The Ritual of the Labyrinth
Ta Hiera Laburinthou
©1997, John Opsopaus
Works cited extensively here can be found among the
(They are not currently hyperlinked, but may be at a future date.)
- Maintaining the sexual polarities of the Theseus-Ariadne-Dionysos
myth (and the more general structure of the Goddess
and her two Paredroi or Associates) dictates that the
Acolyte be male. Certainly a similar ritual could be designed for
a female Acolyte (perhaps structured around a God and two
female Paredroi), but this would have to have a different
- This ritual is synthesized from a large number of sources.
Some of them (such as the main elements of the Ariadne-Theseus myth)
are too obvious to require comment. Many
others, which are less obvious or more controversial, are listed
in these notes (which have been added after the composition of
the ritual), so the reader may know what sort of warrant they
have. I have no doubt forgotten other sources, especially those
with a more pervasive or less specific effect on the ritual; I will
annotate them as I remember or rediscover them.
- Gantz (pp. 114-6, 259-70) is a good summary.
- See Nilsson (pp. 29, 34-5), Parke (pp. 75-82) & Simon
(pp. 75-7, 89-92, 107). Plutarch (Theseus) notes that Theseus
returned to Athens on the Autumn Equinox, the seventh day of
Puanepsion. The sixth, seventh and eighth days of each lunar
month (beginning with the new moon) are sacred to Artemis,
Apollo and Poseidon.
- See, for example, Gardner & Maier (1984) for the
Sîn-leqi-unninnî (SLU) version, and Dalley (1989) for
the "standard" (S) and Old Babylonian (OB) versions. The
Gilgamesh Epic also has its Apollonian (defeat of Humbaba)
and Dionysian (death of Enkidu) phases (Gardner & Maier,
pp. 17, 26, 45n15).
See for example Black & Green (fig. 8, p. 17). In the Epic of
Gilgamesh he is said to have an "alien appearance" (e.g. Old
Babylonian version, tablet III, column v).
- Heller (1946, p. 123).
- For the divinatory Face of Humbaba, see Black & Green (p. 106
& fig. 8, p. 17) & Dalley (fig. 2:5).
- For divinatory livers, see Black & Green (fig. 56, p. 69) or
Matthews (World Atlas of Div., p. 66). The face of
Humbaba was also used for protection, like the Gorgoneon
(Medusa head), to which it is related (Dalley, 323). The
Labyrinth is associated with divination by Vergil (Aeneid
VI.20ff), who places an image of it on the entrance to the
Cumaean temple of Apollo by the cave of the Sibyl (Knight, MLT 115-6).
- Carter (1987, 1988).
- On Ortheia: Carter (1987, pp. 378-83); on Ariadne:
Kerényi (Gods 270-2) and Plutarch (Thes.). The Geranos
was connected with Aphrodite and later Artemis (Lawler 1946, 119).
- See Marinatos (152-60).
- See Doob, Jaskolski, Knight, Matthews, etc.
- Kerényi, Heroes 232.
- Lawler (1946, p. 115). The night-time ritual implies that it is
for chthonic deities (Lawler 1946, 118). Although the Delian
Geranos was danced in Hekatombaion (mid-July to mid-Aug.), at
least at first (Lawler 1946, 115), the various festivals connected
with Theseus were performed around the 7th of Puanepsion
- Not uncommon in ancient Greek (especially Dionysian) rituals
(Kerényi, Dion. ch. 6; see also Carter 1987).
- This is consistent with Cook's estimate (vol. I, p. 479) of the
Labyrinth in the "theatrical area" of the palace at
Knossos: 12.94 m. by 9.89 m.
- The Crane Dance on Delos was around a sacred olive (Oxf.
Class. Dict. s.v. Delos); the palm is often the sacred tree in
Minoan sanctuaries (Marninatos 181); Humbaba guards the
cedar trees in the Gilgamesh Epic (e.g. tablet II, column v, line 5
in Sîn-leqi-unninnî version; see Gardner & Maier).
