The Theosophical Labyrinth

John Algeo – USA

The Ancient Wisdom comes to us by many channels: religious scripture, philosophical dissertations, scientific experiments, fairy tales, music, painting, dance, mandalas, poetry, and labyrinths. A labyrinth is a winding path in a complex pattern. The word “labyrinth” comes from Greek, but is probably based on a non-Greek word, perhaps the term labrys from the Lydian language of Asia Minor, a term for a double-headed ax. The latter was a symbol of royalty and of divinity in the ancient Near East, and is symbolically appropriate because the labyrinth has two aspects. It cuts, as it were, two ways, being a road both inward and outward. In English labyrinths have also been called by such curious names as “Troy Town,” the “Walls of Troy,” “Fair Rosamund’s Bower,” “St. Julian’s Bower,” and “Jerusalem” from their use or from legends associated with them.

Labyrinths are of two main types. One consists of a single pathway that winds about, leading in and out from the circumference toward the center and back again until it finally arrives at its end, the center of the labyrinth. The technical term for such a pattern is “unicursal labyrinth” or, as a popular name, a “meander.” The word “meander” is also from Greek, originally the name for a river in Asia Minor whose bed wound back and forth across the land until it came to the sea. From the pattern of that river bed, the term “meander” was applied to any pattern of movement in a winding and intricate way. Since, in walking a unicursal labyrinth, one is in fact meandering through it, the term is appropriate.

The other type of labyrinth has pathways that branch off from each other, so that the walker has to choose between options, some of which are dead ends, others of which are recursive because they lead back to an earlier part of the path, yet others of which may lead to other false ends. Typically only one of the paths leads to the center or true end of the labyrinth. Such a pattern is called a “multicursal labyrinth” or a “maze.” That too is an appropriate name, for the purpose of a “maze” is to “amaze” us, and indeed the two words are historically the same. The maze involves deception, bewilderment, confusion, choice, and uncertainty. The meander implies reliability, reassurance, clarity, determinateness, and certainty. The maze challenges us; the meander comforts us. The oldest labyrinths are meanders. The maze did not become widely popular until the Renaissance and eighteenth century.

There are also various subtypes of labyrinths. Some modern mazes are “picture mazes”; that is, if you could look down on the pattern of the maze from above, you would see that its passages form a pictorial design representing an object. Such picture mazes have become very popular in England and America. An example from a few years ago is a maze mown in a cornfield in Albuquerue, New Mexico, which depicted the Aztec and Toltec deity Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. The passageways that outline his figure ran for two miles through eight-foot-tall cornstalks.

The two most famous labyrinth patterns, however, are both meanders. The older is the Cretan labyrinth, whose classical form has seven circuits, although it can consist of any larger odd number. We know the design of this pattern because it appears on ancient Cretan coins, as well as in other forms. The newer pattern is the Chartres labyrinth, which has eleven circuits, organized into four quadrants. The Chartres labyrinth is so called because it is embedded in the floor of the nave of Chartres cathedral in France. It is made of large blocks of darker colored stones set into the lighter paving of the church. In earlier times, at the center of the Chartres labyrinth was a large metal plaque depicting the Minotaur. It was melted down during one of the European wars to use for making armaments. The Chartres pattern is especially popular today in American churches, where it is used devotionally, and in civic centers, where it is used recreationally.

The most ancient labyrinth we know of was a two-story building in Egypt, described by the Greek historian Herodotus, who found it already in ruins in the fifth century B.C. Helena P. Blavatsky [Isis Unveiled 1:56] refers to the Egyptian labyrinth as one of the marvels of the ancient world: “To what eminence the race in its progress had several times arrived may be feebly surmised by the wonderful monuments of old, still visible, and the descriptions given by Herodotus of other marvels of which no traces now remain. Even in his days the gigantic structures of many pyramids and world famous temples were but masses of ruins. Scattered by the unrelenting hand of time, they are described by the Father of History as ‘these venerable witnesses of the long bygone glory of departed ancestors.’ He ‘shrinks from speaking of divine things,’ and gives to posterity but an imperfect description from hearsay of some marvelous subterranean chambers of the Labyrinth, where lay—and now lie—concealed, the sacred remains of the King Initiates.”

