The pilgrim’s plaque in this photograph marks the medieval Way of Saint James as it meanders through a magical, historical forest in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
I have long been inspired by the quest, the sojourn, of the medieval pilgrim; striving to access the higher and more sacred places within themselves, ultimately transformed by their journeys…
Symbols of pilgrimage are also meaningful to me.
The scallop shell is the pilgrim’s symbol for a number of reasons, some of them practical (it served as a badge of protection while traversing the path. If needed, it could also function as a vessel for eating and drinking) others more spiritual and metaphorical.
The labyrinth is another ancient pilgrim’s symbol, of sorts, pre-dating Christianity but like many pagan concepts, later absorbed by Christianity. During medieval times, walking a labyrinth was thought to be a worthy substitute for those who were unable to afford, or physically withstand, the long, uncertain and often perilous journey.
The twelfth century labyrinth at Notre-Dame de Chartres, France, is the last surviving authentic medieval labyrinth. I was lucky enough to visit Chartres in 2006, but unlucky enough to do so on a Friday, when the labyrinth was covered with chairs and therefore not accessible to geeky, enthusiastic pilgrims from Los Angeles, California.
There is an exact replica of the Chartres labyrinth in Los Angeles, though, at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, that I have traversed several times. And I don’t think I’ve ever emerged from the labyrinth without at least a small morsel of new insight. As Jean Hani writes in Notre Dame de Chartres: Enigma of the Labyrinth, “The deeper significance of the pilgrimage through a labyrinth, which is equally true for any pilgrimage, is that it symbolises the inner pilgrimage we make to the centre of our Being.”
I associate the labyrinth AND the spiral (another ancient, timeless pre-Christian symbol) with the rather beautiful Irish Ogham meaning attributed to the plant Ivy; a hearty, winding, evergreen plant that, to the pre-Christian Irish, represented fundamentally, the Spiral to the Self.
Holy wells, another common site of medieval pilgrimage, are a particular passion of mine. In one of my favorite books on pilgrimage and holy places, The Spiritual Traveler: The Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes in Britain, authors Nigel and Martin Palmer write “Water is one of the oldest symbols for the Other, for that which is opposed to order, and must therefore be propitiated or, at the very least, treated with respect.”
I use a few drops of holy well water in my aromatic creations, drawn myself from the pre-Christian well of the Goddess Brigid, later named a Saint, in Kildare, Ireland, where I made my own pilgrimage with my friend Sarah, in a rental car, in 2006.
Yes, we were pixie-led for two extra hours (the street signs were all switched around!) and I had a fever that day but — alas — it was all simply part of that particular and rather wonderful journey. I was also fortunate to visit the Roman waters at Bath, and draw some water from the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, England, in 2008.
So I work in my aromatics home-studio with this symbolism constantly present in my mind, my heart, and in my toil, whether I am creating a new perfume or practicing cartomancy for clients or friends.
But rather than write all about me, I thought it would be far more interesting to interview other artists on this blog. I’ve come across many fascinating and talented artists this past year. And I’d like to know what symbols, stories, and ideals inspire their creative endeavors… what is their personal myth.
I will write a bit more about mine in the coming weeks, and this summer, I look forward to featuring guest writers and/or artist-interviews to further discuss the topic of myth, symbolism and the creative life.