- The entrance to medieval church labyrinths faces West, so the
pilgrim starts from the place of death (Jaskolski 68, 73). If
Cook's (I.479) reconstruction of the Knossos Labyrinth is correct,
then its entrance faced West, down the Sacred Way. However,
for this Descent to the Otherworld, the pillgrim starts in the
place of life (East), proceeds towards the Underworld (West)
and then returns to the place of Life and Dawn.
- For Ariadne as nurse/mother of Dionysos/Minotaur, see
Kerényi (Dionysos, 121) and Otto (183).
- Ariadne is associated with the dark or crescent moon
(Kerényi, Dion. 103). These festivals occur around the
seventh day of the lunar month, that is, the first quarter.
- Cook (vol. I, p. 492, fig. 354).
- See, for example, the "Chieftan's Cup" (e.g. Marinatos fig. 100).
- These are standard attributes of Dionysos, and also reinforce
the connection between the Cretan Dionysos and Sabazios, the
Young Hunter (Kerényi, Dion. 117).
- This was a part of the myth of Theseus reflected in the rituals
of the Oskhophoria. For cross-dressing in rope dances
(kordakes) similar to the Geranos, see (Knight 1935,
- Atwood (35).
- Cook (vol. I, p. 492).
- The Greek terms most commonly used for the Tree associated
with the Goddess are dendron (lit. tree),
alsos (lit. grove) or rhabdos (lit. rod) (Carter 1987, 376-7).
- See Marinatos (183) on the sacred tree in Minoan ritual,
which may be a potted tree. Tree rituals announce a period of
renewal, prosperity or fertility. See Carter (1987, 376-7) on the
Tree as natural or artificial in the Spartan rites of Ortheia and
related Phoenician rituals.
- See Carter (1988, p. 93) on "robe" as the relevant meaning of
pharos (often translated "plough").
- The Pharos is not so much a tailored robe, as a simple
rectangular cloth, which might be used as cloak, winding sheet
or marriage blanket (LSJ). See also Carter (1988, pp. 92-4).
- The color of the Robe that Amphitrite gave to Theseus (Carter 1988, p. 94).
- The Minotaur is sometimes shown with a body speckled with
stars (Jaskolski 16), but is argueably more closely associated
with the Sun (Cook, vol I, pp. 468-595), as will be discussed in
more detail later
- There is a famous (but lost) Orphic poem called The
Robe (Peplos), which seems to have used the robe as a
cosmological model. See Cook (vol. I, p. 495) for the Minotaur's
connection to "celestial lights."
- Although a sword is most common, Theseus is found using a
variety of weapons, including clubs, staffs and his bare hands
(Kerényi, Heroes 232). A sword reinforces the theme of
penetrating the womb of the Earth.
- Nilsson (29), Parke (75-7), Simon (75-7, 107).
- Jung & Kerényi, p. 135; Plutarch, Theseus. Other
sources, however, say the horns are from the right side (Cook
- This was probably the form of the Altar around which the
Geranos was danced on Crete (Lawler 1946, 121).
- Nilsson (34-5), Parke (77-81), Simon (89-92).
- Kerényi, Heroes 232; Gantz (265).
- Kerényi, Dion. 86.
- The Tree of the Goddess is next to the Altar of the Bull God
(Carter 1987, 376-7).
- These are the four libations, which Circe told Odysseus to
make before entering the Underworld (Odyssey X.519f,
- In many cases the roles of HP and HPs are interchangeable,
and the parts may be allocated to suit the skills etc. of the two;
all these cases are indicated by "HP/s." In other cases it is more
important, for mythic, magical or practical reasons, for a part to
be spoken by one or the other, and these are indicated by "HP"
- For the Lake of the Monster, see Cirlot's Dict. of Symbols
(249). For the Underworld Rivers pouring into the Crater, see
Kingsley (127) and Plutarch's Those Whom the God is Slow to
Punish (De Sere... 566a-c); on the important
significance of the Crater in ancient thought see Kingsley
(passim, but esp. ch. 11); it is crucial that in Greek Crater
(kratêr) means mixing bowl as well as a crater
in the earth (Kinglsey 141). Also, the Orphic poems called the
Crater and the Robe are closely connected (Kingsley 140).
