Labyrinths

In 2003, I was asked to create an outdoor labyrinth for Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA. While working on the design, I got an excited call from the curator: I think there’s a basket with a labyrinth design in the Native American collection.

I drove right over to see it. The design is what the Pima people of Arizona call Man in the Maze. A figure stands at the entrance about to enter the labyrinth. Tight concentric rows of light fibers radiate out from the center of the basket. Dark fibers delineate the walking path. This indeed is a true labyrinth. Mazes have dead ends, and the traveler must often retrace her steps and start over. A labyrinth is a continuous journey to the center and back out. But this continuous journey can turn you in unexpected directions. Labyrinths often lead you first almost to the center, and the mind can be fooled into thinking how easy the quest seems to be. But then the path takes you back out, around and around, then almost back to the beginning of your journey. Ironically, it’s at this point, when you might be tempted to give up, that you now make your last circumambulation and head straight to the center. If you put a finger on the little figure at the edge of the basket, you can trace the journey.

 Pima Basket

Pima Basket

Perfectly round and flat, this Pima basket in the museum’s collection might have once been once used in a sacred ceremony. I used the design to create the large outdoor labyrinth that was at Fruitlands from 2005 until 2015. 

 Walking the Labyrinth at Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA in 2005

Walking the Labyrinth at Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA in 2005

The story of the Minoan Labyrinth in Crete kindled my interest in labyrinths. It was built by the inventor, Daedalus, for King Minos to house the great Minotaur, a beast half human and half bull. Fourteen Athenian youths sailed to Crete annually as part of a sacrifice to feed the ravenous creature. Theseus, the prince, decided he would go, slay the minotaur, and end the sacrifice.  

When they arrived at the palace of King Minos, his daughter, Ariadne, met this handsome lad, and fell in love with him. In secret she gave him a red ball of string and a sword so he could slay the Minotaur, find his way back out, and take her away with him. All this came to be. He rescued her and off they sailed – away from her homeland, father, the patriarchy . . . 

The boat landed for a stop on the island of Naxos, but when it set sail again, Theseus was on board and Ariadne remained behind. Did he ‘dump’ her (in the common vernacular) after using her ingenuity to complete his quest? Most readings of the myth describe the distress of the abandoned Ariadne, and this seems quite plausible. But it is worth considering that maybe Ariadne used Theseus to orchestrate her own escape. Maybe she purposely missed the boat? Did she really want to exchange life in one palace, as the daughter of a king, for life in another, as daughter-in-law to another king? Perhaps she escaped from her own labyrinth and was able to choose a different path.

Theseus may have desperately looked for her, and when he couldn’t find her, had to choose between remaining behind searching or sailing off with his companions. The ending of the myth is Theseus’ sad return. In his distress, he forgot to lift a white sail to indicate to his father that he was returning alive. When King Aegeus saw the ship’s black sails, he threw himself over the parapet, thinking his son was dead. Maybe slaying the Minotaur is getting rid of the reigning patriarchy, whichever way we interpret the myth.

Myths serve the reader in offering multiple interpretations. Labyrinths instruct the walker as he or she practices concentration, letting go, perseverance, and trust. When Fruitlands pulled up the labyrinth a year ago, they asked if I wanted the stones and I said, yes. They arrived in a big dump truck, and the pile awaits. I understand why the Pima Indians put their labyrinths on baskets — much easier to transport — especially when you move with the seasons. Perhaps it’s time to put some order to the stone pile and build a labyrinth here.