Labyrinths

There is love in the labyrinth
There is darkness in the labyrinth
The exit may not be where you think it is
— Unknown

Attentive readers will have noticed the mazes I’ve been using to decorate my blogs (such as the one above). Meanwhile, I’ve been doing further research on mazes and labyrinths…

Of course mazes have been studied mathematically (particularly with Graph Theory), and a vocabulary about them has been developed which is far more extensive than I ever would have imagined (see here if you dare). We’ll find just a couple of those terms helpful:

  • Perfect: no loops, and there is only one path to any given location
  • Unicursal vs. multicursal: unicursal has no branches, multicursal does.

Some authors assert that ‘maze’ means multicursal, and ‘labyrinth’ unicursal. That does not seem to be universally observed. I’ll generally follow this practice, but add the qualifiers ‘unicursal’ vs ‘multicursal’ when the distinction is particularly important.

I’d like to introduce another classification of my own to the Menagerie of Mazes: uniliminal vs. multiliminal. (‘Limina’ is Latin for ‘threshold’). In all mazes there is a place to start on the outside boundary of the maze. But where is the end? With multiliminal mazes the end is also on the outside boundary of the maze, so it has two ‘thresholds’ or ‘limina’ to the outside of the maze. With uniliminal mazes the end is in the middle, so there is only one threshold/limin into the maze. When analyzing mazes from a graph theory point of view it doesn’t make any difference where the ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ of the maze are found. But when using mazes and labyrinths as symbols for the soul’s journey, it makes a great deal of difference indeed…

Uniliminal Maze
Uniliminal Maze

Multiliminal Maze
Multiliminal Maze

Consider the mythology surrounding what is supposed to be the origin of the labyrinth: the labyrinth built by King Daedalus, with the minotaur at its center, and Theseus successfully navigates the labyrinth and slays the minotaur (see here). Theseus (the Hero) goes into the labyrinth, slays the monster at the center, and finds his way back out again. This is a classic example of the Hero’s Journey.

The Labyrinth of the Minotaur, as depicted by <a href='https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebastian_M%C3%BCnster'>Sebastian Münster</a> (1488-1552)
The Labyrinth of the Minotaur, as depicted by Sebastian Münster (1488-1552)

So, using the maze/labyrinth as a metaphor for challenges we face in life, including the Big Challenge of Life Itself, sometimes to venture into the Challenge we have to go within ourselves — or go into some other place altogether (psychologically or literally), and face our monster. And then we’re able to return out of the Challenge to where we started (but we’re different in that our inner monster is defeated).1

In other Life Challenges we venture into our maze, and its resolution deposits us some other place altogether.

Sometimes we have no choices on our inner sojourn (unicursal). Other times we have choices, some of which are dead ends and we have to retrace our steps (multicursal). And sometimes our Challenge is an ‘imperfect maze’ — it has loops and we get stuck in them going round in circles!

But for whatever reason, the type of maze most often associated with soul/spiritual symbolism is the unicursal, uniliminal maze. The one at Chartres Cathedral is a classic example:

The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

Aerial View of the Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
Aerial View of the Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

Up until now I’ve been using a computer program to generate new random mazes. But it turns out while computer generation of multicursal mazes is relatively straightforward, computer generation of unicursal labyrinths is a particularly hard nut to crack.2

Formerly I had considered mazes as an appropriate but relatively unimportant decoration. After my latest researches I’m wondering if I hadn’t underestimated them. So I thought I’d try my hand at creating a labyrinth myself. The labyrinth at Chartres (and many others) has four quadrants — a cross-like geometry. So I thought I’d try my hand at one in which the circle is divided into three quadrants (“tri-rants”?). Here’s what I came up with (a simple first attempt):

William's "Labyrinth Opus 1"
William’s “Labyrinth Opus 1”

By the way, the symbol in the center of the inner triangle (the circle with a dot in it) is the alchemical symbol for the Sun/Gold. Much of medieval alchemy was concerned with turning physical lead into gold. But there was another stream in the alchemical literature in which ‘turning lead into gold’ was a metaphor for transforming the human heart from lead into gold — in other words ‘spirituality’ or ‘enlightenment’. (Jung wrote extensively about this.)

So, as we find our way through our Labyrinths of Life, may we find our Gold at the heart of our journeying.

P.S. I won’t be using computer generated mazes any more. Instead I’ll introduce new hand-made mazes/labyrinths from time to time.


  1. This is hardly the only metaphorical use of the labyrinth. For other uses down through the ages, see this massive tome which is bulging with pictures and wonderful full-page color plates: Kern, H. Through the Labyrinth.  Prestel, 2000. ISBN 978-3791321448. Amazon. p. 30 ff.
  2. They’re a species of ‘space filling curves’