History of the Labyrinth

Christian churches used the labyrinth for prayer and meditation as early as 350. The oldest example in Algeria, North Africa, is inscribed with “Sancta Eclesia” (holy church) at the center, confirming its sacred use. The labyrinth design we are using first appeared in the Middles Ages. This design, built in the early thirteenth century, is the most famous and is in the inlaid floor of Chartres Cathedral, France. This archetypal design has been found all over the world: in classical Rome and Greece, Western Europe, the Near East, Africa, New Zealand, North America, and Southeast Asia.

People have always had a fascination with circular constructions, and varying forms of the labyrinth have been used in many ancient cultures and civilizations throughout human history. Therefore, it is not surprising that the labyrinth predates Christian history. Christianizing a pagan custom was a standard practice among Christians, as with the Christmas tree and yule log, and indeed the dates of Christmas and Easter themselves. It is a process that continues today in societies around the world. Prayer is a universal experience. It is a great strength of Christianity that it transforms culture from within. Any sincere researcher would be hard pressed to find any Christian observance, ritual, symbol, or practice that did not predate Christianity.

In the famous thirteenth-century French cathedral, the prayer labyrinth was used by pilgrims to complete their “holy obligation” to travel to the Holy Land sometime during their lives. This once-in-a-life-time journey was their opportunity to walk the path that Jesus walked while on earth. Today, Christians tour the Middle East to experience first hand the land of the Bible. These pilgrims walked on their knees while reciting prayers.

What the gospel says is true: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) The Church at Rome was admonished to, “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Romans 12:2) The labyrinth, formerly a non-Christian element, has been transformed in Christ. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 states that in Christ, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

When we put the labyrinth into the perspective of world history and anthropology we see that to these earlier earthbound inhabitants the earth appeared flat. In December the sun seems to have paused, deciding whether to continue moving away from the earth, diminishing the light reaching earth. The prospect of the sun plunging earth into darkness was so terrifying to our ancient ancestors that they marked it by celebrating the winter solstice as one of their primary holy days. That night, December 21st, has the longest hours of darkness for those in the Northern Hemisphere. Fearful that darkness and death would rule over the earth, our ancient forebears circled sacred fires built on hilltops and in holy places. Roaring prayers of red and yellow flames petitioned the gods to bring back the sun.

The celebration that we know as Christmas was introduced at the time when Constantine proclaimed Christianity the state religion of Rome in order to supplant the pagan festival by a Christian one. Anyone not obedient could be beheaded. The Roman government realized the traditional festivals and observances would not be easily discarded by a decree. It was therefore decided that the Winter Solstice Festival of Saturn would be replaced by “The Mass of Christ,” which we now call Christmas.

The birth of Christ continues to be observed around December 21st, the longest hours of darkness for those of the Northern Hemisphere. Other examples of the church attempting to Christianize pagan observances and objects include the Christmas tree that came from the non-Christian Druids now found in almost every sanctuary, and the holly wreath hung on the door that was once used to drive away evil spirits. These, and many others, are common practices in our homes and places of worship. Former Spring Equinox rituals are now observed on the Christian calendar as Easter. And “Easter” was the name of a Goddess of Spring.

The Prayer Labyrinth: Path to Inner Peace

The Spiritworks Labyrinth Guide

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