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The Mystery of the Labyrinth

By Robin Ellis

In 1944, the Irish writer and mystic Geoffrey Russell had a mystical experience of an intense and singular nature. This totally unexpected and unsought-for event involved an identification of himself within a pattern of concentric circles to do with the functioning of the brain. The actual experience was incommunicable, but Russell was able to make a pencil sketch of the pattern while the experience was still fresh in his mind. In 1962, then retired, Geoffrey Russell unexpectedly came upon a photograph of the two Cretan Labyrinths carved on the slate wall of Rocky Valley on the Cornish Atlantic coast, and recognised then instantly as being identical to the drawing of his vision!  

The events following this profound discovery are shrouded in mystery. However, this revelation led Russell ultimately, not to Cornwall, but to Glastonbury. In 1964, two years after the start of his quest, Russell came upon an aerial photograph of the Tor, and claimed to see encircling it what he took to be the remains of a three-dimensional Cretan-style labyrinth! In an article written in 1969 “The Secret of the Grail”, Geoffrey Russell revealed his ground-breaking research, and went still further, linking the mystery of Glastonbury with the Otherworld concept of the Caer Sidi, or “Spiral Castle”, naming as one of his sources Robert Graves.

The influence of Geoffrey Russell’s Glastonbury research has been great, though largely unacknowledged. It is fair to say that it was his ideas that were the single most profound influence on the pre-New Age Glastonbury Movement of the early 1970s, and rightly so, for it is widely believed that he was correct in his major premise. But there is a problem. The proofs that Russell put forward to justify his radical new ideas were completely untenable. Though it is easily possible to make out the ridges encircling the Tor from an aerial photograph, and perfectly reasonable to interpret these as some kind of spiritual pathway, it is totally impossible to make out a Cretan labyrinth! More, it is a huge leap of faith from even a coiled Tor to the Caer Sidi, unless of course, Russell already knew that the Tor was a Caer Sidi, encircled with an alleged sacred track way for conditional ascent by generations of pilgrims. But if Russell was sure a track way existed, he never bothered to walk it. Before visiting Glastonbury, what did Russell expect to find, and where did he obtain his information?     

Geoffrey Russell’s discoveries at Glastonbury are now fairly well known, but there is a deafening silence surrounding his research at Rocky Valley two years earlier. The spotlight that illuminates Glastonbury leaves Russell’s Cornwall much blacker! However, there can be little doubt that it was his researches into the Rocky Valley labyrinths that cast such a profound light onto the mystery of Glastonbury. There is one major source that Russell admits to openly – Robert Graves. In the “White Goddess” Graves compares the Caer Sidi tradition with the overlapping tradition of the Caer Arianrhod, the castle of the Goddess Arianrhod. Both traditions are Welsh (i.e. British) and have their origins in the world of Celtic Britain. Both describe the same Otherworld concept, a Portal into the Land of Faery – but with one important difference. In the Caer Arianrhod tradition, a goddess, or at least a female Guardian, lives at the heart of the Portal, and it is this goddess (Arianrhod), or Guardian, that Graves associates with a much better known Guardian from ancient Crete – Ariadne, the “Mistress of the Labyrinth”. In these times, Ariadne is made to cut a rather pathetic figure because it is Daedalus, a patriarchal figure, who now “owns” the labyrinth, and it is Theseus, another patriarchal figure, who is the “hero” of the labyrinth. Ariadne, in effect, has been reduced to being a mere guide. Peel back the layers of myth, however, to an earlier, purer version and it is a very different picture. Christine Dowling, in her book “The Goddess: Mythological images of the Feminine”, lays stress on this earlier version of the myth, with Ariadne relating not to Theseus but to Dionysus, the bisexual version of Apollo.

Robert Graves also associates the Caer Sidi/Caer Arianrhod traditions with another concept. Graves see these “spiral castles” as sometimes being oracular caves, associated with spirally coiling serpents, sending “true dreaming” to those who came to attune themselves to them, and it is truly significant that Graves includes the Rocky Valley maze carvings as a British survival of the Caer Sidi.

