Last year I made a series of mini-pilgrimages to local labyrinths. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol, around since at least Neolithic times and likely even earlier, and appearing in multiple cultures around the world. Labyrinths are widely associated with spirit, insight, and journey through human life. They are paradoxes: spiraling paths leading to both fear and empowerment, mazes in which one cannot get lost.
I associate the labyrinth with the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur, and with the labyrinths of the ancient Mediterranean region, but Christianity co-opted the labyrinth in the Middle Ages; thus most of the seven labyrinths I walked last summer were built by local Christian church communities. The most impressive and well maintained of these was an 11-circuit Chartres design labyrinth built by volunteers of the Unity Church of the Hills in far Northwest Austin. Live oaks shade a path constructed from limestone pavers and black rock mulch. Inset around the perimeter of the labyrinth are lunations, paving stones etched with words of power: life, strength, zeal, wisdom, understanding, order, imagination, faith, will. Finally, cast stone garden benches sit at regular intervals around the edge.
Guidelines for walking quietly and intentionally are posted near the entrance to the labyrinth, along with a donation box (where I made an offering), and a schedule of full moon walks hosted by the church (interesting). The Unity Church materials suggest a threefold approach to walking the labyrinth: releasing concerns during the walk in towards the center, receiving insight at the center, and returning to the mundane world during the walk back out of the labyrinth.
Early one evening last summer I arrived tired after a day of caring for children and household. I grounded and poured water in offering before passing below the multi-colored mosaic wings that top the arbor entrance. Then I sat on a bench near the entrance to breathe and listen before walking. Doves cooed and cicadas droned from the live oak branches above. And though I barely believe in them, the Earth Mother, the Green God, and She Who Weaves were all palpable presences there in the golden hour.
I set out onto the path with my left foot. Ordinarily I begin walking with my right foot; consciously changing the habit helps me mark that I am entering into some other web of spatiotemporal relations. I silently chanted a mantra for Ariadne as I walked. The cicada song in the trees above intensified as I approached the center. Coincidence, I’m certain, and yet… I was present in that moment, breathing in and breathing out just where my footsteps fell, and I can’t think of a reason to deny that She was, too.
I greeted the middle-aged live oak at the center and sat for a few more minutes of reflection. While walking out of the labyrinth, I noticed a bright green cicada corpse that had fallen into the path from the branches above. It was already crawling with ants. Returning.
To find labyrinths near where you are, search the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator.
Anna Walther lives in Austin, Texas, where she practices place-based paganism, by honoring ancestors, observing the movements of the sun and the moon, collecting local stories, visiting trees, creeks and springs, and learning about the plants, animals, and minerals with which she shares her home. Anna is a student nurse, and she attends First Unitarian Universalist Church with her husband and children.