- For the Four Rivers flowing to the Fons Vitae (Font of Life) at
the center, by the Tree, see Cirlot's Dict. of Symbols (127).
They meet at the entrance to the Underworld. Four streams
flow from Calypso's cave, at the Axis Mundi (Odyssey V.57ff;
see also Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, pp. 8-9).
- Kingsley (126-7).
- The West Gate is the entry to the Underworld, where chthonic
daemons dwell (Porphyry, The Cave of the Nymphs ¶13).
- Souls descend into mortal life through North Gate, associated
with the Moon and the constellation Cancer; it is cold because it
congeals them and sends them to Earth (Porphyry, The Cave
of the Nymphs ¶¶11-13).
- The North is associated with the Underworld River called
Cocytus, which is associated with Persephone (Kingsley 96-7, 123, 353-4).
Persephone is called "Most Pure" ("Utterly Pure,"
"Untouchable" etc.), Ariagnê, of which Ariadnê is a
Cretan variant (Kerényi, Dion. 99).
- Thanks to Estara for suggesting an invocation of the Four
Rivers in preparation for an Underworld journey, although my
use of them is rather different from hers. I have relied to Peter
Kingsley's perceptive and extensive analysis of Underworld
geography in ancient thought and the association of the Rivers
with the Elements and various deities (see his Ancient
Philosphy, Mystery and Magic). Unfortunately, there is no
way that the ancient doctrine of the Elements can be squared
with contemporary practice in Neo-Paganism and Ceremonial
Magic (which has a short pedigree). In particular, respect for
fundamental polarities requires that Fire be opposite Water,
and Air opposite Earth. In the following I have tried to
deemphasize the differences to avoid confusion.
- To correspond to the sexes of the Quarter Wards invoked.
- There are many logical ways to make the directional
associations; I have found those based on the "organic cycle,"
which dates at least back to Ptolemy, to work best
"Pentagram and the Elements").
In this, following the sun and the cycle of life, the East is
associated with the Moist quality, the South with the Hot
quality, West with Dry, and North with Cold; this preserves the
polar oppositions. According to ancient tradition and alchemy,
Air is primarily Moist, Fire is primarily Hot, Earth is primarily
Dry and Water is primarily Cold. Thus we get East = Air, South
= Fire, West = Earth, North = Water, which has the correct
elemental polarities. The Quarter Wards (Air: Apollo, Earth:
Artemis, Fire: Dionysos, Water: Ariadne) used here are
analogous to the oppositions (Air: Zeus, Earth: Hera, Fire: Hades,
Water: Persephone) given by the elemental associations in the
cosmology of Empedocles (Kingsley 355). In this ritual, because
of its "widdershins character," we reverse the organic cycle,
starting in the West as the direction of Death, proceeding
counterclockwise to North.
- Macrobius (Somnium 1.10.11).
- Lemprière's Classical Dictionary s.v. Styx.
- Damascius associates Styx with the element Earth (Kingsley 123);
Artemis is of course Mistress of the Animals.
- The Pyriphlegethon is associated with fire (Pyri-) and is
opposite Cocytus, associated with Water (Kingsley 97-8).
- Dionysos naturally stands opposite Ariadne (associated with
Persephone and Water); they are bride and groom in the Sacred
- Lemprière s.v. Acheron.
- Damascius associates Acheron with the element Air, which is
misty in ancient thought (Kingsley 123). Therefore, it is a
natural place for Apollo, who thereby stands opposite Artemis.
Honey would be a typical offering for Persephone/Ariadne, but
Her association with water is too important to neglect; in any
case, honey is traditionally associated with the heat of the Sun
(Kerényi, Dion. ch 2). The association of the color yellow
with the element Air is also common in contemporary practice.
