The Enigma of Labyrinths

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By 2017-04-09

By Shireen Senadhira

Do any of you remember the maze in Nuwara Eliya park? It's alright if you don't, as the time when we were all agog with mazes and labyrinths seems to have passed and the maze in the Nuwara Eliya has now disappeared due to the landscaping of a small park to enhance its scenic attributes. To add to the v mystery of the maze, were stories that were woven around it and kept us wide eyed with eerie excitement listening to them. When I saw this maze, I guess, in my child's mind, I made a decision not to get close to it. One particular story I remember, was of a young person who got lost in the maze. A young couple walking in the park had a heated argument which ended with one going off in a huff and the other walking into the maze in deep thought. The young woman couldn't find her way out. She was lost and in the cold and dark night she was lying on the ground in exhaustion. The next day she was found dead. No one listening to the story wanted to guess any further whether she was killed or not. Much later, I found out that this was only a story and the maze was not all that menacing and frightening. But by now, the Nuwara Eliya park maze had been removed so, we really could not put all the stories to rest.

A maze is a good example of a labyrinth, a place of endless paths where anybody could get enmeshed. A labyrinth is a perplexity and like a riddle, to seek the correct path is a exciting to solve.

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, it was the beginning of her adventures as she travelled from one strange place to another. She had fallen into a labyrinth. In these strange places, Alice met equally astonishing and quirky characters that made her story interesting.

People seem strangely attracted to mazes and labyrinths. Disneyland in Paris has an attraction called, Alice's Curious Labyrinth. It is a hedge maze attraction and it was opened in 1992. It focuses on Alice's journey through Wonderland. Its very popular with children and the journey begins with guests entering the White Rabbit's Hole, and arriving in a wood featuring strange animals, doors of various sizes (some doors can only be opened by children), and several signs with conflicting directions. Guests then walk under fountains which spray streams of water over the guest's heads. Wandering further along, the guests discover the Caterpillar smoking his hookah while being witty, followed by the Cheshire Cat and card soldiers painting the white roses red. The second and much tougher part of this labyrinth, represents the maze of the Queen of Hearts. It is as long as Alice's encounter with her. When guests wander through it, the Queen or her card soldiers pop up from time to time, while she screams her famous line "Off with their heads!" The Queen's Castle stands in the center of the maze. Guests reach it eventually, and can go to the very top of it, where they are given a broad sight of Fantasyland

Labyrinths in novels

The Constant Gardner It was after a conversation about labyrinths that I read the novel, The Constant Gardner by British author John Le Carre, which was published in 2001. It was a political thriller. There was a movie too of the same name which was very successful. The story is about a British diplomat stationed in Nairobi who finds joy in gardening in his leisure time. His young wife is an activist who uncovers a corporate scandal involving medication experimentation in Africa. Testing for a tuberculosis drug in the villages brought about disastrous side effects which were subsequently covered up so as to put the drug onto the market. The diplomat's wife gathered evidence of this scandal which was so complicated and dangerous that she became enmeshed in a formidable labyrinth of intrigue. Courageously snooping around ended in tragedy for her, as high politics too were involved.

However, the bereft husband left his job later and continued the wife's activities till he was able to shed light on the whole nefarious activity.

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse is an archaeological mystery novel written by Kate Mosse and was published in 2005. It was set both in the Middle-Ages and present-day France. The novel interestingly divides into two main storylines that follow two protagonists, Alaïs (from the year 1209) and Alice (in the year 2005). The two stories intertwine in a shared geography. Historical events such as the massacre at Beziers and the Crusade against the Cathars in Occitania (now the South of France) from around 1200 are much featured. Ultimately the story is a quest for the Holy Grail. It won an award in the British Book Awards in 2006.

The story runs that near Carcassonne, in the Pyrenees Mountains, Alice, in an archaeological dig, stumbles into a cave and makes a startling discovery,two crumbling skeletons, strange writings on the walls, and the pattern of a labyrinth. Eight hundred years earlier, on the eve of a brutal crusade that will rip apart Southern France, a young woman named Alais is given a ring and a mysterious book for safekeeping by her father. The book contains the secret of the true Grail, and the ring, inscribed with a labyrinth, will identify a guardian of the Grail. For Alais, with the crusading armies gathering outside the city walls of Carcassonne, it will take a tremendous sacrifice and effort to keep the secret of the labyrinth safe.

