The Labyrinth

Designed and Painted by NE Magnet High School Art Students
and students in the Decorative and Ornamental painting program at WSU

The carpet in the center of Sacred Space is a painted labyrinth modeled after ancient Greek and Roman floor mosaics. Until very recently, the words labyrinth and maze have been used interchangeably. In the last decade however, the two terms have been attributed distinct meanings. A maze consists of a complicated pattern of branching and intersecting paths with many dead ends, and is meant to confuse and entrap. The labyrinth has one winding path that leads from the outer entrance or gate to the center by way of a number of nested circuits. Our labyrinth is a three-circuit design, meaning the path wraps around three times before reaching the center, sometimes called the goal.

The three-circuit design is the inner section of the ancient and universal seven-circuit labyrinth pattern. The oldest example we have of this pattern was carved into the entrance of a Neolithic tomb in Sardinia dating to 2500 BCE. The same pattern was used as the city-state emblem on coins from Knossos on the island of Crete dating roughly 1900 to 1300 BCE. In Papua-New Guinea, some indigenous peoples teach their children how to draw the seven-circuit pattern in the sand. It is believed that the spirit of the recently deceased must journey along the labyrinth path to reach the blessed home of the ancestors, and it is vital that their children know the way home. The Hopi peoples of the desert southwest believe that humans first emerged into this world by way of a labyrinth path. Their neighbors, the Pima, use the seven-circuit pattern in basketwork and as a symbol of the Pima nation. In these cultures, the labyrinth symbol serves as a portal between the everyday world and the world of the spirits and ancestors.

The labyrinth is also a symbol of the spiritual journey or pilgrimage. The most famous pilgrimage labyrinth is in the Chartres Cathedral, built in France in 1194-1220. It has an eleven-circuit design and measures 42.3 feet in diameter. This and other cathedral labyrinths were used as places of symbolic pilgrimage for persons unable to travel to the holy sites of the Middle East.

Our labyrinth has inset medallions with images of animals that have symbolic attributes in many world cultures. It is important to remember that disparate cultures may have conflicting interpretations of any particular animal's symbolism. Observations of animal habits are usually the basis for symbolic attributes. For example, the crane symbolizes longevity and purity for the Chinese and Japanese, but in northwest India is considered a rowdy and filthy bird. Perhaps the fact of hundreds of thousands of cranes converging on the breeding grounds in northwest India gave rise to the observations of raucous behavior and filth.

Indigenous cultures worldwide recognize symbolic differences between sky, earth and sea animals. Generally flying animals are symbolic of farsighted wisdom and rapid change. Walking animals are symbols of practical action and steady change. Swimming animals are symbolic of emotional or hidden wisdom and fluid change.

Each of the three circuits of our labyrinth have animals specific to the air, land and sea. In the outer circuit are animals of the air: butterfly, owl, dove, crane, eagle, crow, and peacock. The middle circuit has land animals: elephant, spider, monkey, cow, and turtle. In the inner circuit are animals of the sea: snake, dolphin, starfish, and carp. In the center is a symbol of the sun, whose warmth and light give life to the world. As you walk the labyrinth, we invite you to contemplate what each animal means to you.