Labyrinths and mazes were once considered to be the same thing, or nearly so. Today the two are distinctly different, both by definition and purpose. A maze is a kind of game, designed to trick us into losing ourselves. A labyrinth has a more spiritual meaning, and is designed to help us find ourselves. These ancient puzzles fascinate us to this very today.
In the simplest sense, a labyrinth is a winding path following a complex pattern leading to a central spot. Mazes also feature winding paths leading to a center, but there are false leads, dead ends, and circuitous routes to make reaching the center a puzzle to be solved.
Traditionally, mazes were built where they could be looked down upon, so that the patterns that were hidden to those at eye-level could be revealed to those above. Today, particularly complex designs are sometimes created using compact shrubs so the pattern will be visible—and thus appreciated—by those at ground level.
The “secret pattern” mazes that are most common today originated in Italy only about 600 years ago. Descriptions of mazes can be traced back thousands of years B.C., with references in the cultural histories of the Romans, Greeks, Cretans, Syrians, Celts, and Christians, as well as some Native American tribes. Mazes usually feature hedges of yew, holly, boxwood, privet—even corn. The clipped or sheared hedges resemble sculpted topiary, as in medieval knot garden designs. Low hedge mazes may use compact plants such as thyme, hyssop, and lavender and are often found as central features in herb gardens. Mazes can also be constructed out of stone, logs, bricks, concrete, wood panels, mirrors—even water.
Labyrinths can be architectural features, such as those laid into the floors of some ancient churches. They can be literally sculpted into the earth or laid out as hardscapes, with paths as simple as stone or shreddedbark, or as complex as mosaic. They are created on a flat (or easily“walkable”) surface, and usually feature paths carved from or set into the ground with stones or paving materials. Labyrinths can also be made out of grass or shredded bark, as long as the paths are clearly outlined or defined. Today labyrinths can be found on the grounds of churches and as areas of meditation in parks and other public places.
One of the most famous mazes in the world was built in 1690 at Hampton Court in England, where thousands of visitors come to see it—and walk it—every year. Lists of modern labyrinths in the United States and other places can be obtained from The Labyrinth Society.
Labyrinths for the Spirit