Following these earliest structures—the two-story roofed Egyptian labyrinth and the walled but unroofed enclosure of the Cretan labyrinth—other labyrinths appeared in the floors of Christian churches built during the Middle Ages, such as that in the cathedral of Chartres. Church labyrinths are sometimes romantically associated with the Knights Templar, King Solomon’s Temple, and the Freemasons, but their purpose seems to have been simpler and less mysterious. Christians had a religious practice of going on pilgrimages to holy sites; many wanted, if possible, to make the journey to the holiest shrine of all Christendom, Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified and resurrected. That pilgrimage was, however, expensive, arduous, dangerous, and often impossible while the Holy Land was in the possession of the Muslims. Consequently a substitute was needed, and that substitute was walking the labyrinth in a church, from which use came the name “Jerusalem” for the labyrinth.

Labyrinth patterns became popular in gardens after the Renaissance and especially during the eighteenth century. These were often mazes, one of the most famous being that at Hampton Court, the English royal residence built by Cardinal Wolsey. The patterns of garden labyrinths were marked out with herbs, hedges (especially of yew), stones, and flowers, or they were formed by cutting into the turf, leaving a surface-level narrow path marked by a shallow cut on each side. Today labyrinths have become especially popular in England as tourist attractions and as playgrounds for children, one being made of Lego blocks. 

Labyrinth patterns also appear as petroglyphs and cave paintings, as woven designs in American Indian baskets, and as decorative motifs in a multitude of materials all over the globe. The use of labyrinths is as varied as their forms. Already mentioned is the labyrinth as a game or entertainment, which is especially characteristic of mazes. Another use is as a spiritual exercise, such as the substitute for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages. Today labyrinths are also used for meditative purposes, such as the grounds of “Olcott,” the national center of the Theosophical Society in America, which includes a Cretan-style labyrinth, with its rich lore of ancient symbolism emerging from the myth of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.

In the ancient Greek myth, Theseus had the aid of the princess Ariadne in overcoming a monster called the Minotaur that lived in the middle of a labyrinth in Crete. This myth is clearly symbolical, for all of its three main characters—Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur—are aspects of us; thus the myth is about something that happens inside the human soul. Theseus is our conscious mind. Ariadne is our intuition. And the Minotaur—half human and half bull—is our animal self. The myth is about how we control our animal nature with the aid of our intuition. And the labyrinth where this event takes place is the human soul, which is indeed a labyrinth that we investigate in meditation and in other ways.

The Cretan labyrinth has great Theosophical symbolism because it represents both the human soul and the cosmos. The seven circuits around its center correspond to the seven sacred planets: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn around the Earth as their center. These planets, in that order, are those recognized in the Ptolemaic view of the world, which held sway not only in the ancient world of the Romano-Greek Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, but all over the world until Copernicus persuaded us of the correctness of the heliocentric view. The Ptolemaic view, however, is not just an obsolete alternative concept of reality; it is a powerful esoteric symbolism, often misunderstood today.

One misunderstanding is the significance of the earth’s being at the center of the Ptolemaic universe. We tend to think that whatever is at the center is the most important thing, the point around which everything else revolves. But the ancients had another view. They believed that everything in the universe gravitates to its proper place, according to its weight (both physical and moral). That which is heaviest and grossest sinks to the bottom or center of the universe and that which is lightest and purest rises to its top or circumference. This view is enshrined in Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which hell is at the center of the Earth, its most corrupt levels being deepest underground, whereas purgatory is a mountain rising above Earth’s surface, and heaven is located in and beyond the stars of the heavens. In the Ptolemaic view, then, Earth is not the focal point of the universe, but instead, its trash heap.

One version of the Ptolemaic view held that each of the seven planets is embedded in a crystal sphere, one inside the other, and those spheres revolve around the earth, taking their embedded planets with them. As they revolve, each  sphere emits a characteristic note, and all those notes together make up a symphony we still refer to as “the music of the spheres.” The planets thus correspond to notes on the musical scale, but also to colors, metals, days of the week, aspects of the human soul and of the cosmos, and other such sevenfold references.

