Mircea Eliade - On the labyrinth
Type of Spiritual Experience
Not an experience, an explanation
A description of the experience
Patterns in Comparative Religion – Mircea Eliade
Without being over-hasty in deciding the original meaning and function of labyrinths, there is no doubt that they included the notion of defending a 'centre'. Not everyone might try to enter a labyrinth or return unharmed from one; to enter it was equivalent to an initiation.
The 'centre' might be one of a variety of things. The labyrinth could be defending a city, a tomb or a sanctuary, but in every case, it was defending some magico-religious space that must be made safe from the uncalled, the uninitiated.
The military function of the labyrinth was simply a variant on its essential work of defending against 'evil', hostile spirits and death. Militarily, a labyrinth prevented the enemy's getting in, or at least made it very difficult, while it admitted those who knew the plan of the defences. Religiously, it barred the way to the city for spirits from without, for the demons of the desert, for death. The 'centre' here includes the whole of the city which is made, as we have seen, to reproduce the universe itself.
But often the object of a labyrinth was to defend a 'centre' in the first and strictest sense of the word; it represented, in other words, access to the sacred, to immortality, to absolute reality, by means of initiation.
The labyrinth rituals upon which initiation ceremonies are based – at Malekula for instance – are intended for just this – to teach the neophyte, during his sojourn on earth, how to enter the domains of death without getting lost.
The labyrinth, like any other trial of initiation is a difficult trial in which not all are fitted to triumph. In a sense, the trials of Theseus in the labyrinth of Crete were of equal significance with the expedition to get the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, or to get the golden fleece of Colchis. Each of these trials is basically a victorious entry into a place of hard access, and well defended, where there is to be found a more or less obvious symbol of power, sacredness and immortality