Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Labyrinths – A Walking Meditation

Meditation and Labyrinths

The practice of meditation is a personal journey inwards in order to find a new sense of serenity and joy, and also to learn more about ourselves and to promote our spiritual growth.  There are very many different ways of meditating and all religions have their own practices and prayer rituals designed to create stillness and contentment within and to help develop your own direct contact with the spiritual world.  Although many types of meditation involve sitting in silence and solitude, there are also forms of meditation that involve movement, and walking a labyrinth is one of them. People often confuse labyrinths with mazes, but whereas mazes are designed to confuse, get people lost and have many dead-ends, a labyrinth only ever has a single path that always leads you towards the centre. Labyrinths are not supposed to be difficult to find your way through, as the walker may be lost deep in prayer or meditation.

Walking A Labyrinth

The three classical designs of a labyrinth are seven circuit, eleven circuit and twelve circuit.  These are regarded as spiritually powerful patterns as when they are being walked, the backwards and forwards route that turns the walker 180 degrees when they go into another circuit, can encourage their awareness to shift between the two sides of their brain. This can lead to experiencing deep states of meditation, even a hypnotic trance, which can help the walker on their inner journey.  Once the centre of the labyrinth has been gained, it could be an opportunity to spend some more time in contemplation or even to sing and dance.  The same path has to be retraced to get out, which reinforces the key insights gained on your journey to your centre. The seven circuit layout has been known since Greek and Roman times, and appeared as decoration on coins, wall paintings, baskets, pots and is seen in early depictions of body art from as early as 430 BC.  In Roman times, labyrinths were created from tiles or mosaic on the walls or floors of their villas, but these appeared to be mainly for decorative or symbolic purposes.

The Labyrinth of the Minotaur

Labyrinths are very powerful, sacred spaces and have been used since ancient times, and they are represented in many of the great ancient civilisations including the Celts, Ancient Greeks and the Native American Indians.  Perhaps one of the best known labyrinths from antiquity, although a legendary one, is the massive one constructed by Daedalus in order to contain the Minotaur, the monstrous half bull/half man, at the palace of King Minos in Crete.  The Greek hero Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur, but the labyrinth was so convoluted and tricky, that he had to be aided by King Minos’s daughter Ariadne, who gave him a ball of thread which he could use to find his way back out again. As her reward, the gallant Theseus left her as she lay asleep on a beach on the Greek island of Naxos. It is thought that the location of the Minotaur’s labyrinth was at the Minoan Palace of Knossos, which was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900.

Labyrinth at Cathedral in Lucca, Tuscany

The Labyrinth at Hawara

Another famous ancient labyrinth was situated in Hawara in the Fayoum in Egypt and is thought to have been the galleries, chambers and passages of a huge funerary temple complex attached to the pyramid of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhat III.  This great structure was described by ancient writers such as Herodotus and Strabo as containing as many as 3,000 rooms all of which were elaborately decorated with images and hieroglyphic texts.  The exact location of this ancient labyrinth has been lost since antiquity, but modern archaeological expeditions, such as the Mataha Expedition to Hawara in 2008, have been slowly uncovering what remains of this vast ancient complex using modern technology.

Labyrinths in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Europe was the time when the great Gothic cathedrals were built and pilgrimages to holy shrines were considered to be an important part of spiritual life.  For those who could not travel many of these vast stone cathedrals had labyrinths created in them, carved into the stones of the floors, which allowed the worshipper to walk in meditation, prayer or repentance in lieu of undertaking an arduous and potentially expensive pilgrimage.  It is known that the clergy would dance in the labyrinths during the Easter season and they were also thought to be symbolic of the long and difficult journeys that many pilgrims had undergone to visit the shrines housed in the cathedrals. Many of these labyrinths have either been removed or destroyed over the centuries, but a very good example still survives in Chartres Cathedral.  The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth was created on the floor of the nave below the famous Rose Window over the West Door during the early years of the 13th century and is an eleven circuit labyrinth divided into quadrants.

