At the heart of symbolism

The hidden centre of the labyrinth

(Detailed page)


Theseus and Icarus myth

Daedalus, an inventive architect, built a vast palace for Minos, the king of Crete, which was open to the sky. It was destined to imprison the Minotaur, a chimera with a human body and a bull's head. Indeed, the king had decided to hide from sight a monster born from a love affair of his spouse, Pasiphae, with Poseidon, God of the underwater world, who appeared to the queen as a magnificent white bull.

The Athenians had to send regularly tribute to the Cretan of seven youths and maidens to be eaten by the Minotaur. The hero, Theseus, took the place of one of them with the intent killingTheseus fighting the Minotaur inside the labyrinth the monster. He was helped in his task by Adriane, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. Advised by Daedalus, she provided him a thread to find his way back after having defeated the monster. The furious king decided to punish Daedalus and his son, Icarus, and locked them up into the palace. However, the father and son imagined a way of escaping. They fixed wings on their back with wax so they could fly. Before passing through the air, Daedalus warned his son about not flying too high or too low. Nevertheless, having discovered the ecstasy of flying higher and higher, Icarus flew closer to the sun than sensible. The wax melted and Icarus took a nose dive into the waters surrounding Crete's island 1.

One of the most beautiful pictorial representations of this myth is the work of the biggest Flemish artist of the 16th century, Peter Bruegel the elder.

Peter Bruegel's painting (1558)

Called “landscape with Icarus's fall”, the painting is found in the Fine Arts museum in Brussels.

Facing the painting, our eyes immediately focus on the ploughman engrossed in his work. A little lower, a shepherd seems to stand gaping. Even lower, a man is fishing within the estuary. The estuary opens into the sea stretching as far as the horizon and this gives some depth to the painting. Despite the wind filling out the sails of a boat, a great calm emanates from the canvas. A serenity affected by nothing but a detail in the lower right corner. Two legs stirring over the water surface. They belong to a man on the point of drowning. A trivial event apparently, which does not disturb the course of the days.

Nevertheless...If we observe more carefully the painting construction, we see two directions underlining two boundary lines. Firstly, one of the painting's diagonal separates earth from water. Then, the skyline brings out the sun's brightness within the sky from the darker sea. Now, what are our three characters doing ? The ploughman is staring at the ploughed field whereas the fisherman is peering into the deep waters. The third person, the shepherd, he is looking at the sky. Three attitudes which reflect the three landscape elements.

The ploughman observing the soil represents the human or horizontal world, symbolized by the parallel furrows. He used to live in the intermediary world, in between the world of the fisherman bent over the unconsciousness abyssal waters and the world of Consciousness of the herdsman gazing at the sky. Three hierarchic degrees of the existence pictured by the verticality of the tree or boat mast. What does the painting mean really ? Willing to fly too close to the sun (upper world) without being prepared to ends up in the waters (lower world). Or else, that the fall is a necessary step, prior to the rise from the lower waters (infernal world) to the upper waters (upper world). See the Vatican flag article, for more on this subject.

Climbing the different degrees of existence and their multiple states of being goes through a long and difficult initiation process, which is precisely symbolized by the labyrinth.

The labyrinth meaning

The tortuous layout of the labyrinth has a double goal:

  • Allowing the access to the hidden centre after an initiation voyage consisting in going through the windings of the indefinite multiplicity of the states of being or their modes.
  • Forbidding the access to those who are not qualified.

The passage from the periphery to the centre2 is reserved for the being who has overcome the initiation tests and be been granted the revelation of the mysteries:

  • Firstly, discovery of the “little mysteries” or of the being centred within himself. He has got over the duality symbolized by the double nature (half human, half instinctive) of the Minotaur in order to become a true human being.
  • Centred in his own world, the human being may then achieve the higher states of being and access to the “great mysteries” or the world Centre. It is related to the solar symbol of the white bull, the memory of which has been lost within the maze of the unconscious darkness. The human being becomes at once the total being, who has rejoined the supra-human or spiritual state.

The path covered in this journey is made in the image of Adriane's thread, which links the existence states together to the Centre at the origin of their manifestation. The labyrinth represents the initiation path of the passage from darkness to light, from lower to upper waters. It is composed of the succession of deaths within different states of being and re-birth within lower and higher states. Their centres stand on the same vertical axis or World Axis. That is why Daedalus and his son can only fly away from the labyrinth. The flight symbolizes the final exit form the maze and the overcoming of the human state or the fall into the infra human states according the degree of consciousness achieved. The labyrinth is a place where everyone may progress towards Heaven or get lost in the abyssal lower waters.

Chartres' cathedral labyrinthThe labyrinths carved into the cathedral floors often represent, in their middle, either the image or the monogram of their work masters (Amiens) or the Temple of Jerusalem (Saint-Omer). The Temple is related to the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, another initiation form. These drawings are consequently depicting the chosen who have reached the Centre or the Centre itself. Used as a substitute to the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, cathedral labyrinths had to be covered right through upon the knees. The pilgrim moved close to and away from the centre because the progression can not be continuous as it consists in “going forward” and “going back”, “certainties” and “doubts” and “ups” and “downs”. To extend symbolically the journey, the total length of the windings could measure over 285 yards as in Chartres.

Bibliography and discography

  • René Guénon:
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
  • More specifically, chapter 46 devoted to the frames and labyrinths.
  • René Huyghe:
  • “Powers of the image”, Flammarion Publisher, 1965;
  • Particularly, pages 256-257.
  • Johan Sebastian Bach:
  • “Little Harmonic Labyrinth”, organ music.

1 back Fairy tales are often inspired by myths. Thus, in the tale “Hop-o'-My-Thumb” by Charles Perrault, the woodcutter and his wife have seven boys while the ogre and his spouse have seven girls. The ogre lives in the middle of the forest just as the Minotaur in the middle of labyrinth. The children lose their way in the forest (labyrinth), the exit of which they rediscover thanks to the small stones (Adriane's thread) left on the way by Hop-o'-My-Thumb. The latter will definitively escape the forest with his brothers by putting the ogre's seven-league boots on just as Deadelus and Icarus will leave the labyrinth by fixing wings on their back. Nevertheless, in contrast to Hop-o'-My-Thumb who will make all his family happy, Icarus will not make his father unhappy for, conversely to fairy tales, myths contain no moral.

2 back We may add, from the anecdotal point of view, that the labyrinth drawing constitutes a simple planar graph. Whenever the centre is internal, a very simple rule, called Fleury's algorithm, allows its access without failing. We have only to follow, systematically, the wall on the right (or left) hand while moving forward.