An ancient myth holds that the true home of human beings is outside all the circuits of the planets, in the yet higher sphere of the fixed stars. The term “planet” comes from Greek, in which it means “wanderer” because the planets are ever changing their positions with respect to one another and with respect to the fixed stars, the latter being so called because they are constant in their positions with respect to one another. So we are really fixed stars (or monads in Theosophical terminology), sparks of the Eternal Light, which is yet higher in the cosmos, in the highest sphere of the Primum Mobile or “First Mover.”

From the sphere of the fixed stars, we come into incarnation on the earth by passing through the spheres of the planets, one by one. As we do so, we pick up certain characteristics of those planets, which mark our earthly life. When our life is over, we re-ascend to our home among the fixed stars, giving back the various characteristics we acquired from the planets on our way down. This myth of passage through the planetary spheres is clearly a symbol of the cyclical process of life. Particularly it symbolizes coming into incarnation and leaving incarnation, when, before and after any earthly life, we acquire and lose bodies on the various higher planes, as well as the skandhas we have created during former lives. But the myth also symbolizes the cosmic evolutionary process, by which worlds come into being, and also the spiritual process of self-discovery through Yoga, by which we unite all parts of our being into a whole.

Walking a labyrinth by passing from its entrance to its center and then re¬turning back to its circumference thus represents several analogous processes: the coming into birth and the passing out of earth¬ly life of an individual, the involution and evolution of a universe, and—most important—a journey into the center of our own being, the achievement there of a quest for wholeness, and the subsequent return to our divine source. The winding pattern of the labyrinth also represents the circulation of vital energies within our bodies, as well as the convolutions of the brain and the intestines—two poles of our body corresponding to our consciousness and its material vehicle. To traverse the labyrinth is to bring all parts of our being into a single wholeness. Walking the labyrinth is thus a type of Yoga.

Madame Blavatsky, toward the end of her life, gave some special instructions to members of the Esoteric School about some correspondences. Those have long since been published in her Collected Writings. One of those teachings is how the planets correspond with the human principles, correspondences that are relevant to the labyrinth. In the following list, those in square brackets are correspondences not given by HPB, but seem obvious:

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The planet Saturn corresponds to the lower mind, the kama-manas, and hence also to the skandhas, those inclinations or habits of action acquired by the lower mind that we carry over from life to life. Jupiter corresponds to a principle that Madame Blavatsky began to talk about only near the end of her life: the auric egg or the auric envelope; we can perhaps also think of it as corresponding to what in Sanskrit is called the ahamkara, the I-making faculty, the principle we use to identify who we are as separate selves from everyone else. Mars corresponds to the principle of desire, passion, or kama. The sun corresponds to the principle of prana, vitality, or energy, which is appropriate as energy comes from the sun. Venus corresponds to the higher mind, the buddhi-manas. Mercury corresponds to buddhi, the intuition, the insight, or discriminative wisdom. The moon corresponds to what is called the etheric double or etheric body, in Sanskrit the linga sharira, the model, plan, or pattern on which the physical body is built. Madame Blavatsky, at the end of her life, said that the physical body is not really one of the principles. It is merely the container of all the others. So the body is the center, represented by the Earth. The fixed stars represent the atmic sparks that are our ultimate identity. And the Eternal Light of the Primum Mobile is the Logos itself.

The seven sacred planets can be placed on the circuits of the labyrinth in the traditional order in which they occur in the Ptolemaic system, with the earth at the center, Saturn in the outermost circuit, and the fixed stars beyond, completely outside the labyrinth. But there is something interesting about putting the planets onto the labyrinth in this way, because when one enters the Cretan labyrinth, one does not enter in the outermost circuit and come to the center—instead, one enters somewhere near the middle and goes back and forth among the planets as one walks the labyrinth. The order in which the planets are encountered as one walks the labyrinth is this: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, leading to the Earth center. That order can be taken is a model of how we experience any event, including our incarnation into a physical body, as well as how we begin and carry out any action.