Labyrinths and the Inner Journey

Labyrinths have enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, as people in the West have started exploring meditation and the inner journey in greater numbers.  If you want to undertake this form of walking meditation, you can create your own temporary labyrinth on the floor with sand, flour, masking tape or string.  If you want something a bit more permanent, you could paint one on some canvas or even a sheet to lie down across the ground when you needed it.  And, of course, real devotees with the space and money could have one carved into the floor, marked out with stones or even a topiary labyrinth planted in the back garden.

Remember though that although labyrinths always lead you to the same place, the very centre, that your own journey to get there will be unique and personal to you.  This is not something that you can do ‘wrong’ and every time that you undertake the journey it will be different.  It can be likened to your life path, and the deeper you penetrate into the labyrinth, the closer that you will come to the meaning and centre of your current existence. If you are meditating and walking as a group it can be very beneficial and interesting to share your experiences, but do not allow yourself to be pressured to do so and never compare your experience to someone else’s.  You are at your own unique point in your spiritual journey and the speed at which you move and what your soul chooses to experience is a very individual and sacred choice.

Image  Lucca Labyrinth Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Saturday, 26 November 2011

What Was The Permian Mass Extinction And What Caused It?

What Was the Permian Mass Extinction?

Have you ever heard of the Permian Mass Extinction, also known as the ‘Great Dying’?  If you are worried by the prophecies that the world as we know it is going to end in 2012, you may not be too cheered by the fact that our planet has already undergone several mass extinctions where a significant percentage of all the animal and plant species then alive were suddenly wiped off the face of the Earth. The mass extinction that we are all perhaps the most familiar with is that of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, when 70% of all the species on the Earth died out. However, the Permian Mass Extinction was even more devastating to our planet, and yet many people have never heard of this sudden period of mass destruction. The Permian Mass Extinction occurred around 251.4 million years ago and constitutes the borderline between the Permian and Triassic periods.  During the Permian, there was only one big land mass, known as the super-continent Pangaea and the destruction of species was savage, with 70% of terrestrial vertebrates disappearing, 96% of all marine species disappearing, and what is thought to be the only mass extinction of insect species  in the planet’s long history occurring.   The destruction of species was so complete that it took the Earth from 4-6 million years to recover, and when it did the foundations had been laid for the dawn of the age of the dinosaurs. So what could possibly have caused this disaster and wreaked such a trail of total destruction?  The Permian Mass Extinction has baffled scientists, and there have been many theories put forward as to what natural event or chain of events could possibly have caused this maelstrom.

What Are The Possible Causes of the Permian Extinction?

So what type of natural disaster could have triggered what is known as the ‘Great Dying’? Globally most complex ecosystems were destroyed, and with only 5% of all species surviving there was a huge question mark as to whether life on Earth could continue to survive at all. It is believed that the extinction event that led to the end of the dinosaurs was a huge impact event; with the impact of a huge asteroid or comet hitting the earth and triggering global destruction. So could an impact event have been the cause of the Permian Mass Extinction? Many scientists have combed the surface of the Earth for evidence of an impact crater that was large enough to have been the catalyst. One of the problems that they have encountered is the huge 250 million time gap between then and now. There is every chance that the impact crater simply no longer exists. Around 70% of the world’s surface is covered by the oceans, and no part of the ocean floor is older than 200 million years old. This is because the sea floor is destroyed by spreading and subduction, and it has been surmised that extensive lava flow could also have concealed any large crater site.

Basalt Lava Flow

Could A Meteorite Impact Have Caused The Permian Mass Extinction?

So evidence of an impact event at the Permian-Triassic boundary is sparse. In 2001 a team from the University of Washington, led by Luanne Becker, published a paper that outlined their discoveries of extraterrestrial argon and helium in rocks of the right age in Japan and China. These two gases were found trapped in something called fullerenes or buckyballs, which are often linked to debris from meteor impacts. The team’s findings were brought into question by other scientists, but they have stood by their findings. There are also a couple of possible sites that have been proposed as the point of impact 250 million years ago. One of these is the Bedout High off the coast of northwest Australia, which is a 30km in diameter circular area where older rocks have been uplifted by as much as 4 km towards the surface. It has been theorised that the Bedout High may be the centre of a huge buried impact crater that dates towards the end of the Permian period. Another proposed impact site is in Antarctica and is known as the Wilkes Land crater, which is actually two hypothetical giant crater impact sites that are hidden deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheets.  Both of these locations have been questioned by the experts, as it has been queried as to whether the geological structures were really caused by meteorite or asteroid hits.

