The Spirituality of Mazes & Labyrinths

by Gailand MacQueen

Published by Northstone Books

144 pages, 2005



The Circle Game

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


Warning: reading The Spirituality of Mazes & Labyrinths could be expensive. Once you enter this world, you may exit with different priorities. You may well want to design your own garden creation or experience these archetypal symbols first hand by traveling to places where mazes and labyrinths have delighted pilgrims for centuries.

Even those of us who may only think of mazes as cornstalk children's adventures every October may well be ensnared by this book if they decide to wander in.

After all, what could be more enticing than an invitation to meander into a sacred space or to play with a puzzle? Each chapter in this attractively laid out hardcover book begins and ends with hands-on opportunities to explore and discover. Can you remember the mazes that intrigued you in children's puzzle books, those puzzles you penciled your way through? Now you can bring your adult mind and experiences to the next level of that game and play it again in a more enlightened way. The author recommends that you photocopy some of the puzzles so that you can make a real mess without worrying about smudging or tearing the book's glossy pages; a good idea because this book is a keeper.

At best, you will be entranced for several hours, at worse you will have expanded your vocabulary and knowledge.

For example, what's the difference between a maze and labyrinth? Give yourself a pat if you know because most people don't. Many dictionaries still don't even differentiate. The maze is left brain, a puzzle where the participant delights in finding their way through the dead-ends and false starts to the center and out. It's a competition with the solver trying to outsmart the designer. A labyrinth has only one path in and out. The joy is in traveling to its center, engaging the spiritual part of the mind rather than the rational. Thus walking a labyrinth becomes a spiritual journey, a meditation rather than a challenge.

A labyrinth, more commonly considered "right brain," represents simplicity, while mazes symbolize complexity and confusion. "Where the labyrinth is about trust, mazes are about personal choice ... where the labyrinth is an instrument of ritual, mazes are pastimes."

And if you think of hedges and cornfields when you think of mazes, you wouldn't be alone. Most everyone is familiar with the hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace in England. Mazes and labyrinths can, however, be constructed in many ways, as MacQueen's intriguing photos often illustrate. In New Mexico you'll find the stardreaming labyrinth, made of black and white stones. In Wiltshire, England, the mirror maze is cause for reflection. In Peru, the pre-Columbian Nasca lines contain both spiral and labyrinthian shapes. The path can be marked by mounds of earth, or by candles, tiles, or simply a dirt trail. They can be drawn on canvas, they can be electronic, or they can be erections leading on forever. They can be as permanent as the entrance stone at Newgrange, Ireland, or as transient as the candle lit Georgian night labyrinth.

MacQueen traces the origins of the labyrinth back 3500 years, from prehistory and legend to its gradual fading in the shadow of the modern world. He does the same with the more modern mazes, which originated in 15th century Europe and fell from grace to become midway attractions and toys in later centuries. Both, however, have enjoyed a resurgence as important New Age images today.

The author also points out the universality of these symbols. They appear in China, India, Ireland, the Holy Land, Scandinavia and North America. They are located at Neolithic, Sardinian and Hopi rock art sites, at Hindu temples, Taoist shrines and in Roman Catholic cathedrals. Today they are also found in retreat and wellness centers, in public and private gardens and in open spaces. Wherever there is a such a place, the journey will be walked, run, crawled, danced or marched. There are as many ways of making the journey as there are journeys.

The labyrinth is "... a nearly universal form and comes as close as we can to an archetype ... a symbol that appeals to us at an unconscious level ... its symbolic meaning is somehow ingrained in us," writes MacQueen. And it is true that these forms are found in ritual places that mark the thresholds of human lives, at grave sites, seacoasts, healing sites and in sacred structures.

So get your pencil and be ready to trace the walks and draw the Neolithic spirals, 27 ringed Cretan labyrinths and three dimensional mazes under the careful instruction of the author. You're in good hands. A professor and lecturer in religious studies living in Ontario, MacQueen holds degrees in philosophy, theology and educational theory. Happily, he has remained open to the mysteries and magic in the world, as symbolized by these ancient forms.

I have only one criticism. I was irritated by the photo cutlines, which sometimes appeared and sometimes did not. When they did not, they were acknowledged on page 127 of the book, but who wants to have to search for a description of the structure on the contents page, for example?

There are as many ways of achieving spirituality as there are mazes and labyrinths. As long as the human race is tantalized and intrigued by unknown paths, our spiritual development is unfolding as it should. For a journey down a few of those paths, this universal guide is invaluable. | April 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.