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An ornamented golden Minoan labrys

Labrys (λάβρυς in Greek, lábrys) is the term for a symmetric doubleheaded axe originally from Crete in Greece, one of the oldest symbols of Greek civilization; to the Romans, it was known as a bipennis.[1] The symbol was commonly associated with female divinities.

The double-bitted axe remains a forestry tool to this day,[2] and the labrys certainly functioned as a tool and hewing axe[3] before it was invested with symbolic function.[4] Labrys symbolism is found in Minoan, Thracian, and Greek religion, mythology, and art, dating from the Middle Bronze Age onwards, and surviving in the Byzantine Empire.


Plutarch relates the word labrys with a Lydian word for axe: (Λυδοὶ γάρ ‘λάβρυν’ τὸν πέλεκυν ὀνομάζουσι).[5]

This was a cult-word that was introduced from Anatolia, where such symbols have been found in Katal Huyuk from the neolithic age. In Labraunda of Caria the double-axe accompanies the storm-god Zeus Labraundos. In Crete, the symbol of the double-axe always accompanies goddesses, and it seems that it was the symbol of the beginning (arche) of the creation. The word labyrinth, which the Greeks used for the palace of Knossos is derived from "labrys". It seems that the goddess of the double-axe presided over the Minoan palaces, and especially over the palace of Knossos. A Linear B inscription on tablet Gg702 found in Knossos, was interpreted "da-pu-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja= labynthoio potnoiai" ( to the Mistress of the labyrinth), and she was undoubtedly the goddess of the palace.[6]

However the designation "The house of the Double Axe" cannot be limited to the palace of Knossos, because the same symbols were discovered in other palaces of Crete.[7]

In England, "labrys" was introduced by Sir Arthur Evans in the Journal of Hellenic Studies XXI. 108 (1901) [8] It should be noted that the priests at Delphi in classical Greece were called Labryades (the men of the double axe). Evans' article supplies the first citation of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Minoan civilization

Bronze axe from the Mesara tombs

The term, and the symbol, is most closely associated in historical records with the Minoan civilization, which reached its peak in the 2nd millennium BC, and specifically with the worship of a Goddess. In Crete the symbol always accompanies female divinities and it was probably the symbol of the arche of the creation (Mater-arche:matriarchy).[9]

Double axes taller than a human

Some Minoan labrys have been found which are taller than a human and which might have been used during sacrifices. The sacrifices would likely have been of bulls. The labrys symbol has been found widely in the Bronze Age archaeological recovery at the Palace of Knossos on Crete.[10] According to archaeological finds on Crete this double-axe was used specifically by Minoan priestesses for ceremonial uses. Of all the Minoan religious symbols, the axe was the holiest. Sometimes the double-axe is combined with the sacral-knot which seems that was a symbol of holiness. Such symbols have been found in Crete, and also on some goldrings from Mycenae.[11]

Several double axes were found at the Arkalochori cave in Crete, with inscriptions in the Linear A script. A golden axe assumed to be from Alkalochori is now exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.[12] Among the double axes, the second-millennium bronze Arkalochori Axe with an inscription was excavated by Marinatos in 1934. It has been suggested that these might be Linear A but it seems that "the characters on the axe are no more than a 'pseudo-inscription* engraved by an illiterate in uncomprehending imitation of authentic Linear A characters on other similar axes."[13]

In the Near East and other parts of the region, eventually axes of this sort are often wielded by male divinities and appear to become symbols of the thunderbolt.[14] In Labraunda of Caria the double-axe accompanies the storm-god Zeus Labraundos. Similar symbols have been found on plates of Linear pottery culture in Romania.[15]

Labrys may be associated with an archaic symbol of the thunder deity whom Zeus and others become as storm gods wielding their thunder weapons and are found in some motifs of Indo-European mythology. The double-axe accompanies the Hurrian god of sky and storm Teshub. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun.[16] Both are depicted holding a triple thunderbolt, and a double axe on the other hand.[17] Similarly, Zeus throws his Keravnos to bring storm. The labrys, or pelekys, is the double axe Zeus uses to invoke storm, and the relative modern Greek word for lightning is star-axe ( αστροπελέκι=astropeleki ) [18] [19]

In feminist interpretations however, it is interpreted as a symbol of the Mother Goddess, and especially as the symbol of matriarchy, or of a butterfly [20]

Ancient Greece

The word labyrinthos (Mycenaean daburinthos[21]) is probably connected with the word labrys. In the Linear B (Mycenean Greek) script a symbol similar to a double-axe represents the phonetic sign a .[22] In the context of the Classical Greek myth of Theseus, the labyrinth of Greek mythology is frequently associated with the Minoan palace of Knossos and has a long tradition of use that extends before any written records explain the traditions.

On Greek vase paintings, a labrys sometimes appears in scenes of animal sacrifice, particularly as a weapon for the slaying of bulls.

On the "Perseus Vase" in Berlin (F1704; ca 570–560 BC), Hephaestus ritually flees his act of slicing open the head of Zeus to free Athena whose pregnant mother Zeus swallowed to prevent her offspring from dethroning him. Over the shoulder of Hephaestus is the instrument he has used, the double-headed axe. The more usual double-headed instrument of Hephaestus is the double-headed smith's hammer so the symbolism is important. Zeus swallowing the goddess symbolized the progressive suppression of the earlier traditional religious beliefs, symbolically dethroning the goddess, Metis, but allowing Athene (her daughter) to be "born" of Zeus because her worship was so pervasive and widespread that it could not be suppressed. That is likely the reason the labrys was depicted as the instrument used by Hephaestus (who much earlier had been a consort of the Earth goddess) to release Athene.