Movies

Pan's Labyrinth, is a Spanish-Mexican dark fantasy film of 2006. It was written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.

The story takes place in Spain in 1944, during the Spanish Civil War. The story is told with the intertwining of the real world with a mythical world centered on an overgrown abandoned labyrinth and a mysterious faun creature, with whom the main character, Ofelia, interacts. Ofelia's stepfather hunts the Spanish Maquis who fight against the Francoist regime in the region, while Ofelia's pregnant mother grows increasingly ill. Ofelia meets several strange and magical creatures who become central to her story, leading her through the trails of the old labyrinth garden to find her solution. The film premiered in 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It won numerous academy awards and BAFTA awards. Pan's Labyrinth is a chilling story about the fight for freedom and the risks that must be taken in order to achieve it. It's an affecting story that calls into question the very nature of our role in the face of emotionless greed. Guillermo del Toro brings us back to the core of fairytale essentials to hit home the importance of an imagination to make itself available to counteract the realism.

Catacombs

The Odessa Catacombs are a network of tunnels spreading under Odessa, Ukraine and its surrounding regions. These catacombs have come about due to stone mining and then due to smuggling. These long catacombs are on three levels and reach a depth of 60 meters below sea level. The Odessa Catacombs are perhaps the largest network of tunnels anywhere in the world. They're significantly longer and definitely more complex than the famous catacombs found beneath Rome (300km) and Paris (500km)... in fact, if these Ukrainian tunnels were stretched out to full length, they'd reach further than the distance between Odessa and Paris. In the 19th-century, limestone was used to build houses in Odessa and these were mined nearby. These mines were abandoned and later used, and widened, by local smugglers, creating a labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath Odessa.

The oldest tunnels here are believed to date back as early as the 17th century or before. The city of Odessa grew rapidly throughout the 19th century, and the catacombs were widened and extended as they became a key source for the limestone used in so much of the city's iconic architecture. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 the operation was suspended. The unused mines were the havens of the criminal classes. They remained the province of outlaws and vagabonds up until WWII.

When the Nazis arrived in Odessa, and Soviet troops were forced to retreat towards Moscow. Unknown to the invaders, the Soviets left key strategic units positioned beneath the city. The Ukrainian partisan groups hid deep within the catacombs and they were able to launch surprise attacks on the fascist forces. These catacombs are now a tourist attraction

Underground burial was common practice among ancient Mediterranean cultures. There were burial tunnels, in Egypt, Greece and many other Mediterranean lands. Catacombs were mostly built for memorial services and internment of the dead. The main religious groups that used them were the Roman Catholics and the Christians. Sometimes, the catacombs were also used as a refuge when they had battles or wars. The enemy forces did not invade burial ground. It was thought to be very bad luck to disturb the dead. They were afraid the spirits of the dead would haunt them

Paris Catacombs - Deep underneath the streets of Paris lies the city of the dead. Two-hundred miles of catacombs lace the limestone bedrock along the River Seine, stacked with the human bones of centuries of the French deceased. The Catacombs of Paris or Le Catacombs de Paris (in French) is an underground ossuary in Paris, France. It is also sometimes called Quarries of Paris or "les Carrieres de Paris." The ossuary was created around the 17th century and to this day, holds the remains of 6 million people. It is made up of caverns and tunnels that were the remains of Paris stone mines. Long ago, Paris used to bury its dead on the outskirts of the city, but that changed with the rise of Christianity since they believed they should be buried under or around churches. Initially, all the churches had their own cemeteries, but the growth of the city and the dead didn't leave any more space for other people to be buried. The graveyards became over crowded and their surrounding areas were suffering from disease brought on by contamination from the corpses. This problem was not helped by the fact that there were many mass graves open all around the city. Then, the state evacuated all the graves from the main city to abandoned quarries. From the 18th century to the present day, visitors have been invited to roam the dark halls of death and its mysterious mine shafts which some claim are the very entrance to hell itself.

