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We often use the word maze and labyrinth interchangeably. But they are quite different. A maze has a multitude of paths that often lead to dead ends. You must retrace your steps and choose correctly over and over again to move successfully through it. There is a corn maze every Halloween in Petaluma and rubberneckers cause a major traffic jam along 101. I don't like mazes.

A labyrinth on the other hand is a complex, circuitous single route that you take from the outside of a circle and through many twists and turns. You are always on a single path until you get to the center. You then turn and take the same exact path back out. There are labyrinths all over the Bay Area and whenever I see one I am drawn to walk on it. It is a joyful, walking meditation, not a somber one.

I enjoy labyrinths because they are a metaphor for life. We are born and know that we will die, but our life journey is full of unexpected twists and turns. And for me the beauty of walking the labyrinth is that I know I'll get to the middle. Even though I have walked it hundreds of time, there are surprises. I expect a certain route but suddenly the path heads in the opposite direction. And then it abruptly turns again and I seem to be going in the wrong direction. But I must have faith. It is such an allegory for life. Whatever we imagine it to be , it will be something else.

Many ancient cultures had labyrinths in some form. Probably the archetypal one in Ancient Crete was actually a maze with the Minotaur in the middle. There is evidence in ancient Egypt of a labyrinth and Native Americans often incorporated labyrinths in their basket weaving. Clearly there is something elemental about the shape and path of labyrinths that resonates for us all.

Our most recent labyrinths can be traced to the medieval churches. When Christians no longer controlled the Holy Land and couldn't complete their spiritual lives with pilgrimages there they developed labyrinths as a Plan B. If you couldn't walk to Jerusalem, at least you could walk in the churches on the labyrinth's path and that would be good enough to get into Heaven.


I do find labyrinths a-mazing. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.