- Lemprière s.v. Cocytus.
- Macrobius (Somn. 1.10.11); Lemprière s.v.
- Throughout the ritual there is an implicit connection between
Ariadne and Persephone (Kerényi, Dion. 103). The
Quarter invocations end with Ariadne because She is the central
figure in the ritual.
- Kingsley (96-7, 123, 353-4). The Cocytus is reliably
associated with the watery element (hence the water libation),
the color blue (kuanos) and the Goddesses Demeter
and Persephone (hence also Ariadne).
- Kingsley (354).
- The Rivers descend into Tartaros, the bottomless chasm
formed at the beginning of time (Kingsley 126-7).
- Athena and Poseidon are the guardians of Athens (here
interpreted as the "Celestial Athens").
- Plural imperative form (LSJ s.v. hilêmi).
- The overall structure is that given by van Gennep for
initiations: separation (voyage to Crete), liminal period (trials in
Labyrinth), reintegration (return to Athens) (Marinatos 201).
- This is based on Theseus' visit to Poseidon (Kerényi,
Heroes 229); it is a preliminary blessing corresponding to
Theseus' preliminary initiation in the element of water
- The planet Venus traces a Pentagram in Zodiac by its positions
as the Morning Star (Liungman, Dict. of Symbols 333-4).
- As the Athenian children were fed and encouraged by their
mothers before their trip to Crete.
- Kerényi, Heroes 227-8.
- A double-entendre on Mediterranean = Middle of the Earth.
- The Great Year is eight years, called Enneatêris (Nine-year)
or Enneôros (Nine-season) in the Greek inclusive
system of enumeration (Kerényi, Gods 138). It is the
shortest period that brings the lunar and solar years into
(approximate conformity), e.g. so that the moon's first quarter
occurs at midautumn (Frazer/Gaster §192), so it is the
period that reconciles the Lunar and Solar Realms. As a
consequence, eight-year terms for kings were common in the
Greek world, after which their kingship had to be renewed
(Frazer/Gaster §192). Sparta (home of the Shrine of Ortheia,
Carter 1987, 1988), like Minos, operated on an eight year cycle
(Deedes 27n1). The Great Year has important connections with
Aphrodite, for the Pentagram of Venus rotates back to the same
position in the Zodiac every eight years (and one day), which is
two Sothis Years (1460 days) according to the Egyptians or two
Olympiads according to the Greeks (Liungman, Dict. of
Symbols, 333-4). Furthermore, Venus's sidereal period (225
days) is eight (lunar) months and it is visible as the Morning
Star for 245 days and the Evening Star for 247 - each 8 (solar)
months. Therefore, it's hardly coincidental that Ishtar
(identified with Venus) is represented by an eight-pointed star
(Schimmel, Myst. of Numbers, 157-8). It will be seen that
the tribute is a sacrifice to the Great Mother
- From an old ballad quoted in Lockridge (p. 40).
- Cf. "Hoc opus, hic labor est" (Aeneid VI.126).
- An element of the Oskhophoria, based on the Theseus legend,
and of rope-dances related to the Geranos (Knight, MLT 104).
- Part of the liminal phase of initiations.
- Kerényi (Dion. 182).
- The Double Axe was called the "bull-slaying servant of
Dionysos" and the God Himself was called "Double Axe"
(Pelekus) (Kerényi, Dion. 190-3, Plutarch 2.302a). For
more on the Labrys as symbol of sacrifice and renewal,
including in the Diktaean Cave, see Dietrich (pp. 39-40). Arthur
Evans suggested a connection with the Egyptian Ankh.
- For the geneaology of Ariadne in clear graphical form (with
bull, sun & moon associations) see Jaskolski (37).
- A pervasive structure underlying this mythical complex is the
Marriage of the Moon and Sun, especially in Minoan religion at
Knossos; the Solar Bull mates with the Lunar Cow (Cook, v. I, pp. 521-545).
