The Mystery of the Labyrinth

The concepts of “labyrinth” and “realm of the dead” were interconnected in the eyes of our ancestors, both referring to the burial mound or initiatic cave whose entrance and main channel symbolized the vaginal channel whereas the last and deepest chamber symbolized the womb understood as matrix of rebirth: this sort of womb of the earth was the place where was accomplished the initiation ritual that allowed the individual to be reborn within the ancestry.

Representation of an archaic labyrinth (the word “labyrinth” may derive from “labra” [“cave, mine”]); the Chartres Cathedral’s labyrinth is composed of 274 stones, the number of days that make up a woman’s average pregnancy duration:
trojeborg_nordisk_familjebokRisultati immagini per labirinto di chartres

The Greek verb “muein” – from which comes the noun “mysterion” – originally referred to the attainment of the spiritual and initiatory center: in the ancient mystery religions survived the primordial metaphysical process consisting in reaching the center inside the labyrinth understood as burial mound, there where lies its fundamental “mystery”. This bond between the labyrinth, the burial mound and the cave (at the entrance of the Cumaean Sibyl’s cave described in the Aeneid is engraved the image of the labyrinth) is clearly unveiled by the decorative motif – common in archaic Greek and Roman art – known as “meander”, name that originally may have referred to the meanders of natural caves, i.e. the prototypes of the burial mounds.

“The meander is the figure of a labyrinth in linear form”.

-Károly Kerényi

Risultati immagini per karoly kerenyi

An example of decorative motif called “meander”:

We find the figure of the labyrinth also in relation to ritual dances, for example when during a festivity dedicated to Proserpina, the Roman equivalent of Persephone, virgin maidens danced a spiral path called “Chorus Proserpinae”, holding in their hands a rope: is it possible that the path danced by the maidens was simbolically equivalent to the figure of the archaic labyrinth? What symbolized the rope that was used in that religious context? To answer these questions we can refer to the myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the labyrinth.

In the Iliad is mentioned the fact that Daedalus built a place for dancing to Ariadne, in all likelihood in reference to the same labyrinth where was imprisoned the Minotaur, to which was periodically sacrificed a group of young boys and girls: the third sacrificial group was joined by Theseus, that killed the monstrous creature and came out of the labyrinth dancing its spiral path. The killing of the Minotaur establishes the accomplishment of the initiatory rebirth that the other children were not able to conquer, and in this regard we must note that Theseus himself necessitates to be understood, like the innumerable heroes of the mythologies, in the perspective of a child close to his spiritual awakening.


The name “Ariadne” comes from “arihagne”, “utterly pure”, characteristic that associates her to Persephone since death is source of purification; Ariadne and Persephone are equivalent figures and the first – according to an inscription in Linear B found at Knossos – was called “Lady of the Labyrinth” and had to receive honey as a gift, the same food that was brought as a gift by the divine child to nourish and placate the sorceress or priestess – originally the she-bear – who was inside the burial mound in view of the fulfillment of the initiatory process: it is no coincidence that in particular the chtonic deities were described by the Greeks as “honeyed” and “sweet as honey”.

Zeus Meilichios (according to a popular etymology the epithet “meilichios” would mean “sweet as honey”) was often portrayed in the form of an enormous chtonic serpent:
Immagine correlataImmagine correlata
Immagine correlata

The structure of the archaic labyrinth was unicursal, consisting of a single path leading to the center of the figure, without any possibility of getting lost inside it: then what symbolizes the thread that Ariadne gives to Theseus so that he can find the way back? It symbolizes the umbilical cord that binds the fetus to the placenta composed by the sum of one’s ancestors.


Theseus enters the labyrinth, i.e. the burial mound, bringing with him the thread and simbolically becoming a fetus provided with the umbilical cord necessary for his own spiritual sustenance and development, and only when the symbolic pregnancy will come to an end he will be able to come out of the earth’s womb, reborn and initiated into the mysteries of the self.


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