Did Massive Volcanic Eruptions Trigger the ‘Great Dying’

Can you imagine huge volcanic eruptions that carried on for over half-a-million years? Well the close of the Permian period was marked by massive volcanic events. This type of sustained volcanic activity could have accelerated massive global climate changes, covered huge areas with boiling hot volcanic rock and released tremendous amounts of poisonous gases and ash into the atmosphere. What remains of some of these ancient volcanic eruptions are known as the Siberian Traps, where around two million square kilometres of what now is Eastern Russia was covered with basalt lava.  Usually, these are not the type of explosive volcanic eruptions that form the tall cone-shaped volcanoes that most of us are familiar with, but rather huge amounts of basalt lava is pushed out through long fissures in the rocks spreads across large areas. However, there is evidence from the Siberian Traps, in the form of a large amount of pyroclastic deposits in comparison with other basalt floods, that these eruptions were very explosive pumping vast quantities of gases and ash into the atmosphere. However, again scientists have questioned whether these volcanic eruptions, long lasting and as explosive as they were, would have been enough to cause the extinction on the scale of the ‘Great Dying’.

However, there is new evidence that these massive volcanic eruptions could have been the cause of the Permian Mass Extinction after all.  Scientists from the University of Calgary have discovered layers of coal ash in the rocks dating to the Permian-Triassic boundary in the Canadian Arctic, which they believe were deposited as the result of massive coal combustion that was set off by the volcanic activity. This widespread coal fire would have been responsible for the emission of large quantities of greenhouse gases, at a time when the Earth was suffering from a decrease in oxygen levels, acid rainfall and the effects of massive amounts of toxic ash in the air.

So although it may never be conclusively proved that massive volcanic eruptions are what were responsible for the Permian Mass extinctions, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that this is the case.  However an impact event as the trigger cannot be totally discounted and it may well be that the meteorite or asteroid comet impact was what started off the catastrophic volcanic activity.  No doubt the Earth will continue to yield new evidence as to what was the cause of this greatest of mass extinctions, and that one day the full story will be known.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Traditions and Customs of The Twelve Days of Christmas

‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ proclaimed Count Orsino as the iconic opening line of William Shakespeare’s famous play ’Twelfth Night’.  But what is the meaning of the Twelfth Night and what are the origins, history and traditions behind The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Traditionally, the Twelve Days of Christmas begin with Christmas Day as the first day and end on the eve of Epiphany on 5th December.  The Twelve Days of Christmas are celebrated very differently from country to country, as in some places they give gifts on Christmas Day, in some gifts are given on Twelfth Night and in some places gifts are given on each of the twelve days.  As this time of year is the darkest in the northern hemisphere bringing the light back is a very important part of the traditions, so in some countries a candle is lit on each of the days and there is also a tradition of lighting a Yule Log on the first night of Christmas and letting it burn until Twelfth Night.  Celebrating for twelve days at the this time of year, the time of the Winter Equinox, has its origins way back in pagan traditions and the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

During the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas was a time of great celebration and there would be feasting on every day and long into the night.  The climax of the Christmastide celebrations was the festivities of Twelfth Night.  A Lord of Misrule would have been chosen and he was responsible for overseeing all of the feasting and revelries during the Christmas period.  The Lord of Misrule was generally a peasant, and was known as the Prince des Sots in France, the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland and a Boy Bishop was appointed for festivities run by the Catholic Church.  The celebrations held during the Twelve Days of Christmas were often drunken, debauched, wild affairs, and it was the job of the Lord of Misrule to try and create as much mayhem as possible and disrupt the normal, smooth running of the household.  Another tradition was that the Lords and Ladies switched places with the servants and peasants so  they in turn had their chance of living the high life for a few hours!  A cake, known as the King cake, would have been specially baked for the Twelfth Night celebrations that contained a bean or a small bauble, and the reveller who got the piece of cake would have to do certain things and received various privileges.  The rule of the Lord of Misrule ended at midnight and normal service resumed!