We find this with Zeus and Europa, and her parents,
Argíopê and Phoenix. The theme is later echoed
with the White Bull and Pasíphaê (and her parents,
Helios and Perseis), and with the Minotaur and Ariadne.
- The meaning of her name, referring to the full moon
(Kerényi, Dion. 116).
- For Theseus offering the wool-wrapped olive branch to
Apollo, see Plutarch's Theseus. For cake offerings at the Altar of
Apollo Giver of LIfe, behind the Horn Altar, see Diogenes
- Epithets Hekêbolos, Apotropaios, Laossoos, Phoibos,
Paiôn, Toxophoros, Daphnêphoros; see also
Kerényi (Gods, 149).
- Singular imperative form (LSJ s.v. hilêmi).
- Horses are used magically to penetrate or seal Labyrinths; the
horse, like the Bull, may be a fertility symbol at the center
(Knight, MSTG 456, MLT 98, 108-9, 120). Horses are associated
with Poseidon, who sent the Bull from the Sea, the father of the
Minotaur; Poseidon is also the divine father of Theseus and the
guardian of walls (Knight MSTG 452n39).
- Plutarch, Theseus; see also Kerényi (Dion., 106-7).
Furthermore, Aphrodite was an enemy of Pasiphaê.
- "Ariadnê" is a Cretan-Greek form of "Ariagnê,"
which is an intensified form form of "Hagnê," and thus
means "Most Pure," or "Utterly Pure," a title of Underworld
Goddesses (Kerényi, Dion. 99; Otto 183).
- Gilgamesh (SLU tablet III, column i, lines 15-17).
- See Kerényi (Dion., 106-7).
- E.g. as in Evans' reconstruction of the Corridor of Processions
(e.g., Marinatos fig. 41).
- The dance that Theseus initiated on Delos, in imitation of the
winding path through the Labyrinth, was called Geranos. In
Greek geranos means crane, and so the dance is often
called the Crane Dance, and has been explained by reference to
the formations in which cranes fly and common animal
symbolism in initiation rites (Lawler 1946, pp. 115-7; Dowden 181).
Euripedes' Helen (1478-87), in which the dancing chorus
prayes to fly to Sparta as "Libyan cranes" (Lawler 1946, 116),
hints at the Shrine of Ortheia at Sparta. Cook (I.481n9) notes an
association between bulls and cranes in Celtic iconography. A
more likely explanation is that geranos derives from an Indo-European
root ger- meaning "to wind" (Lawler 1946, 1964a,
p. 47; see also Oxf. Class. Dict. s.v. dancing); this also
accords with the explanation of the Roman name of the
Labyrinth, Troia, as deriving from a verb truare
meaning "to run back and forth" (Heller 1946, p. 129).
(However, there are alternative explanations of this name,
discussed later.) I have hedged my bets by weaving both
explanations into the text of the ritual.
- Kerényi, Heroes 231; Gantz 266-8. The more Minoan
practice would be to have Ariadne direct Theseus' actions from
a stationary, superior and commanding position (Marinatos 187).
- This initial meeting between Theseus and Ariadne is inspired
by Gilgamesh (SLU version, tablet III, columns i-ii, vi).
- A Linear B tablet from Knossos records "honey for the
Mistress of the Labyrinth (Laburinthoio Potnia)"
(Kerényi 89-90). According to Porphyry (The Cave of
the Nymphs ¶8), honey is a ymbol of death; it's also a
common symbol of rebirth (Biedermann, Dict. Symbolism
s.v. honey; Cooper, Illus. Encyc. Trad. Symbols, s.v. honey).
Honey offerings are often associated with dancing, and the
dancing ground "represented the great realm of the mistress" in
which the dancers honored her (Kerényi, Dion. 98). For
honey and the new year, see Kerényi (Dion. ch. 2).
For the gestures of salute of T and the P, see Marinatos
(pp. 117, 173, figs. 41, 42, 83, 173)
- Another gesture of salute (Marinatos 117).
