love with the bull. In order to consummate the relationship, she asked the architect Daedalus to build a cow for her in which she could hide. She became pregnant of the bull and gave birth to Minotaur, half bull and half human. Minos’ son was encouraged by the King of Athens to kill Minotaur, but was killed by the bull-man in his attempt. Upon his son’s death Minos decided to lock up Minotaur in a labyrinth that he had especially designed by Daedalus. Minos held the people of Athens responsible for the death of his son and forced them to sacrifice seven boys and seven virgins every nine years. During the third year of these sacrifices the son of the King of Athens, Theseus, joined the fourteen children in an attempt to kill Minotaur in order to be released from the cruel sacrifices. The daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus and offered her assistance to Theseus. Daedalus, the architect, stood by her side and advised Ariadne to hand Theseus a long line of tread in order to find his way out of the labyrinth. Their plan worked; Theseus killed Minotaur in the centre of the labyrinth and together with Ariadne he escaped the wrath of Minos by fleeing to Naxos.
The symbolic meaning of the myth
The philosopher Hein Stufkens offers an explanation of the myth and its symbols. The sacrifices the people from Athens have to make towards the King of Crete represents psychological oppression of the individual mind. The sacrifices had to be young, which represents purity of the individual. They had to be male and female to represent the dual aspects of the individual mind being given up and it had to be seven, as that number reinforces the purity and completeness of the individual. The sacrifices made in the myth represent the sacrifices we all make in order to maintain peace and harmony in our environment, thereby surrendering elements of our own personality that make us who we are. Theseus’ action represents the power within us that awakens and no longer accepts the sacrifices of the individual personality.
The symbolic meaning of the labyrinth
The labyrinth in which Theseus ventures, is representative of the subconscious, the unknown or dark elements of our mind. The support he receives from Ariadne can be recognized as the unsuspected support one receives when battling a situation. The thread handed to him by Ariadne to find his way out of the labyrinth represents the female support of love. The male powers of the mind need to be balanced by the female powers of the mind in order to achieve success. The thread connects the male power with the female intuitive power to create the balance needed to overcome the struggle, the killing of Minotaur. The bull has been a symbol of intimidating force in many ancient cultures and in this myth it represents our inner struggles that we hide in our subconscious. By killing it we not only overcome our obstacles, since death can also be interpreted as a transition. We take the strength of the ‘beast’ within us and transform it into a positive life force.
The labyrinth in different parts of the world
In 1996 there was an exhibition in museum Comenius in Naarden, The Netherlands about the labyrinth with as motto: “The labyrinth; a source of confusion.” From the catalogue of that exhibition comes to following information.
"The labyrinth is an ancient symbol. It is unknown when it was drawn for the first time, but in Memphis, Egypt, a 4700-year-old seal was found picturing a labyrinth. The myth of Theseus and Ariadne is the oldest known tale of the labyrinth, but the meaning of the symbol has most likely transformed over the ages. The fascinating aspect is that the symbol appears throughout different part of the world in different civilizations, from Europe to India, Indonesia, South America and Egypt. Images of it can be found in cathedrals and other places of worship but also on coins and gardens. The labyrinth in Crete is round, but elsewhere one can find square, triangular and octagonal versions. The most well known, round labyrinth can be found in the cathedral of Chartres. Throughout the centuries the labyrinth has been an inspiration for many painters."
Structural characteristics of the labyrinth in the cathedral of Chartres
Over time the labyrinth has been known under various names. Jean Vilette has published several of these names in a publication titled “L’enigme du Labyrinthe”.
“Le Dedale” – This stems from the name Deadalus who designed the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete.
“Domus Daedali” – The house of Daedalus.
“La lieue” – The mile, a distance which takes roughly an hour to walk. When pilgrims crawled through the labyrinth on hands and knees it would take them an hour to cover the distance, which is 261.5 meter.
“Chemin de Jerusalem” – The road to the heavenly Jerusalem.
At the centre of the labyrinth in Chartres used to be a copper plate depicting Theseus and Minotaur. The plate has been long gone, but the anchors for the plate are still present. This demonstrates how the church has transformed the myth to Christian traditions.
- The labyrinth is circular with at the centre another circle with 6 petals.
- The diameter is almost 13 metes, 12.89 to be exact.
- The length of the path through the labyrinth is 261.50 meters.
- The centre line is perpendicular to two columns on the North and South side of the Cathedral.
- The nave of the cathedral consists of 7 spans, the labyrinth lies on the edge between the third and fourth span.
- The tessellated border consists of 113 teeth.
- The entrance of the labyrinth lies in the west, across from the main entrance of the cathedral.
- It is subdivided in 4 quadrants.
- The entrance to the centre also starts in the west.
- The centre consists of 6 circular petals around a circular centre. 6 + 1 = 7
The labyrinth is the symbol for an initiation path. It has as goal, just as our life, to lead the initiate to the centre of the self, without getting lost, leading to the gates of a new life, as the labyrinth is located between 2 columns. The labyrinth symbolizes the path we follow during our lives, creating the opportunity to learn more about our hidden struggles and ourselves. This awareness process provides the ability to develop our self into a balanced human being. With every step towards spiritual wholeness, the centre located in the East a person can return reborn to the physical world in the west.