Twelfth Night Merrymaking in Farmer Shakeshaft's Barn

A special alcoholic drink called wassail was prepared to be drunk during The Twelve Days of Christmas, and especially on Twelfth Night.  Wassail was a hot, spicy punch and the practice of wassailing is toasting the gods to ask for abundance and a good harvest.  In the Middle Ages in Europe, the ingredients of the wassail would have included sugar, which was a rare and expensive commodity back then, nutmeg, ginger, ale and cinnamon.  These would have all been put into a large bowl, heated up and then had ‘sops’ of toasted bread placed on top.  Another festive sweet treat was mince pies, which have been eaten during the Christmas season since the 16th century.  Tradition has it that if you eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days then the following twelve months will exceptionally happy. The celebration of Epiphany, where the Three Wise Men or ‘Magi’ arrived to give gifts of gold, frankincense or myrrh to the infant Jesus, is an important occasion in some countries.  In Spain they have processions with people dressed as the Three Kings who throw out sweets for the children in the crowd to catch.

It is believed that the traditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas were taken to America by the early Colonists.   They probably started the tradition of hanging evergreen wreaths on the front door of their houses during the Festive Season.  They would create a wreath from local produce and greenery on Christmas Eve, and then hang it out on the first day of Christmas and would bring it back in on the morning of Epiphany.  It is still a common tradition in England and other parts of the world that all Christmas decorations and Christmas Trees have to be taken down by 6th January, which is Epiphany, and that any festive food that remained had to be eaten or stored away.  It is considered to be bad luck if any decorations are left hanging after that date, but if they are not down by Twelfth Night  to stave off that bad luck they are supposed to be left hanging for the rest of the year.   In earlier times the evergreen wreaths and garlands would have been left in place until Candlemas which is the 2nd January.  The bad luck was supposed to stem from the spirits of the holly, ivy, mistletoe and other Christmas greenery.  These plant spirits were said to be happy to be in the warmth and comfort of the house during the snow and frost of the mid-winter, but once the milder days returned they wanted to go back outside where they belonged in nature.  It was said that if they were not returned to the woods and hedgerows all the plants and leaves would not start to grow again and the spring would not come back again, causing great hardship for all.

There is an English Christmas Carol called ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ that enumerates the gifts that a very special someone received on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  It starts with a ‘Partridge in A Pear Tree’ on the first day and ends with ‘Twelve Drummers Drumming’ on the twelfth day.  In my experience most people know the words up until the fifth day, but once past the golden rings they tend to start getting their ‘Lords a-Leaping’ and ‘Maids a-Milking’ pretty mixed up.  It also depends how much wine was consumed with Christmas Dinner!  The carol may have been French in origin, and could date back until the 16th century, but was first published in England in 1780. 

It is believed that this famous carol first started out as a memory game that was played by the revellers who attended Twelfth Night feasts.  The participants in the game would have to remember all of the earlier verses that had been sung and then add a verse on the end.  If they failed to remember the verses, they would most likely have to pay a forfeit, such as giving someone a kiss or giving a sweetmeat to another reveller. The lyrics of the carol are also said to contain religious symbolism, such as the ‘Seven Swans a-Swimming’ referring to the seven sacraments of the Church, or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This may have originated from the time when the Roman Catholic Church was being suppressed in England, and needed to pass on the Catholic faith in a hidden manner, such as in the words of a popular song, although there is no evidence to support this.

So when you find yourself singing this popular carol this Christmas season, or you start to get anxious about getting your Christmas Decorations down on time, stop and take some time out to remember the history and traditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas and where these seasonal customs came from.

Image Wikimedia Commons  Public Domain