University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer Article


By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

One day three years ago I got tired of mowing in straight lines in the same big space, so I decided to create a pattern using my mower.  It was simple to create, has been simple to maintain, and saved me some mowing as I only need to keep the paths mowed and can let the rest of the grass grow.  Little did I know at the time, but I had created a labyrinth.  In recent years labyrinths, along with mazes, have become a popular garden feature.

 Don't get the two confused.  They are not the same.  Garden mazes are designs in which the participant is confronted with many choices or paths and must select the right ones to get to the center or goal.  As such, a maze is basically a puzzle, a problem-solving left brain activity.  Labyrinths, on the other hand, have a single path (unicursal) leading to the goal. They have been described as a right brain activity, enhancing intuition and creativity.

 Many people create labyrinths for symbolic reasons or as a quiet oasis or interesting feature in a garden.  Some equate them to the journey of life, or rebirth and reincarnation as they are walking along the paths.  To these individuals, the garden labyrinth may provide personal, psychological, or spiritual transformation.

 Mazes and labyrinths are not of recent origin but have been around for at least 3,500 years.  The oldest labyrinth patterns are often referred to as classical and were first seen on a clay tablet in Greece about 1200 BCE. There they were used as oracles and in matters of diplomacy   These patterns often use three, seven, 11, or 15 circular paths, one within the other in a pattern of concentric circles.  The one with seven paths is most common and has been related to the seven Chakras of the Hindu faith, the seven colors of the rainbow, and the seven notes in music.

 Later labyrinths are often termed medieval and have four distinct quadrants and varying numbers of paths, including the popular seven circular paths.  The oldest examples can be found in European churches and cathedrals, the most famous being at Chartres in France.  When pilgrims were unable to travel to the Holy Land, they would travel the cathedral labyrinth instead, on their knees!  Turf labyrinths in England are often included in this group as well.

 In Scandinavia where many have been built, and some of the oldest still exist, they were used to trap bad winds or fair maidens and to ensure a good harvest from the sea.

 Then there are other labyrinth patterns of more recent origin.  Some may include a mound or hill, making them three-dimensional.  Others may meander in a rectangular space or an irregular one. More modern and elaborate designs include a nine-petaled flower, triangle, or flowery wand.  These may have multiple paths meant to "enhance spiritual perception," so may not officially fit the definition of a labyrinth.

 Modern-day mazes and labyrinths often have no religious or mystical purpose.  They may simply provide a great running area for children, as in the popular corn or maize mazes found in many states or back yard leaf mazes, such as I used to make for my daughter when she was younger.  I would rake the leaves into piles and let her run through the pathways created.

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