On Greek coins of the classical period (e.g. Pixodauros, etc.) a type of Zeus venerated at Labraunda in Caria that numismatists call Zeus Labraundeus (Ζεὺς Λαβρανδεύς) stands with a tall lotus-tipped sceptre upright in his left hand and the double-headed axe over his right shoulder.

The double-axe also appears in Thracian art. On the Aleksandrovo kurgan fresco, it is probably wielded by Zalmoxis.

Modern uses

The labrys symbolizes a variety of modern pagan and women's movements

The labrys was formerly a symbol of Greek fascism.[23] During the period of the 4th of August Regime (1936–1941), the labrys was used as the main symbol of the regime-sponsored National Organisation of Youth (EON),[24] as its leader, Ioannis Metaxas believed the symbol to be the first symbol of all Hellenic civilizations. Today it is sometimes used as a symbol of Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism. It is also used by black metal fans in Greece as a symbol of Greek neopaganism. Further, it is used by Cretan folklore preservation societies and associations both in Greece and abroad, on occasion with the modern Greek spelling "lavrys".

The labrys also has been used since the 1970s[25] as a lesbian, feminist, and goddess movement symbol to represent women's strength and self-sufficiency.[26][27]

While in reality double axes were not commonly used in combat, they are common in high fantasy settings.

See also


  1. the term for a single-bladed axe being hēmipelekys "half-pelekys", e.g. Il. 23.883.
  2. Representative collections of modern double axeheads are conserved in the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa, and elsewhere.
  3. The functions of Neolithic stone axeheads are discussed by Marija Gimbutas, "Battle axe or cult axe?", Man 53 (April 1953:51-54).
  4. "Just as the bishop's crozier is derived from the functional shepherd's crook," according to A. Trevor Hodge, "The Labrys: Why Was the Double Axe Double?" American Journal of Archaeology 89.2 (April 1985:307-308) p 307.
  5. "Herakles, having slain Hippolyte and taken her axe away from her with the rest of her arms, gave it to Omphale. The kings of Lydia who succeeded her carried this as one of their sacred insignia of office, and passed it down from father to son until it was passed to Candaules, who disdained it and gave it to one of his companions to carry. When Gyges rebelled and was making war upon Candaules, Arselis came with a force from Mylasa to assist Gyges; Arselis then slew Candaules and his companion and took the axe to Caria with the other spoils of war. And, having set up a statue of Zeus, Arselis put the axe in his hand and invoked the god, "Labrandeus". Plutarch, Greek Questions, 45 2.302a.
  6. F.Schachermeyer: Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta pp. 161, 237,238
  7. Criticised by W.H.D. Rouse, "The Double Axe and the Labyrinth" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 21 (1901), pp. 268-274, noting the reappearance of the same inscribed symbols at the newly-discovered palace a Phaistos (p. 273).
  8. "It seems natural to interpret names of Carian sanctuaries like Labranda in the most literal sense as the place of the sacred labrys, which was the Lydian (or Carian) name for the Greek πέλεκυς [pelekys], or double-edged axe." And, p. 109, "On Carian coins, indeed of quite late date, the labrys, set up on its long pillar-like handle, with two dependent fillets, has much the appearance of a cult image.":A.J. Evans, "Mycenaean tree and pillar cult and its Mediterranean relations," Journal of Hellenic Studies XXI, pp 108, 109.
  9. F.Schachermeyer:Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta". p.161 W.Kohlhammer Verlag Stuttgart
  10. C. Michael Hogan, Knossos fieldnotes, Modern Antiquarian (2007)
  11. F.Schachermeyer:Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta". p.163, 164 W.Kohlhammer Verlag Stuttgart
  12. "Yet two facts are clear about the deity of Arkalochori: it was connected with weapons in a special way, and it was a goddess rather than a god", observed Emily Townsend Vermeule, "A Gold Minoan Double Axe" Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 57 No. 307 (1959:4-16) p. 6; the Boston gold labrys assumed to be from Arkalochori is inscribed in Linear A.
  13. Price, Glanville (2000). Encyclopedia of the languages of Europe. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 384. ISBN 978-0-631-22039-8. 
  14. Dartmouth College: Minoan Religion
  15. F.Schachermeyer:Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta. p.162, W.Kohlhammer Verlag Stuttgart
  16. Tarhun
  17. Teshub
  18. M.Nilsson (1967) Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion Vol I pp. 276-277C.F.Beck Verlag, Munchen
  19. "Many points go to prove that the double-axe is a representation of the lightning (...). The worship of it was kept up in the Greek island of Tenedos and in several cities in the south-west of former Hellenic Asia Minor, and it appears in later historical times in the cult of the thundergod of Asia Minor (Zeus Labrayndeus). An impression from a seal-stone shows the double-axe placed together with a zigzag line, which represents the flash of lightning": Blinkenberg, "The thunder weapon in religion and folklore; a study in comparative archaeology" 1911: 19.
  20. The forms taken by the labrys were classified by Caterina Mavriyannaki, "La double hache dans le monde héllenique à l'âge du bronze," Revue Archéologique, New series (1983:195-228).
  21. da-pu2-ri-to-yo (KN Gg 702), daburinthoyo potnia meaning "Lady of the Labyrinth".
  22. John Chadwick.The Mycenean world".1976
  24. The Labrys/Pelekys: The symbol of Thundergod Zeus and of the EON
  26. SwadePages "Origin & History of Gay & Lesbian Symbols"

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