A large Medieval style labyrinth made from stones is laid out on a point of land overlooking a rocky coastline. The ocean is visible just beyond the edge of the labyrinth.
The labyrinth at San Francisco's Lands End in 2008. Since then, this labyrinth has been destroyed.  (Aaron Harmon/flickr)

Labyrinths Everywhere! Why So Many in the Bay Area?

Labyrinths Everywhere! Why So Many in the Bay Area?

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If you do a lot of walking or hiking in the Bay Area, there's a reasonable chance you've stumbled upon a labyrinth — a large, winding, self-contained path lined with stones or bricks. There used to be one at Lands End. There are two in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. There are labyrinths in the Marin Headlands, out near Walnut Creek, down in San Carlos — there may even be one in your neighborhood.  

Bay Curious listener, Kate, noticed there seemed to be a lot of them in the Bay Area, and wanted to know if there's any connection between them and why there are so many out here.

Ancient origins

Labyrinths have been popping up for so long, it's difficult to pinpoint when they first appeared in the cultural record. The pattern as a symbol may go back 4,000 years or more. Classical style labyrinths have been found minted on coins from the ancient Greek city of Knossos dating back to 350 BCE.

The front and back of an ancient Greek silver coin. On the front is a profile of the goddess Hera. On the back is the design of a classical style square, seven circuit labyrinth.
Drachm (Coin) Depicting the Goddess Hera, 350-220 BCE. Artist Unknown. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

They've also appeared in cultural texts. The oldest and most well known of these labyrinth stories is the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur — a great beast with the body of a man but the head of a bull, the result of a mating between Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos of Crete, and an irresistibly beautiful bull. (To be fair, this was not the first time something like this had happened, since Minos himself was the non-consensual product of Europa and the god Zeus, who lured her away while in the form of a handsome bull, to kidnap her.)

King Minos has a giant labyrinth built, with pathways so winding and complex that the Minotaur is essentially trapped inside. Every nine years, seven young boys and seven young girls from Athens are sent into the labyrinth to become hopelessly lost and end up as sacrificial meals for the beast.

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For a more modern example, you need look no further than the 1986 Jim Henson classic, "Labyrinth," which stars a young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, and David Bowie in some very fitted pants as Jareth, the goblin king. Jareth, too, has a gigantic and meandering labyrinth, with his own kingdom in the middle. Teenaged Sarah has to find her way through its misleading and treacherous pathways to recover her baby brother, whom the cruel but undeniably seductive goblin king has kidnapped and threatened to turn into another one of his little puppet minions.

David Bowie dances around with a number of small goblin puppets. He is wearing rather tight grey leggings and a puffy white shirt.
Pants, magic pants.

The funny thing about both these examples is — neither one depicts a true labyrinth. They're mazes!

A labyrinth is not (really) a maze

The one universal truth of a labyrinth is that if you begin at the entrance and follow your feet, the path will always lead to the middle, and you may follow the same path out again. In the U.K., the term maze is sometimes used synonymously with labyrinth. In this case, it may be called a "unicursal maze," which means there is only one path. But unlike, say, the hedge maze in The Shining (a reference to the Minotaur myth), a labyrinth is not designed to make you lose your way.

A Classical seven-circuit labyrinth. (Image by James Jen/Wiki Commons)

There are a wide variety of labyrinth patterns, but most fall into two broad categories: Classical and Medieval. Many of the patterns within those categories are named for the number of circuits they have — that is the number of times the path crosses over the middle of the pattern.  Classical designs are those that date back to antiquity, and include long sweeping paths to the center.  Medieval labyrinth patterns can be described as being sectioned into quadrants, with many hairpin turns that lead the entrant around different sections of the pattern on their path to the center.

Though labyrinths did not originate from any specific religious belief, they have been utilized by many Christian churches. One of the more well known Medieval patterns is the Chartres labyrinth, named for the one that has adorned the floor of the cathedral in Chartres, France since 1221. But you don't need a plane ticket to walk that particular pattern. There's an exact copy of one in San Francisco's own Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill.

Grace Cathedral and the 'modern labyrinth movement'

Grace Cathedral is considered by many to be the center of the modern labyrinth movement, dating back to the installation of the Chartres labyrinth replica in 1991. The Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, who was the church's Canon Pastor at the time, brought the first labyrinth to Grace in canvas form first. One was eventually set into the stone floor of the church, and another put outside the cathedral so that visitors may walk it anytime.

Maia Scott, who is part of Grace Cathedral's Labyrinth Guild, walks the labyrinth in San Francisco. This is an example of the Chartres labyrinth, one of the most well known Medieval style designs. Note the quadrants. (Amanda Font/KQED)

Artress says she was inspired to bring a labyrinth to the church when San Francisco was in the midst of the AIDS Crisis.

"It was just really such a very frightening time," she says, "I knew it intuitively that we needed something that people could do together, prayerfully, or as a meditation, however you understand the labyrinth, and to be able to do something non-verbally. The labyrinth really became a very, very important tool, and it has been ever since."

With the idea of spiritual healing in mind, Artress founded the organization Veriditas in 1995. They provide training for labyrinth facilitators and builders, including how to construct them and tend them in outdoor spaces. Many, though not all, of the labyrinths that have sprung up in the Bay Area may be the result of this increased presence of labyrinth supporters and builders.

Artress encourages people, whatever their beliefs, to seek out a labyrinth and see what they think.

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"I would encourage people, anybody who's in transition, anybody who has deep questions that they're carrying in their heart and in their mind, anybody who needs solace from grief, from feelings of hopelessness, find a labyrinth," she says.