The labyrinth is the perfect embodiment of a paradox; a concept seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense that defies expectations and yet one that is perhaps true. By creating what are essentially two different ‘landscapes,’ a multi-faceted metaphor is revealed. That a labyrinth can be simultaneously both chaos and ultimate order, terrifying and beautiful, debilitating and inspirational, makes it a symbol of exceptional dynamism. It all depends on your perspective.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vgm8383/2330598837/Imagine yourself walking inside the narrow corridors of a labyrinth. Perhaps you’ve done this in a garden. Your vision is limited on all sides. As you walk you are constantly changing direction, making now a tight turn to the right, now a long looping turn to the left. The sensation is that you must be getting closer to the center because the turns are tighter. But then you feel yourself taken all the way out to the edge again and imagine that you’ll never get there.  It is impossible to make any logical sense out of the path you are following because you can only see what is right in front of you. This is all great fun. Being disoriented and ‘lost’ for a short time is titillating entertainment, as long as rescue is guaranteed.

LascauxBut imagine that the walls are impenetrable stone. A low ceiling drops down from above so there is no escape over the walls. There is little light. You have no idea how big this place is or how long it will take you to get through. As you swing back and forth along the senseless corridors, you begin to wonder if you’ll ever get out. Is there a center? And, if so, what is in the center? Are you going in circles? Will you survive?  Impatience gives way to choking claustrophobia and an overwhelming sense of chaos. Perhaps you’ve been deceived and wonder if you are headed for some hideous ordeal, if it is only to endure the terror of entrapment. A steadying hand on the wall comes away wet with slime. The dankness grows. Water is dripping somewhere. The rotten smell of something dead whiffs up from the stone floor and, from way down inside the walls emerges the muffled grumble of something large heaving slowly about. Now, THIS is the stuff of myth.

LascauxBut let’s change perspective again. You are the cunning Daedalus, creator of the Cretan labyrinth who was imprisoned within its confusing walls. You have built a brace of wings from wax and branches and seagull feathers to escape from this trap of your own devise. And as you rise, your great wings beating the salt sea air of Crete, you look down one last time on the walls of your former jail and marvel at your own ingenuity. How beautiful a shape it is! How regular the pattern, how harmonious the form.  It is a creation of great artistry that depicts a grand sense of order, one that can only issue from the divine. Choosing a careful path to preserve your delicate wings, a path between the heavy mist below that could soak the feathers and drag you into the crashing waves, and the wax-melting heat of the sun above, you escape what would have been sure oblivion, buoyed by the epiphanic joy of ultimate freedom attained. This too, is myth.

Ambiguity is the labyrinth’s central nature. It is always unstable, changing its personality and ours as we change perspective. Ambiguity doesn’t settle well with us, because it doesn’t settle at all. It’s a messy non-linear way of being that challenges the Creation-Existence-Armageddon model of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Like a psychic nuclear reactor, the labyrinth generates creative emotional and psychic processes in whatever guise it appears. It is continually breeding new versions of itself that demand we revisit our categories and redefine what the symbol means to us in our time. And, as we will explore, the experience of the labyrinth is not only ancient, it is hardwired into the brain structure of the earliest humans, biologically indistinguishable from us, who first recognized its ineffable potency.

LascauxIn pre-literate antiquity, the labyrinth design and its cousins, the spiral and the meander, were symbols that occurred worldwide in rock art and weaving patterns, on pottery, and was scrawled as ancient graffiti on a wall in Pompeii. From the Near East to New Grange in Ireland, and from the American Southwest to Siberia, the labyrinth pattern is one of the oldest symbols in the history of mankind and one of the most universal. To understand the significance of this mythological symbol requires that we dig into the very core of human experience and tread the paradoxical paths of belief and biology, history and myth, and discover where they cross over into transcendence, at the Center.

We begin at the beginning of modern humans in an ice-bound Europe about 35,000 years ago. What allowed them to succeed where the resident Neanderthals did not? What made our ancestors quintessentially human and ferocious survivors? Mythically, how did these early adventurers, tumbling out of the hot blue skies of Africa manage to land on their feet in the frozen valleys of France? The key was a brilliant combination of biology and curiosity, facility and adaptation that, through art, expressed metaphor. Metaphor, in turn, enhanced culture and culture created more complex symbolic art. This sparking between survival in a harsh environment and artistic expression created the emergence of the labyrinthine idea as soul-journey, a fusion of purposeful outer and inner vision.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/paopix/2500447384/Consider every chapter another course along the journey deeper into the labyrinth. To reach the center we must first explore the emergence of modern humans and human thought. We’ll examine altered states of consciousness, shamanism, tribal culture and mystical architecture. ‘Seeing’ in a multitude of ways will be explored for what we ‘see’, our perspective, is what we believe. One of these explorations will be the nature of altered states of consciousness and the natural human capability to hallucinate. Another is our awakening to the brilliance of ancient peoples. The discipline and courage of Paleolithic shamans to train themselves to enter trance states and navigate hallucinatory Otherworlds set humankind on a spiritual path we continue to pursue today. The artists of those times have left us their codices on the walls of caves. Finally, grasping the Hermit’s lantern, we’ll follow these shamans into the lightless depths of these ancient cathedrals. This is where Ice Age shamans conversed with spirit animals, brought them through the veil separating the worlds and fixed them on the walls. And in Lascaux, the Queen of Paleolithic caves, we’ll journey with them through the appropriately named Axial allery, itself a paradox, as an axis is a straight line around which figures rotate, and finally journey to the heart of the mystery where god and monster meld.

Can one symbol represent so much? Why has it endured through the whole history of human kind, emerging into consciousness in one form, only to sink and reemerge later in new cosmic clothing, like a magnificent fish breaking the surface of a pond to consider us thoughtfully before sinking once again as we drop our net?