Needless to say, the pandemic is making us do a lot of crazy shit we probably wouldn’t have considered before: start a backyard chicken farm, move to a completely different state to take advantage of remote worker incentive programs, get a divorce, get a batshit new haircut, you name it. COVID-19 is an intense and scary time, but one that’s also pulling the lid off of how many things sucked in The Before Time on personal and structural levels and providing a road map for how we’re going to rebuild bigger and better than ever before.
But before you hop on a plane and give your friends bone-crushing hugs at restaurants once more, maybe you’ll want to build your own freaking labyrinth and create your own little refuge you can get lost in since we’re going to be sheltering in place for a loooong time yet. And hey, with millions of job losses, we’re getting creative with how we’ll start pumping blood back into the economy.
Job opportunity: Minotaur https://t.co/9NCaX4ZRB8
— John Leavitt 🌹 (@LeavittAlone) July 30, 2020
So first it was a boom in gardening and breadmaking, then chicken raising, now some labyrinth designers are seeing up to 300% booms in business compared to prior years. What’s up with that, and should you start getting a pack together with rope, a tinder box, and a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle in true adventure game fashion?
Why Did People Start Putting Labyrinths Everywhere to Begin With?
When I hear the word “labyrinth”, it conjures up the video games I grew up with in the 90s, most notably the death-filled and potentially unwinnable catacomb sequence in the Greco-Roman styled Isle of the Sacred Mountain from King’s Quest VI, which also featured a hedge maze on the Isle of the Beast, and a melancholic CD-ROM era game called the Labyrinth of Time that I hate to say aged like a fresh wheel of brie left on a pre-war radiator. (I still love you devs, but that game was kind of a mindfuck.) But hey, King’s Quest VI mostly aged like wine, so the two go together.
Or perhaps you’re thinking about the late great David Bowie flick that wound up shaping the psychosexuality of an entire generation of tween girls and other people of marginalized genders.
I always thought that calling a structure a labyrinth more or less implied it was this huge, looming structure like that of the myth of Theseus who slew the Minotaur in the sprawling and confusing labyrinth constructed by the legendary Daedalus and Icarus before meeting their molten waxy demises from the sky. Namely, that they had to be indoor structures which may or may not have traps and dead ends. And that they definitely exceeded the combined square footage of several McMansions.
But it turns out that most of the labyrinths we know of are outdoors. Usually, gardens in institutional settings like schools, houses of worship, public parks, country clubs, and places of business with experiential elements like spa retreats, theme parks, and so on. But there are some prominent indoor ones, though while they may be large in scope all things considered, they’re certainly not on the same level as the catacombs in King’s Quest.
One of the most well-known examples of an indoor labyrinth is the one behind Chartres Cathedral in France.
It’s also got an outdoor counterpart in the garden out back, Les Jardins de l’Eveche.
Chartres itself was erected in 1145, built over the course of 26 years, and the labyrinth is estimated to have been built sometime in the 13th century. Because this allowed for a significant amount of time for rumors and folkore to germinate then become ubiquitous, plus there was no Snopes or Weird History back then, people were so perplexed by the Chartres labyrinth’s existence that they wondered if something was buried in the inner sanctum. That perhaps the original builders left behind some kind of relic, the secret to the Fountain of Youth, or maybe a time capsule of the hottest styles and songs that they would’ve made TikTok videos to. But no, an excavation was done in 1849 and revealed absolutely nothing. Another excavation was done in 2001 under the theory that the heart of the labyrinth served as a final resting place for clergy or perhaps the builder who fancied himself a would-be Daedalus, but then nothing was found yet again.
With a 42-foot diameter, the centerpiece is said to have had Minotaur iconography which was a popular style back then, and a plaque bearing this artwork was found in 1640. The myth of Theseus was so compelling that builders in the Middle Ages frequently left some kind of reference to this myth, although it begs the question why the people who commissioned this project were so fascinated with a bull-headed creature who eats people. Is it the same reason why people hopelessly stan for billionaires on Twitter who don’t give a shit about them? Perhaps some things never change, only the format does.
So to this day, no one really knows why a labyrinth was built in Chartres. No one left behind any evidence for why this project was commissioned. But given the huge uptick in personal labyrinth projects and labyrinth building classes that experts like Lars Howlett of Discover Labyrinths are seeing right now, I’ve got a theory: the labyrinth was built at the onset of the Black Death in the 14th century, not the 13th century like many historians believe.
Even though architects estimate that it was built in the early or mid 13th century based on when and how the masons would’ve finished the job between the construction of the nave and other parts of the cathedral. I’ve got a theory that it was built to cope with the Black Death, as Chartres was already a destination for pilgrims to pay their respects to saints who met really messy demises…and we’ve seen what coronavirus is doing to people at funerals.