One enters the labyrinth at the circuit of Mars, which represents desire. That is right. Everything in manifestation begins with desire. Desire among Theosophists often has a bad reputation, but that is not wholly deserved. Desire itself is morally neutral; it is bad only when we desire bad things. The fourth of the qualifications for the Path, which is called “Love” in At the Feet of the Master, is called “Desire for enlightenment” in the Indic tradition. Once a disciple went to his Master and asked, “Master, what must I do to become enlightened?” And the Master said, “Come with me.” The Master took his disciple down to a river, which they waded into together. When they were in the water up to their necks, the Master put his hands on the shoulders of the disciple and pushed him under the water, and he kept him under for a very long time. When the Master finally released the disciple, he popped out of the water gasping for air, and the Master asked, “When you were under the water, what did you think about?” The disciple answered, “I could think of only one thing: air, air, air, I want air.” And the master said, “When you want enlightenment with the same desire, you will have it.” Only as desire is misused is it evil. In itself, desire is neither evil nor good; it is simply what it is. And what it is—is the beginning of every action.

From the circuit of desire we pass on to the circuit of Jupiter, which is the sense of who I am. Out of desire comes our sense of self-identity. There is an old saying, “A man is what he eats,” and we are indeed what we eat. But we are also what we desire, because desire forms our self-identity. It is important to be careful about what we desire, because we become that. From the circuit of Jupiter, we pass on to the circuit of Saturn, which is the lower mind, kama-manas, the skandhas. We are not only what we desire at a given time, but we are also what we have been in the past, what we inherit from our former lives. Our sense of self-identity is molded by our past actions. Dumbledore, the master Wizard in the Harry Potter stories, tells his young disciple that our choices, more than our abilities, determine what we are. The Saturnine skandhas are the result of our past choices.

From the sphere of Saturn, we pass into the circuit of the Sun, which is vital energy, the middle of the seven principles, life. Once we have established who we are, we are ready to begin whatever our journey through life is going to be, the experience that we are about to have. We pass from desires, self-identity, and the skandhas—all of which are a result of the old, carried over from past lives—to the new, the future. And the point of transition between the old and the new is vital energy. From the circuit of the Sun we pass to the circuit of the Moon, the etheric double, the linga sharira; it is the model, it is what the life energy flows through. Prana flows through the etheric double as the container of that life energy. So once we have experienced the life energy we need a container for it. And this container is the plan of everything else that is to follow—the model of what is to be.

From the sphere of the Moon, we pass to the sphere of Mercury, which represents buddhi, intuition, insight, and discriminative wisdom. We must carry out the plan, which is represented by the Moon, with the wisdom of intuition. It is said that, when we are coming into incarnation, just about to be born into a new body, shortly before that birth we have a vision of what our future life is going to be. We have a vision of the plan, and that vision is our buddhic intuition speaking to us and showing us what is to come and what we are to do. Then from buddhi, we pass into the circuit of Venus, which is the higher mind or the buddhi-manas. Buddhi-manas accepts the intuitions, the insights of buddhi, and prepares to apply them in life. The higher mind is the mind attached to and inspired by buddhic intuition. It is the bearer of our dharma, what we are called to do, as distinct from our karma, the conditions under which we must do it. The higher mind is, in fact, what incarnates, so the sphere of its influence is the last we experience before entering into the center—the place of birth and of action. Thence, we pass into the center, into the Earth, into the body, into the experience, whatever it may be.

This is only one way of looking at this labyrinth from a Theosophical point of view. But it is notable that the meanings of the planets encountered in their labyrinth order correspond to how we experience any new action we undertake. But entering is only half of the total process; we must also exit. And the process of exiting is the reverse of entering, as the following chart suggests:

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If we walk into a labyrinth, we must also walk out. If we begin an action, we must also end it. If we enter into life, we must also leave it. The labyrinth pattern is a plan of how to complete the full cycle of all actions. A Theosophical interpretation of the labyrinth sees it as the pattern of our lives and of every action we take during a lifetime. To walk the labyrinth from start to end is to live a Theosophical life fully and successfully.




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