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Deep History: Interview with Labyrinth Researcher Jodi Lorimer

Gold labrys. Image courtesy J. Lorimer

Christiana Brinton interviews Board member Jodi Lorimer, whose book, Dancing at the Edge of Death: The Origins of the Labyrinth in the Paleolithic, was published in 2009.

CTB: You have given two workshops at TLS Gatherings in the past; one about the correlation between ancient Paleolithic cave art, culture and labyrinths and the other about the possibility of labyrinths appearing in any of the Egyptian periods. What are some of the similar characteristics between labyrinths and the two cultures that would give these ideas merit?

JL: My approach to the history of labyrinths is through an Anthropological filter, which includes archaeology, linguistics, mythology, and the study of tribal cultures, modern and ancient. Working from the premise, I believe that labyrinths are archetypal symbols originating in what Jung called the "collective unconscious." If so, then there must be some representation of them in the earliest fully modern human cultures. That led me to study the art and culture, as near as can be discerned from what survives, of Paleolithic people of Europe, particularly in France, where some of the most beautiful and complex art survives in deep caves. Although there is evidence of flourishing cultures above ground, what survives has been largely preserved in caves, some, like Chauvet, sealed for millennia.

Although I did not find labyrinth drawings as we are familiar with them, nested concentric circles can be found, and at least five images of a bull’s head on a man's body, reminiscent of Minotaurs, which I believe represent shamanic figures. But the experience of spending almost any length of time in a deep cave, devoid of any light but what one brings along, is, by definition, a consciousness-altering surreal experience. Modern studies have been conducted of people left in complete darkness and it was found that the brain spontaneously begins to hallucinate, in both auditorial and visual ways. It is a fact that Paleolithic peoples, both male and female of all ages, used the caves for sacred ceremonies, believing, as proposed by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, that spirits existed on just the other side of the surface and could be contacted through art. If one hallucinates automatically in the environment of a cave, combined with ceremonial fasting, drumming, chanting &c, the spirits were clearly present.

Why else would you travel, in some cases, a mile or more underground, in complete darkness, to lie on your back in a remote pocket to paint a picture of a horse that appears to emerge from a natural crack in the wall? The experience of winding through the amazing, mind-altering architecture of caves to seek out a spirit, hold a ceremony, or leave offerings, is a profound archetypal aspect of early human consciousness. The planning of such a journey; the entry, the performance of the task, and the return to the light in the upper air as a changed person, is still very much with us today in the labyrinth.

The most suggestive example I found of the pursuit of this spiritual, labyrinthine experience was represented, to my way of thinking, very clearly, in what is called the “Axial Gallery” in the cave of Lascaux, so named by the discoverers because it appears to spin. Lascaux is a geologically unusual cave, particularly the Axial Gallery, in that it has a rarely found, almost white, reflective surface that bounces light, a vital commodity in a cave. Norbert Aujoulait, a cave art specialist, postulated that the cave was planned and painted by a small group of people over a period of perhaps a generation. The images in the Gallery are not random, but intentional. The main point is that, as you proceed down this narrow, straight corridor, only wide enough for a single person to walk at a time, the images become increasingly agitated, defensive. They begin to slip, slide off the wall and to spin until, near the end of the gallery you find a horse drawn completely upside down, hooves in the air. The laws of gravity no longer apply. Beyond this point, the floor drops down, the gallery curves hard to the left and ends. Three more images, all red and not well-painted, are found here, the first being a very threatening bison with head lowered aggressively; a very early Minotaur? Perhaps. The walker then has no other choice, as in a labyrinth, but to turn around and exit the way he came in, changed by his experience with the spirits of the cave.

It makes sense that once people began to farm, to irrigate and parcel land accordingly, geometry entered the picture and labyrinth patterns began to appear as representative of the experience of spiritual journey. Our earliest literary mention of the labyrinth comes from Herodotus, a Greek writer from the 5th century BCE. He traveled far and wide through the Mediterranean world and beyond, and reported on what he found there. Some of what he reported has been substantiated since through archaeology and other sources. He stated that there was a labyrinth in the area of the Fayum, near the Egyptian delta, that was a temple and mausoleum of a Pharaoh. He didn’t bother to explain what a labyrinth was, so it is assumed that, by his time, it was a common word. Herodotus was writing over 1000 years after these funerary monuments had been built for Amenemhet III. As all pharaohs, he had other throne names, one of them being "Labarys". Amenemhet III was constructing these buildings during the peak of the Middle Kingdom, the richest and most powerful era of all Egyptian history. The international reach of trade, commerce, literature, influence and power was unmatched at any other time in their history. Aside from a sacred lake and two funerary pyramids, one for the pharaoh and one for his daughter, there was also a huge temple that housed sacred crocodiles in the lower floor and temples to "all the gods of Egypt" on the other. It was a highly numinous space with an intact priesthood that stood for thousands of years.

CTB: At the Florida Gathering in 2014 you gave a third workshop about the Minoan culture and their affinity with labyrinth designs and uses. Can you cite some examples of this?

There is clear archaeological evidence that people from Crete were there in Egypt, probably for an extensive period of time, working on Amenemhet's construction project, a massive undertaking and far exceeding anything seen in Minoan Crete or Greece at the time. It makes sense that the Cretan workmen would have returned home to report on this incredibly huge sacred edifice that came to be called "the place of Labarys," or, "labyrinthos" (the suffix "inthos" meaning "place of.") 

