The first documented example available of labyrinth use within Christian tradition is in 324 C.E. when Christians placed a labyrinth on the floor of their church building in Algiers, North Africa. But it is assumed they used them earlier. Ever since then though, it is well documented that Christians have used labyrinths in both public worship and private prayer. In the 4th century, many church fathers (Ambrose, Gregory of Nyysa, Jerome) wrote about labyrinths. Monks in the 9th century started to incorporate the image into their manuscripts, many of which referred to the seasons or the passage of time. By the 12th and 13th centuries they were being incorporated into the structures of the church, often placed as mosaics in the floor. Especially in France, with the Chartres labyrinth being the most famous and well loved.
There is no uniform historical Christian interpretation of the single path labyrinth. Theologians of different periods have utilized the pattern to emphasize beliefs that were most relevant to their time. The faith journey, Christ’s death and resurrection (Easter), Jesus’ guidance, moving away from evil towards spiritual maturity, are all metaphors used historically. The Labyrinth has been used for centuries as a pilgrimage, as well. When Christian pilgrims could not travel to Jerusalem due to health or lack of money, they walked the labyrinth instead. Thus, it began to represent the soul’s journey to Christ.
The Christian tradition cannot claim sole rights to the Labyrinth though. There is some disagreement as to when Labyrinths first began being used. Some think that the first were Egyptians, using them as early as 4500 BCE, and still others lean more towards Greece, where a doodle on an ancient Greek clay tablet was found and dates to 1200 BCE. One can find labyrinth use in many cultures around the world with their own metaphorical meanings attached both historically and today.
Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In northern Europe, during times when people were very superstitious, they were incorporated into the folklore. In Ireland and England there were stories of fairies dancing on the labyrinth spirals in the moonlight, or in Norway, Ice giants creating labyrinths for various reasons. Many early cultures related the labyrinth to childbirth, mostly on the false assumption that the intestines and the uterus were connected. Hence the winding and turning, but by doing such it became a metaphor for the same. In all the myths, regardless of culture and geography, a connection is made between life (birth) and death and spirituality. Hence one of the many reasons it became such a powerful tool for the church with the emphasis on being reborn into God’s kingdom.