Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

 

 

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Laying out a Labyrinth

The knowledge of how to draw a “classical” labyrinth, and how to transfer that skill to the construction of a full size labyrinth on the ground, has been passed from one generation to another for thousands of years.

Here’s the foolproof method for drawing the classical labyrinth and creating a labyrinth of your own...

There are many books and websites which illustrate the method of drawing a 7-circuit/ring classical (Cretan) labyrinth by starting with a "seed pattern". This page goes beyond that by suggesting practical ways of creating full-sized versions which can be walked or run with little more than a ball of string and some pins.

The Seed Pattern

First, however, let us start by looking at an animation of the basic drawing process:

There are two key factors to using this method successfully:

(i) remembering the seed pattern (the cross, corners and dots)

(ii) practice, practice, practice!

This is a great way to create "freehand" designs outdoors - here are a few of the ways I have done this:

scratch the design on a sandy beach with a stick;

use large pebbles to make the design more resilient;

use sticks to make the pattern in a woodland glade;

use mown hay to show the walls.

The advantage of this approach is that you can create a labyrinth in just a few minutes with whatever is to hand.

However, things get a little more complex if you want to create an accurate classical labyrinth, with truly circular arcs and regular path widths.

For an indoor labyrinth I would recommend a path width of at least 1 foot (30 cm) for solitary walking or 2 feet (60 cm) for more comfortable walking, running or group activity - this gives a labyrinth that will fit in an area of 15 feet (4.5 m) or 30 feet (9.0 m) in width. For outdoor locations, a minimum path width of 1˝ feet (45 cm) is recommended, and obviously if you have the space, a somewhat larger path width can be selected - especially if you are expecting a crowd to walk your labyrinth! Do note that the geomantic centre of the labyrinth is not in the geometric centre of this area, so be careful to plan the layout procedure if indoor space is at a premium.

These instructions are scalable to any size and work on a path width of 1 unit - whatever that unit might be.

Preparation

The method suggested here requires five fixed vertical posts. Outdoors, these can be wooden stakes or tent pegs, metal pins or poles knocked into the ground. Indoors, these posts will require a heavy base and someone to hold on and stop them moving while the design is laid out.

Along with the posts, you will also need a length of string or rope (preferably nylon, something that doesn’t stretch when pulled) that has a length at least 8 times the planned width of your paths.

First tie a loop at one end of the string, just large enough to fit over your post, but not so tight that it doesn’t swing freely around the post.

Then, with the loop around one of the posts, measure along the string ˝ of your path width unit - i.e. 1 foot if you are planning a 2 foot path, 30 cm if 60 cm, etc. - and tie a knot in the string or attach a short length of ribbon or sticky duct tape at that point. Be sure to measure from the centre of the pole if you are using a post with anything more than minimal diameter - a fence post for instance.  

Now continue to add a total of 7 more knots/ribbons each spaced 1 unit further along the rope - i.e. the next knot at 1˝ units, 2˝ units, etc., until you have 8 knots, the last at 7˝ units. This should leave you at least ˝  a unit of spare string at the end to hold onto for the construction process. You may wish to turn this into a another larger loop, for easier handling.   

The Layout Process

The first step is the "geomantic act" - selecting the location of the labyrinth's centre. Choice this point and mark the centre with a post.

Crucial issues are (i) is there enough room around this central point to construct the complete labyrinth, and (ii) in which direction will the entrance to your labyrinth be situated? You should construct the square of the “seed pattern” in the subsequent steps so that the bottom edge is facing the direction that you wish the entrance of your labyrinth to face.

For outdoor labyrinths, if the dotted line runs exactly East-West, and the square is on the North side of the line, then the sweeping arcs of the labyrinth will mirror the motion of the sun across the sky and the entrance will be in the North. You may well have your own ideas, live in the southern hemisphere, or it may be that the entrance needs to abut to an existing path or access point. Whatever your choice, be sure the orientation is done thoughtfully.  

 

The next step is to mark out the square that encloses the seed pattern with four more corner posts. The square is 4 path width units on a side, but subdivide this measurement into  8 (˝ path) units, and here comes the next major decision point: do you want the first turn of your labyrinth, i.e. when you enter, to turn to the left or right?

If the first turn is to be to the left, then create the square as shown opposite, with the centre post offset 1 (˝ path) unit to the right along the top edge, as shown, 5 & 3 (˝ path) units - if the first turn is to be to the right, then divide the top edge of the square into 3 & 5 (˝ path) units.

I have made the square using Pythagoras' 3-4-5 triangles, but have concluded that doing it by eye with a tape measure or yardstick works just fine, with a little practice, for all but very large labyrinths.

 

Now divide each side of the square into four equal parts of 1 (path width) unit each. Mark these points by poking a stick into the ground, placing a stone or making a mark. Note that your original ‘central’ post will fall between two of these points on the upper edge of the square, either to the right, or the left, depending on your decision on the first turn.    

  

Finally, complete the labyrinth's seed pattern by marking the cross lines and corners as shown. The distances involved are small, so this is easy to do by eye - although you can use your knotted string or a straight edge as a guide you if you wish.

Connecting the Points - Join the Dots!

This animation shows the basic approach:

Attach the loop of your string, with the first knot at ˝ path width distance, to the centre post...

Keeping the cord fairly taut, wrap it around two of the posts as shown...

Note that the knots (shown red above) should pretty much line up with the cross and corner lines...

As you start to unwind the cord from the first post, mark the small arc described by the first red knot...

The second post takes over as the axis as the rope continues unwinding - now you need to mark the arcs described by the first five knots...

The centre post takes over as the axis as you mark out the seven semi-circles that form the top half of the labyrinth...

The rope then wraps around the third post and finally the fourth post as you complete marking the design.

As marking out seven lines at the same time implies you will have plenty of willing helpers, an alternative approach is to lay out one line at a time by marking the arc described by a single knot as you unwind the rope around the posts. It is probably best (and a good way to check your accuracy) to start with the largest outer arc and work your way inwards. As you complete each line, simply move in to the next red knot and work your way back in the other direction, as shown below:

Which technique you use depends on how many people are making the labyrinth and the what method you are using to mark the paths. If you are making a permanent labyrinth then you may want to want to mark out the design first with a temporary marker, such as spray paint or sand. As for materials suitable for use for constructing your labyrinth, here are some suggestions:

Lawns and fields

temporary: sticks, bird seed or chicken corn, sawdust, sand, flour, lime or water-based paint
seasonal: tennis-court paint, lawn fertilizer
permanent: stones, earth, bricks, paving, bark chips or dug-out trenches between the paths  

Beaches

temporary: stones, driftwood, seaweed or banked-up sand

Tarmac or concrete

temporary: chalk or water-based paint
permanent: spray paint, outdoor paint

Indoors

temporary: masking tape, rope, cloth
permanent: paint onto a roll of carpet or canvas

I have often used a sticks-and-string approach to create temporary labyrinths in fields, since it is a quick method that copes well with uneven ground and long grass and leaves no trace afterwards, apart from a mysteriously trampled path!

Text and graphics on this page were originally created in 2000 by Adam Warren and have been revised and updated by Jeff Saward, 2009.

Back to Introduction Page

Below is a Flash animation of the construction of a simple classical labyrinth, made from chicken-feed, in the grounds of the University of Kent, Canterbury, England, using the process described above. 30 feet (9.15 m.) in diameter, the walls of the labyrinth are formed of chopped corn dispensed through the neck of plastic drink bottles, the complete process took around 15 minutes, with a group that had never tried this before!