I have been walking Labyrinths for a long time. A few years ago a new one was created in a nearby churchyard in my town, and made available to the public.
I began to walk it regularly with a friend. Annoyed that a yoga class uses the labyrinth for classes and neglects to clean up the sand it spreads over the marker stones that separate the pathways, my friend began the practice of sweeping it before use. I too acquired a broom and together now, we sweep the labyrinth, making the stones that mark the pathway clear and clean before we walk it.
(Not sure what a Labyrinth is? Read the description at the bottom of this post.)
Recently, we decided to make our walking the labyrinth dates a regular, once a month practice. This month, however, we were lucky enough to end up doing it two weeks in a row on the same day and time. And that is when it happened.
As I stood to enter the labyrinth I realized I had received an answer to a prayer I had carried with me through the labyrinth the week before. It was a powerful answer, catapulting me into a whole new line of research and writing, opening a door long closed. I had not realized that my previous journey through the labyrinth had anything to do with that until I stood before the labyrinth this time, making the prayer for my journey through.
As I began to walk the well delineated path, the labyrinth began to breathe, to swell up and down, to move with life. For a moment, I felt dizzy as the earth rose beneath me. The sensation was that I was going uphill. I stopped to catch my balance and as I did I thought: The labyrinth is alive.
If the labyrinth is alive then who is the Goddess of the Labyrinth? I wondered to myself. Then I saw her, underground, circling as I circled, walking the mirror image of me, tracing my steps underground as I moved above ground—a woman in priestess attire. Her hair was dark and tied up on the back of her head. She was silent, silently witnessing and accompanying me on my journey. Although I tend to be known for repeating “everything is alive,” I had not had the experience of the labyrinth being alive until that moment.
Holy shit! Everything is alive.
To remain focused and not get distracted by thinking, I moved into gratitude, thanking her for the response to my prayer. I moved through the labyrinth in gratefulness and joy. Then I heard, “not Goddess, Lady of the Labyrinth.”
After our walk, I asked my friend, “Who is the Lady of the Labyrinth?” She responded that she had never thought to ask that. At dinner I googled it and received my answer. Ariadne is the Lady of the Labyrinth. A whole world opened, a world I knew well but had not connected here, in my hometown, at the labyrinth, before.
Of course, Ariadne is the Lady of the Labyrinth but she is also a Minoan Priestess of the underworld, a priestess of the Snake Goddess. The labyrinth is one of her main tools and access points.
Dream incubation, inhaling trance inducing vapors, darkness and sensory deprivation were utilized in rituals all over the ancient world to access the unseen, the gods and goddesses, to tend to the those on the other side, to listen deeply and intentionally interact with one’s interior, the primal soul of one’s self and the earth and Earth Goddess. Entering these rituals and ritual spaces was the deepest form of self care.
Minoan Crete (6000-1450 BCE)
In the belief system of Minoan Crete, Snake created the world. Snake also led one into trance state. She was time and transcendent kundalini. Temple Priestesses led one through rituals to access the Snake Goddess, her wisdom and Her healing, one of which was a journey through a subterranean Labyrinth.
From that ancient time we know names of historical priestesses and their Goddesses or are they one and the same? Is Ariadne the name of a Minoan Goddess or a lead priestess? It is hard to tell. Perhaps both?
The powerful Creator Goddesses, often termed Creatrix, and their priestesses that preceded the classical Greeks and Romans are reduced to helpless or helpful females in the stories that remain. Their biographies revolve around the men they are associated with. The stories that are told about them are what we call myths. We know Ariadne as the helpmate of Theseus by whom she was subsequently abandoned. After which she married Dionysus.
Crete was famous in the ancient world for its underground labyrinth. Some archaeologists believe the labyrinth was the “palace” whose remains were found in Knossos since the temple “palace” or central community building uncovered there was labyrinthine in structure and design. But there is also evidence for a labyrinthine structure under that temple palace.
Later myth (that for a long time usurped the truth of the Minoan Culture itself) tells of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull, locked inside the Labyrinth at Knossos, the main city of Minoan Crete, and his half-sister Ariadne, a princess at the temple who helped Theseus find the Minotaur and kill him.
Myths are not history. Myths are stories made up to teach and influence culture. While they often contain fragments of truth and history, they are fiction.
The truth is the pre-classical, pre sky-god, pre-Dorian, Minoan culture was women-centered and Goddess worshipping. Enough evidence has been gathered by archaeologists and historians to make this statement factual and it seems one of its priestesses, perhaps a lead priestess, was named Ariadne.
