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One of the oldest symbols of Greek civilization, the “labrys” or a double-headed axe has many religious and mythological connotations. The labrys continues to be an influential symbol. Here’s a look at the origin of the symbol and how it has made its way into our modern times.
History of the Labrys Symbol
According to Plutarch, a Greek Middle Platonist philosopher, the term “labrys” was a Lydian word for “axe.” In ancient Crete, it was a sacred symbol of the Minoan religion, signifying the authority of female goddesses, the authority of women, and the matriarchy. It has been found widely in the archeological excavations at the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos, and was used by Minoan priestesses for religious sacrifices.
Some believe that the “labrys” is etymologically connected with the word labyrinth. In the context of the myth of Theseus—a Greek hero who slayed the Minotaur—the labyrinth is frequently associated with the Minoan palace of Knossos. But according to Fundamental Symbols: The Universal Language of Sacred Science, it seems “labyrinth” is not directly connected with the double-edged Cretan axe.
In Greek mythology, the labrys often referred to as the “pelekys” is the symbol of Zeus, the ancient Greek god of the heavens, thunder, and lightning and the king of the gods of Mount Olympus.
According to the book The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore: A Study in Comparative Archaeology, the double-axes were used as a representation of lightning—and even worshipped as protecting deities during the Mycenaean period around 1600 to 1100 B.C. It is also believed that a stone axe was worn as an amulet because it was regarded as a thunderstone.
In Roman Crete, the symbol was often associated with the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women in Greek mythology who refused to follow the patriarchal culture. There is an ancient mosaic depicting an Amazon warrior with an axe-like weapon in times of war.
The Labrys Symbol in Modern Times
During the regime from 1936 to 1941, the labrys became a symbol of Greek fascism. Ioannis Metaxas chose the symbol for his dictatorial reign because he believed it to be the oldest symbol of all Hellenic civilizations.
In 1940s, the symbol was also used during the Vichy France regime to assert its legitimacy, symbolically connecting itself with the Gallo-Roman period. One of the symbols from the Gallic period, the labrys was featured on the coins, propaganda posters, and even on the personal flag of Philippe Pétain, the ruler of France at the time.
The labrys also symbolizes a variety of modern pagan and women’s movements. Today, it is used to represent Hellenic polytheism whose worshipers honor the gods of ancient Greece.
During the 1970s, the Anglo-American lesbian feminist subcultures adopted the labrys as a lesbian icon, for the reason that lesbian and Amazonians are, if not synonymous, then associative. In fact, the symbol was featured on the lesbian flag in 1999—a white labrys on an inverted black triangle set against a purple background—to represent lesbianism.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Labrys
The labrys, a.k.a. the double-headed axe, has various meanings and connotations, and here are some of them:
- A Symbol of Protection – According to archeologists, the double-axes on the altar of Knossos were worshipped as lightning gods or protective deities. It is also believed that the thunderstone belief prevailed, and stone axes were worn as charms to glorify thunder gods.
- A Symbol of Female Empowerment – In Minoan artwork, only women are depicted using the labrys. In the modern-day world, it represents the strength and feminism of homosexual women, likened to the Amazons (the tribe of warrior women in Greek mythology) who refused the values of patriarchal culture. It is often used as a symbol of solidarity and matriarchy among lesbians.
- A Symbol of Female Courage – In history, ancient Greeks used swords, spears, phalanx, ballista, as well as armors and shields. However, the battle-axe is associated with the Amazons in the battlefield therefore the symbol represents the courage and strength of female warriors.
- A Representation of Greek Neopaganism – Today, the labrys is used as a symbol of Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism. Hellenic polytheists worship ancient Greek gods, including the Olympians, heroes, underworld deities and nature divinities, and are typically influenced by ancient Greek philosophers and writers.
Labrys Symbol in Jewelry and Fashion
The ancient symbol inspired jewelry designs from labrys pendant to bracelet charms and engraved double-axe motifs in rings. Some designs depict the symbol with Minoan bull, while others feature intricate detailing on the labrys, and are made of silver or gold.
In 2016, Vetements collaborated with Comme des Garçons and designed a line of sweaters in tribute to LGBTQ pride. One of the limited edition designs featured the symbol of lesbian independence—a white labrys printed on an inverted black triangle against a purple background. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the labrys symbol.
The labrys has a long history, but it gained popularity in the Greek and Roman Periods when it was considered a sacred weapon of Zeus. Nowadays, it remains significant as a symbol of empowerment, courage, and protection, especially for women.