Staring at these enigmatic spiritual carvings on their rocky wall in that haunted, and haunting, valley on the Atlantic coast, questions spring to mind. Why are there two of them? Recalling Robert Graves, perhaps one labyrinth belongs to Ariadne, and the other to her British “sister” Arianrhod. But if they are one and the same goddesses, then why bother? Recalling Christine Downing, perhaps one labyrinth is for Ariadne and the other is for her “brother” Dionysus. According to the metal information plaque the labyrinths date to the early Bronze Age (1800-1400 BCE). Could voyagers from ancient Crete have put them there? The carvings do seem to have been made with a metal-edged tool, suggesting another popular theory that the carvings were engraved by a certain miller in the 17th century. A ruined stone-built mill, now covered by ivy, is situated close to the labyrinths, although it has been suggested that the miller simply sharpened up the engravings, which had become worn and shallow as a result of weathering. The reason, it is said by some, is that the supposed “mill” was in effect a cult centre and whose members carried around their own personal labyrinths carved in slate. An excellent example of these may be seen displayed at the Witchcraft Museum at Boscastle.

These serpent stones were used in conjunction with a “galdr”, a shamanic call, similar to the OM of Tibetan Buddhism. The operator would run a finger around the labyrinth, back and forth while humming, and this would allegedly bring about an “altered state of consciousness”, a state of true dreaming perhaps. In Virgil’s Epic The Gate of Horn a Cretan labyrinth inscribed on a gateway gave access to true dreams. According to the OED, “Cornwall” is derived from the same root as “horn”, so Virgil’s Epic could be called “The Gate of Cornwall”.

The Serpent Cult was known to have existed right up until 1958, when the last known serpent stone was destroyed. But there is no reason to believe that the cult has died out since then. Indeed, there is still evidence for its existence today, and not just in Rocky Valley; it seems that the Serpent Cult is the most likely source of the “ancient wisdom” which Geoffrey Russell obtained on his trip to Cornwall in 1962. His weird experience in the power of the labyrinth in Sri Lanka in 1944 made him eminently qualified to become an “honorary” member of the cult. In addition, there is evidence of its influence on an even more eminent group of people, led by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century – Karl Gustav Jung. According to Eleanor Bertine, Jung held a series of small, private seminars in Cornwall during the 1920s, including one at Polzeath in 1923, just down the coast from Rocky Valley. Esther Harding acted as unofficial secretary.

In 1935 Harding published a book: Women’s Mysteries Ancient and Modern, in which she espoused a startling new view of virginity. She claimed that a mistranslation had occurred, possibly deliberately, when matriarchy was supplanted by patriarchy. Physical chastity was made to replace the original meaning of the “Virgin Goddess”, a meaning too potent to remain. This original meaning referred to a Being that was a Goddess, but not a Goddess that was a counterpart to a male god, or even related to another being in any way, but was her own mistress – virgin “One-In-Herself”. This sense of being defined in such a way brings us very close to the Mistress of the Labyrinth and her awesome secrets.

Esther Harding was not alone in her opinions. The Jungian psychologist John Layard wrote two papers on the “Virgin Archetype” in 1944, supplementing Harding’s mythological data with his own clinical evidence. Significantly perhaps, Layard was also an anthropologist, and came to live in Cornwall during the last years of his life. What did an anthropologist find in Cornwall that was fascinating enough to devote his last years to?  The idea that there was some kind of cross-fertilisation going on between the Serpent Cult and some of the followers of Jung is controversial to say the least. However, the “ancient wisdom” contained within the mystery of the labyrinth would have concurred with Jungian thought, and would also have given it a boost at the time when it was seeking to establish itself as a field of psychology in its own right. As for the Serpent Cult, it would have been a magnificent opportunity for it to re-define itself and its ideas and to cast aside old superstitions to bring it into line with modern ways of thinking.

The two Cretan labyrinth carvings still stare out enigmatically from the north wall of Rocky Valley, as they have done for thousands of years, waiting for us to penetrate their mystery. No more definitive access to the world beyond that of appearance is evident to us however, so let us set ourselves the task of meditating on the trick of this elusive entryway – this Cornish Gateway of True Dreams – until we fulfil its psychic conditions. To ask who the Mistress of the Labyrinth really is, is to follow the thread all the way to the end, leading us to the centre of the Labyrinth. At that centre we will find the Mistress of the Labyrinth herself, a divine being complete in itself, androgynous and self-perpetuating, creating out of its own being with no need of another. This primal image is the source of all myth, all dreaming, and beyond conceptual thought. But as it lies below the level of Ego Consciousness, we are part of it and it is part of us.

Are we still capable of using the Labyrinth, this sacred technology from the Age of the Goddess? I suspect that the Patriarchy would say no, that we have changed too much and travelled too far in another direction. But the wheel of time turns full circle, and in Jungian psychology we may well have a modern tool to replace outmoded ideas and concepts, a tool to empower the Labyrinth with New/Old meaning. The patriarchy will still say no. But the Patriarchy is guessing and the Patriarchy is wrong.