Rome Catacombs - In the first century, the Roman Christians did not have their own cemeteries. If they owned land then they would bury their relatives there, if they didn't they had to bury them in common cemeteries, the Pagans were also buried here.

That is why Saint Peter was buried in the great public necropolis (city of the dead) on Vatican Hill, as it was available to everybody. Saint Paul was also buried in a section of the catacombs.

In the first half of the second century the Christians started burying their dead underground. That is how the catacombs were founded. Many of them began and developed around family tombs whose owners, newly converted Christians, did not reserve them to the members of the family. They did open them up to their fellow people, showing the faith. As time went on and space started to run out in the catacombs, the catacombs grew larger by gifts and by the purchase of new properties, sometimes by the Church itself.

The Christian catacombs are extremely important for the history of Early Christian art as they contain the great majority of examples from before about 400 AD, in fresco and sculpture, as well as gold glass medallions (these have been removed). The Jewish catacombs are similarly important for the study of Jewish culture at this period. If one enters one segment of the catacombs, one is surrounded by over 1,000 years worth of human remains consisting of well over six million people. These catacombs are much visited though they are such eerie, gloomy and damp places where the pall of death hovers.

Conclusion

In Greek mythology, it was the legendary artisan who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. The structure was elaborate and it was built by Daedalus to trap the Minotaur (a half-man and half-bull monster) to be vanquished by the hero, Theseus. Such a cunningly built structure it was, that Daedalus himself could barely find the path to escape. Labyrinths were exhibited on Cretan coins as early as 430 BC, some showing the single seven course design unicursal which is the classical design and others were with branching patterns of the labyrinth. Even though the designs became more elaborate later, visual depictions of the mythological Labyrinth from Roman times until the Renaissance are almost invariably unicursal. It is said that branching mazes were reintroduced only when garden mazes became popular during the Renaissance.

Ancient labyrinths have been found outside Europe. Native American culture has shown a design like the 7-course classical pattern by the Tohono O'odham people. This design had two distinct differences from the classical: it is radial in design, and the entrance is at the top, where traditional labyrinths have the entrance at the bottom. The earliest appearances cannot be dated securely; the oldest is commonly dated to the 17th century. Records show that in Goa, a prehistoric petroglyph was found on a riverbank showing the same pattern and has been dated to circa 2500 BC. Other examples too have been found among cave art in northern India and on a dolmen shrine in the Nilgiri Mountains, these however, are not dated accurately. Early labyrinths in India all follow the Classical pattern; some have been described as plans of forts or cities. Labyrinths appear in Indian manuscripts and Tantric texts from the 17th century onward. They are often called "Chakravyuha" that refers to an impregnable battle formation described in the ancient Mahabharata epic. Lanka, the capital city of mythic Rāvana, is described as a labyrinth in the 1910 translation of Al-Beruni's India (c. 1030 AD).

Also, In Russia, by the White Sea, notably on the Solovetsky islands, there have been more than 30 stone labyrinths preserved.
Benefits of labyrinths - A labyrinth can be described as a walking meditation or path of prayer for it was used as such. Labyrinths are generally constructed on the ground so they may be walked along from entry point to center and back again. They have historically been used in both group ritual and for private meditation, and there are numerous different designs, although they are mostly constructed in the form of a circle, symbolizing unity, oneness or wholeness

The most important guideline is that there is no right way or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. These are only suggestions. To prepare, you may want to sit quietly and reflect before walking. Some people come with a question, others just to slow down and take time out from a busy life. Some come to find strength, or to find comfort in times of grief or loss. Children, as well as adults, may walk or run for pure joy in the present moment.

Labyrinths are currently used worldwide as a way to quiet the mind, recover a balance in life, meditate, gain insight, self-reflect, reduce stress, and to discover innovation and celebration. Labyrinths are open to all people and all ages as a non-denominational, cross-cultural blueprint for well-being. The practice of labyrinth walking integrates the body with the mind and the mind with the spirit.

With all this, one can gain so much from walking a labyrinth. It is a maze and when one can find the path to return, it is an achievement and thus satisfaction is gained. For whatever reason you use the labyrinth it should give you relief and satisfaction and perhaps rejuvenation too. So, why don't you try puzzling out a labyrinth?

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