The symbol of the labrys, or double-headed axe, was found frequently during archaeological excavations at the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, and has been referred to as one of the oldest symbols of Greek civilisation. Solid gold representations of the labrys featuring Linear A inscriptions, upon which our gold Labrys jewellery is based, were found in a sanctuary in the cave of Arkalochori in Crete and are thought to date to before 1600 BC.
Whilst the labrys continued to retain its practical use as a forestry and hewing tool in Minoan culture, it became imbued with a special religious significance from an early stage, which can also be seen in Thracian and mainland Greek art. For the Minoans on Crete, the symbol was especially associated with female divinities and priestesses and thus became a synonym for matriarchy. To find such an axe in the hands of a Minoan woman would therefore indicate that she held a powerful position within Minoan society.
In other cultures, the labrys was connected with male divinities, usually Zeus. For example, in Caria, the double axe was wielded by the storm-god Zeus Labraundos, and in Indo-European mythology the labrys accompanies the archaic thunder deities Teshub and Tahrun, predecessors of Zeus. The word pelekys was also used by the Greeks to denote the double-axe, specifically the double-axe used by Zeus to summon storm clouds. This has given rise to the modern Greek word for lightening, astropeleki, literally meaning “star-axe”.
The labrys combined its religious significance and practical capacity as an instrument of slaughter, especially of bulls, at religious sacrifices. It is also thought that the labyrinth, the maze in which the mythical Minotaur was kept, is etymologically connected with the word labrys, intimating a further link between the labrys and the bull, a hallowed creature in Minoan culture.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek
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