It’s simply supposition on my part. I’m merely a shitposting dork you read for entertainment and information that I take care to back up; feel free to disregard it and only look at what the medieval French architecture experts gotta say. But so many people are commissioning these structures right now because our own backyards are going to be our only safe refuges for quite some time, and we want to be prepared for future outbreaks in case we have to go under lockdown again, as is the case in California at the time of writing.
After all, pandemics have a way of completely reshaping how we build homes and public spaces, and utilize that space. Couples slept in separate beds at one point partly because it was culturally believed to actually foster closer intimacy, and partly because sleeping apart was hygienic necessity at the height of cholera outbreaks in crowded cities and coming off the Spanish Flu pandemic from 1918-1920.
It only helps that back in the days when Chartres was being built, and in the ensuing century, Greco-Roman influence was still an ancient world to them but not *as* ancient as it is to us right now. Mythology was more palpable to those who learned of it and it wasn’t archived as easily as watching swords and sandals epics from the 1950s about these same exact myths from the comfort of YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix today. I mean, look at how much different life was during the 1918 pandemic compared to now.
Or…was it REALLY that different?
The labyrinth experts quoted in that Bloomberg piece I linked believe that people wander labyrinths to alleviate anxiety. That there are these zen moments to be found in frequently walking along the twisty paths.
After all, they’re designed to be walked numerous ways, like turning your lawn or spare bedroom into one of those “wear it 8 ways” French braid kits and there’s only so many times that you can pace around your home as it is. Trust, this gets old REAL fast when you live in a tiny apartment and it’s ultimately turned into a pressure cooker if you’ve got more than one inhabitant, although if you’re doing this single and haven’t seen your friends since even before The Day The World Shut Down, it’ll make you envy Jack from The Shining and wonder why he went off the goddamn rails when he had plenty of company.
So if you’re lucky to have a backyard, I can’t blame you in the least for wanting to build a labyrinth to keep yourself both centered and entertained until we’re able to do things like fly, go to restaurants, play laser tag, and let the kids go to school without risking mass death and another long-ass lockdown.
Most public labyrinths are outdoors in public gardens and parks, schools that have open campuses, libraries, and houses of worship like Chartres, and if you want to see if there’s any open near you if you can’t afford to plunk down the cash for your own private Knossos ruins, Worldwide Labyrinth Locator can tell you which ones are open near you! You can also get a really cool handheld labyrinth in canvas, wood, or pewter form for $30-175 from Paths of Peace and other portable labyrinth makers.
What Separates a Labyrinth From a Maze?
What ultimately separates labyrinths from mazes is that even if the paths are twisty, there’s only one path with one entrance and exit. It’s not necessarily about size, age, and whether it’s indoor or outdoor. Mazes on the other hand can have multiple paths that branch off into different shortcuts and deceptive detours that smack into dead ends. So wait…that means King’s Quest VI lied to us and it was a maze, not a labyrinth, in those catacombs. THE HORROR!
It sounds kinda counter-intuitive because I think of those huge enclosed underground structures like the Paris catacombs and the ones from the aforementioned films and games when I hear “labyrinth”, but I think of things like hedge mazes and those mouse mazes that are much smaller, although they have dead ends.
Labyrinths not only don’t have to be enclosed, they also aren’t necessarily demarcated by being public or private. Most public labyrinths are outdoors in public gardens and parks, schools that have open campuses, libraries, and houses of worship like Chartres, and if you want to see if there’s any open near you if you can’t afford to plunk down the cash for your own private Knossos ruins, Worldwide Labyrinth Locator can tell you which ones are open near you! You can also get a really cool handheld labyrinth in canvas, wood, or pewter form for $30-175 from Paths of Peace and other portable labyrinth makers.
But you can easily make your own outdoor labyrinth accessible to the public if you’ve got a front lawn, or if you’re in a condo or co-op arrangement, bring it up at your next meeting if there’s parks, gardens, or other common areas. Whether it’s just for the residents’ enjoyment in an enclosed area or something visible from the street, cool public art like labyrinths that visitors and passersby can walk in just might kick up your property values a notch and make people talk about the place.
If you were thinking about putting a she-shed or granny pad on your property somewhere, an indoor or outdoor labyrinth just might be what you go for instead: to get through trying times, sometimes we just want a linear path where we know we’ll end up and get more variation than the same exercise videos or five blocks where you know you’re less likely to bang into people.
Rachel Presser is a crazy toad lady from the Bronx who was exiled to New Jersey, spending a significant chunk of her youth where all the hideous 1970s couch covers and avocado shag carpeting went to die. Upon escaping the sea of brown and founding Sonic Toad Media, she decided to devote her time to writing from the fantastically-preserved Googie artifacts in LA and former speakeasies in Chicago, to forging new game worlds in the tea lounges of Taipei and Tokyo. She can be found at game jams, hardcore shows, vaporwave dance parties, and petting amphibians on a sensible corner loveseat.