Labrys

Minoan symbolic labrys of gold, 2nd millennium BC: many Arkalochori Axes have been found in the Arkalochori cave.
Minoan symbolic labrys of gold, 2nd millennium BC: many Arkalochori Axes have been found in the Arkalochori cave.

Labrys is the term for a doubleheaded axe, known to the Classical Greeks as pelekys πέλεκυς[1] or sagaris, and to the Romans as a bipennis. Representations of the labrys are on Neolithic finds of "Old Europe", and the labrys is continued in Minoan Thracian, Greek (and Byzantine) art and mythology. It also appears in African mythology (see Shango). Today, it is sometimes used as a symbol associated with female and matristic power, and is frequently employed as lesbian symbol. It is also used by black metal fans in Greece as a symbol of Greek paganism and by Greek neo-fascists as a symbol related to the period of Greek fascism (1936-1941). Further, it is used by Cretan folklore preservation societies and associations both in Greece and abroad, on occasion with the alternate English spelling "lavrys".

Etymology

In English the first appearance of "labrys" is reported in OED from Journal of Hellenic Studies XXI. 108 (1901): "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, 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."

The non-Greek word "labrys" first appears in Plutarch as the Lydian word for axe (Greek Questions, 45):

Herakles, having slain Hippolyte and taken her axe 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 Candaules. Candaules, however, 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 the assistance of Gyges, 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, he put the axe in his hand and called the god, "Labrandeus," labrys being the Lydian word for 'axe'[2].

It is widely accepted that the word "Labraundeos" means in archaic Greek "shining" or "bright". The main feature of thundergod Zeus was the lightning, which of course is shining, which would be consistent with the fact that "Labraundeos" could be an epytome for "shining god". "Labry" means "shining" (λαμπρό [lambro] still means "bright" in modern Greek) and "deos" is an ancient word for "god", cognate with modern Greek "theos" (as in "theocracy", "theology"...)

Archeology suggests that the veneration of Zeus Labraundeos at Labraunda was far older than Plutarch imagined. Like its apparent cognate "labyrinth", the word entered the Greek language as a loanword, so that its etymology, and even its original language, is not positively known. The loanword labyrinth was used in Greek, but the designation "The house of the Double Axe" for the palace at Knossos is an imaginative modern innovation.

Minoan civilization

Bronze axe from the Mesara tombs.
Bronze axe from the Mesara tombs.

The term, and the symbol, is most closely associated with the Minoan civilization, which reached its peak in the 2nd millennium BC. Some Minoan labrys have been found which are taller than a man and which might have been used during sacrifices. The sacrifices would likely have been of bulls. According to archeological 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. To find such an axe in the hands of an Minoan woman would strongly suggest that she held a powerful position within the Minoan culture. In the Near East and other parts of the region, axes of this sort are often wielded by male divinities and appear to be symbols of the thunderbolt, but in Crete, unlike the Near East, this axe is never held by a male divinity, only by females.

The bull is a symbol of Zeus and indeed the labrys is mainly associated with an archaic symbol of the thundergod Zeus. Storm gods wielding their thunder weapons are familiar motifs in Indo-European mythology. Examples are the Nordic god Thor, who hurls his mjollnir to cast thunder and lightning upon the earth, or Indra, who uses his favourite weapon the vajra. Similarly, Zeus throws his Keravnos to bring storm. The labrys, or pelekys, is the double axe Zeus uses to invoke storm.

"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" (Chr. Blinkenberg, The thunderweapon in religion and folklore; a study in comparative archaeology, 1911: 19).

In feminist interpretations (particularly by Marija Gimbutas) however, it is also interpreted as a symbol of the Mother Goddess and compared to the shape of a butterfly rather than an axe.

Ancient Greece

The word labyrinthos (Mycenaean *daburinthos[3]) is probably connected with the word labrys. In the context of the myth of Theseus, the labyrinth of Greek mythology is frequently associated with the Minoan palace of Knossos.

F1704 detail
F1704 detail

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: over his shoulder 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.) 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 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.

Etruria

Evidence of the labrys is also found in Etruscan mythology.

Popular culture

Today, probably influenced by traditions that link the Amazons with the battle-axe (see Sagaris), the labrys is sometimes used as a symbol of female empowerment, signifying lesbianism in particular, and appearing in Wiccan rituals.

During the period of the 4th of August Regime (1936-1941), the Labrys was used as main symbol of the Greek Fascist Youth EON (Ethniki Organosi Neolaias), as the regime's leader, Ioannis Metaxas believed the symbol to be the first symbol of all Hellenic civilizations.

In modern Greece today, the Labrys/Pelekys is sometimes used by Greek neopagans as one of the most archaic symbols of Zeus, the Greek thundergod and the most important deity among the 12 Olympian gods. The Labrys or Pelekys is also used by Greek pagan black metal enthusiasts as a symbol of the Greek neopagan creed; the labrys can be bought in heavy metal stores and bijoutiers across Greece.

Notes

  1. ^ the term for a single-bladed axe being hēmipelekus "half-pelekus", e.g. Il. 23.883.
  2. ^ Λυδοὶ γάρ ‘λάβρυν’ τὸν πέλεκυν ὀνομάζουσι 2.302a.
  3. ^ da-pu2-ri-to-yo (KN Gg 702), daburinthoyo potnia meaning "Lady of the Labyrinth".

See also

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