- A typical Minoan priestess gesture (Marinatos, p. 185, figs. 187, 194).
- Gilgamesh (S II.vi, OB III.v).
- Gilgamesh (SLU III.i.17).
- Kerényi, Heroes 230. Gilgamesh promisses Queen
Ninsun that he will kill Humbaba and remove Something Evil,
hated by Shamash (the Sun), from the land (Gilgamesh, SLU
III.i.29-30). Gilgamesh goes under the guidance of Shamash, as
Theseus is guided by Apollo. For the connection between the
labyrinth and rescuing a Goddess from the Underworld, see
Knight (MLT 102-3).
- Cf. SLU version of Gilgamesh (tablet III, column i,
lines 25-26; cf. col. ii, ll. 13-14).
- Enkidu (the companion of Gilgamesh) cuts off Humbaba's
head (Gilgamesh, SLU V.vi.47; Black & Green 106); also this is a
separation of the bestial from the human part, and a taming of
the primal power of the bestial part, as also occurred when
Perseus beheaded the Gorgon Medusa.
- On the two great dangers of the labyrinth, in a medieval
context, see Doob (126).
Asterios is commonly translated "the Starry One"
(Kerényi, Dion. 105). The Minotaur is often shown with
light colored spots, but there is disagreement whether they are
stars or the marks on a bull hide (Cook I.493-4). Cook (v. I, p. 495)
further observes that asterios can also refer to
the Sun and Moon ("stars" in the widest sense), so Asterios may
be the God of Celestial Lights. More generally, it may mean
"glittering," and the root word astêr may lights
and flames (LSJ). Hence here, the "shining One." Indeed, the
Minotaur is a Solar Bull (Cook I.468-545), so the Minotaur and
Ariadne correspond to the Sun and Moon. Various coins from
Knossos show an eight-pointed star (or the sun), a crescent
moon or a bull's head at the center of the Labyrinth (Deedes 10).
Interestingly, in the shrine of Ortheia, the Goddess's
consort, the winged "hero-god of herds and flocks," seems to be
named Aristaios, "the Best" (Carter 1987, 382), a divinity
associated with bees, honey and ritual dances for the turning of
the year (Kerényi, Dion. 39-40, 77).
- Deedes (27).
- In some versions, Ariadne is spinning when Theseus comes
to her and the use of the thread is her idea, not Daidalos'
(Kerényi, Heroes 231).
- Kerényi, Heroes 231.
- The Stephanos (Crown or Wreath) is a typical gift which a
groom gives a bride or vice versa; it represents the power of
Aphrodite: passionate desire (Carter 1988).
- The "Light of Zeus" (Dios Phôs) is Dionysos
(Kerényi, Dion. 77-8).
- Gilg. (SLU III.i.4-5; cf. OB IV.vi).
- Gilg. (SLU III.i.25-26).
- Gilg. (SLU IV.vi.39).
- Gilg. (SLU IV.vi.31-33).
- Gilg. (SLU IV.vi.36).
- As depicted on the François Vase (Carpenter fig. 248).
- As depicted on a seventh-century relief pithos
(Kerényi, Dion. fig. 35).
- For this prayer, cf. Gilg. (OB III.v; see also Gardner & Maier 124).
Athena is often shown leading Theseus through the
Labyrinth (Gantz 269).
- A typical Minoan priestess gesture (Marinatos, pp. 185-7,
- For this prayer, cf. Gilg. (OB III.vi; see also Gardner & Maier 124-5).
- For this proverb, see Gilg. (SLU IV.vi.37-39) and Gardner &
- Gilg. (SLU V.ii.24), a traditional metaphor for strength in
numbers (Gardner & Maier 137). Likewise in medieval
labyrinth dances, the canons assist the dean (Doob 126).
- Recalling how Athena brings Nike.
- The medieval labyrinth dance was typically a
tripudium (dance in triple time) (Doob 124).
- E.g. as on Munich Cup (Gantz 267).