The use of the labyrinth as a tool is long-standing. In the Chavin Culture (900-200 BCE) at the great site of Chavín de Huántar in Peru’s northern highlands we find a sprawling labyrinthine temple with underground tunnels that served as a pilgrimage site and oracular center. The underground hypogeum at Malta (4000 BCE) was also a pilgrimage center and place to interact with the Inner Earth Goddess. There are also the Greek Asclepions (5th century BCE) that served as centers for dream incubation and underworld journeys.
Read a post and story about the Temples at Malta:
Pilgrimage to the Goddess
These labyrinthine and subterranean structures were used for formal initiations into into a temple. They were also accessible for public petitioners to come and receive a healing or transformation, honor a transition or mark a rite-of-passage.
Walking labyrinths arise again in European Cathedrals in the Middle Ages as a meditative tool or substitute for pilgrimage. The most famous one rediscovered in Chartres Cathedral in France from 1200 CE. The design of the Chartres Labyrinth with its four axis pattern is the one I currently walk.
The indoor and outdoor walking labyrinths at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco were brought there by Lauren Artress in 1995. Artress is credited with rediscovering and recovering the labyrinth at Chartres. You can read more about her and walking labyrinths in general at veriditas.org.
There are many labyrinth designs including the 7-course classical Minoan design also imaged in Minoan art.
Ariadne as precursor to Persephone
A post on the website Ancient Origins attributed to scholar Riley Winters posits that Ariadne was a precursor to the Underworld Goddess Persephone.
Persephone is another ancient Goddess whose story was reduced to being a victim of rape and abduction by a male god, thereby forced into the underworld for half of the year. But in reality she is the powerful Underworld Goddess. Winters informs us that:
“Persephone is not a goddess forced into a marriage-bed; rather she is purported to be the primary underworld deity—a chthonic goddess of dark power and resurrection. In the post Dark Age world of the sky-gods however, there is no place for an all-powerful underworld queen; so, she is given a husband, who’s role overshadows her old one, except for among those who refused to let the old religion die”(4).
Ariadne then, as predecessor to Persephone, holds that same powerful role. She, with the assistance of the priestesses in her temple leads humans through what Winters labels rituals of “descent, search and ascent”.
This is the path of the labyrinth: an intentional or unintentional underworld journey or dark night of the soul, in which one “dies before they die” and gains access to deeper knowledge of the cosmos, oneself and the underworld.
Returning Ariadne and Her primary tool, the labyrinth, to this context readjusts the lens on this powerful Goddess and her domain.
Now, when I go to walk the labyrinth, I know who to call upon.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
What is a Labyrinth?
There are varying designs for modern walking labyrinths but they are all spiraling foot pathways that lead the user to a central place and focal point, from which they exit along the same pathway.
Walking labyrinths can be made as elaborate or as simple, as big or small as you wish. For a more permanent installation, some use river stones or bricks to mark the outlines of the path on a flat, grassy area. Other designs utilize hay bales as the guiding edges, or large sticks or logs. For temporary labyrinths, the pathways can be drawn into the sand at the beach or on a riverbank, or marked on a large, heavy cloth that can be moved around to events. Many communities now have permanent installations of labyrinths on public property. They are a center and focal point that can also be seen as the umbilicus of the community or village. They can be walked at seasonal events, moon cycles, and on holidays. There is no limit to the gift and place a labyrinth can hold for a community.
Labyrinths offer us a place to go to with a question, thought, hope, or aspiration. I was taught to hold the question or aspiration on the way in, receive the answer or confirmation in the center, and unwind it all on the way out.
Labyrinths can be walked at times of stress, celebration, contemplation, or when a community needs to come together to settle a dispute. Before beginning to discuss the dispute, have all the participants walk the labyrinth in a meditative way, making their way into the still center where they can listen for an answer to the question they have carried in, or make an offering or prayer for outcome. Some participants can stand on the outside drumming, chanting, or simply silently holding space while others walk. Others can be stationed at the entryway to meet the person going in and greet them again on the way out.
For more about labyrinths, including how to build and maintain a labyrinth see veriditas.org.
Winters, Riley. “The Descent of Ariadne: Minoan Queen of the Dead to Mistress of the Labyrinth?” ancientorogins.net January 9, 2018. https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/descent-ariadne-minoan-queen-dead-mistress-labyrinth-009407