That Old Labyrinth Song

Most musicologists are blinkered souls (or whatever the right word might be: ear-plugged, perhaps)—so it was no great surprise that I knew nothing about labyrinths before reading The Maze and the Warrior by—and this was the surprise—another musicologist, Craig Wright of Yale University. Since then I have been to San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and walked through the labyrinth in the nave. Inside the church the labyrinth is woven on a large circular carpet; outside the church another labyrinth inlaid in the pavement can accommodate the overflow of seekers after repose and spiritual renewal. While I was there, a man brought candles to light at the labyrinth’s center, annoying the verger, and a woman told anyone who would listen about her on-site epiphanies. The walk was strangely agreeable. I could feel an attack coming of what Wright calls maze mania, a condition that has given us labyrinths in churches, hospitals, gymnasiums, airports, and prison yards, interfaith labyrinths, “maize mazes” on corn-lined acres in both America and France, a great deal of inspirational literature, and up to two hundred Web sites.

There were numerous brochures to pick up at the cathedral. I already had the comprehensive, endlessly fascinating book that Wright acknowledges and draws from, Through the Labyrinth by Hermann Kern, a book born, according to the prefatory matter, “from sheer enthusiasm within the American labyrinth community,” and “a source book for a new generation of labyrinth scholars and enthusiasts.” If a picture is worth a thousand words, the six hundred pictures in Kern’s book will fund an entire bibliography. There are diagrams, ground plans, and aerial views of walled mazes, hedged mazes, huge Roman mosaic pavement mazes, and delicate Scandinavian mazes which look from the air like skeins of natural-pearl necklaces, marked out on green areas by white stones. We visit dozens of floor labyrinths in churches and cathedrals, old and new. In a stunning twelve-inch color spread, the one in San Francisco looks almost like a mirror image of its much-admired prototype at Chartres, so closely was the one modeled on the other.

Kern’s book includes pictures of labyrinths from throughout the world: temple reliefs from India, Native American petroglyphs, stamped gold rings from Indonesia. Stamped on coins from Knossos is the stylized maze that glared at us for years from the cover of the journal Daedalus; it was the great inventor Daedalus, of course, who built the primal labyrinth of the Minotaur for Pasiphaë, as well as a “dancing floor” for her daughter Ariadne. An Etruscan wine jug shows Theseus emerging from the first, and a sixth-century Greek vase shows him presiding over the second. At the center of the labyrinths we see the Minotaur being slain by Theseus, or when Christianity has taken hold of the myth, the Devil slain again and again by the Christian Warrior in full armor.

Surprisingly, almost all labyrinths to be seen in the West before the appearance of the Renaissance garden maze are unicursal …

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