Our most clear connection to the idea of the labyrinth comes from these ancient Minoans and the Mycenaen Greek interpretation of them we’ve inherited. Unfortunately, we are so far unable to read Minoan script. Sacred circle dancing was, and still is, a vital part of ceremony on Crete. Dancing floors have been found from the very earliest Minoan settlements outside of tombs, associating some forms of circle dance and feasting with ceremonies for the dead and spirits. In the 1980s, a very large stone floor was excavated near Knossos, surrounding stones inscribed with symbols including the double axe. In the center stood a large stone, carved to hold offerings of wine, oil, water and first fruits.

Lorimer sarcophagus aghia triada
Sarcophagus from Aghia Triada. Image courtesy J. Lorimer

Eventually, the Minoans were dominated by Mycenaean Greeks with many aspects of Minoan culture being absorbed. One of our earliest drawings of a labyrinth symbol comes from the backside of a Mycenaean clay tablet used to record temple tithes. Another clay tablet recorded in Mycenaen Greek notes a measure of honey for the goddess of the labyrinth; cryptic but unmistakably linking a goddess and an offering to a sacred place called a labyrinth. Greek vases show young people, as described in Homer’s Iliad, holding a rope, a form of Ariadne’s thread, and performing a complicated circle dance which may have corresponded to a spring fertility festival. 

The labrys, or double axe, was the preeminent symbol of the sacred in Minoan Crete, associated with the Goddess.  Perhaps originally drawn from then new bronze axes, expensive, rare, and symbolic of power, the symbol passed into metaphor. The "horns of consecration" as Arthur Evans called the symbol of bulls' horns appearing on shrines and in the art, was borrowed from Egypt’s symbol for the horizon where the sun rose and set between sacred mountains, bringing life and marking out time. The labrys is often associated with Minoan interpretations of the Egyptian ankh, symbol of the eternal life force. The appearance of the labrys in the place occupied by the sun indicates its solar power of life and is ubiquitous in the art of Crete. It constitutes a very powerful metaphor for the passage of time, the natural cycle of seasons, and the existence of eternity just over the horizon.

Another common symbol is the bull. Bull leaping was a ceremonial practice represented in temple art at Knossos and elsewhere on seals. Horned bulls’ heads entwined with flowers and vines were symbols of sacred life that we find reappears in Greek mythological stories of Dionysius. Bulls all around the ancient Mediterranean Sea, were the most sacred of sacrificial animals. Wild bulls were huge, fast and very powerful and could provide a lot of meat for a funeral gathering. The association of bull bones with ancient funeral ceremonial spaces is evident from at least 7-8000 BCE in Anatolia. In Crete, bulls are associated with both funeral celebrations and eternal life, perhaps through the magical fluid of sacrificed blood. 

Lorimer Pseira vase
The Pseira vase. Image courtesy J. Lorimer

This is where it gets dicey. Over the millennia and through a multitude of historical convolutions, including the end of the Bronze Age and introduction of monotheism, what was once highly sacred became reviled. The Mycenaeans were a warrior culture and the remnants of the Minoan religion and culture were subsumed and altered down through Greek history. In the 5th century BCE, the time of Herodotus, Socrates and other literary luminaries of Classical Greece, Athens was fighting the Peloponnesian War and needed a culture hero. Theseus, previously a very minor player, was elevated to near-godhood and became the hero of Athens. He accomplished this by going to Crete, killing the Minotaur and escaping the labyrinth with Ariadne's help.  It is no mistake that the Minotaur was a bull and was ultimately sacrificed to Greek preeminence.

The sacred bull of Minos had become a cannibalistic monster. The festive, sacred open-air dancing floor went underground and became his prison; a dark, terrifying place from which one would never escape unless you were Theseus. This is the only myth that survives in which the Minotaur is mentioned. It served its purpose to catapult Theseus to Athenian stardom, his "noble" act of killing the Minotaur replicated on countless vases of the time, and traded as far away as Germany. Needless to say, with the introduction of monotheism, the pagan world and all it held sacred was condemned, actively repressed, or cleansed of any pagan residue. 

CTB: So, for you, there is a distinct relationship between the archetype of the labyrinth, the Minotaur and Ariadne’s thread?

I believe, and I think my studies have shown, that both the labyrinth and the Minotaur are archetypal symbols, originating in the collective unconscious and posited, over the history of human life, with layers of meaning revealed through history, art and mythology. Today, the labyrinth is reclaiming something of the celebratory graceful beauty of ancient Crete and the Minotaur, when not relegated to comic book status, continues to exist as the shadow side of our unconscious. Each culture has a version of the journey of life and spiritual methods for achieving the most meaningful, integrated experience possible for those who seek it. Those cultures that don’t have bulls in their ecosystems sacrifice stags, kudu, bison and other large food animals in their rituals. Ariadne’s thread is always with us. It just changes fabric through time. As one culture conquers another, as religions come and go, the definition of the journey, the goal and the means of achieving it all change. The Source, however, the labyrinth and the spirit one seeks at the center, whether monster or god, remains the same. Description: https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif