In today’s post we will be examining an ancient symbol from Greece, one that was and is still used to represent female empowerment, namely, the labrys. Without further ado, here is everything you need to know about the labrys symbol, its meaning, origin, ancient and modern uses including the labrys flag.
What is The Labrys?
The labrys is an uneven, double-headed axe the origins of which go back to Minoan religion in ancient Greece. It is one of the hallowed Cretan religious symbols. Also known as labyris, halbryce, and sagarus, the symbol is linked with the labyrinth, which represents the Palace of Knossos in the city of Crete.
Here is the axe that inspired the symbol:
The word “labrys” stems from the Latin word “labus”, meaning lips. That is why the labrys symbol is also associated with a part of the female genitalia known as labia, i.e., the entrance to the vaginal canal and womb.
Alternatively, the word “labrys” is said to have been derived from the Lydian word for axe. The labrys symbol represents multiple socio-political, religious, historical, and mythical movements and reverent figures.
The Origin of The Labrys Symbol
Experts believe that the labrys axes were used before 1600 BC. But the oldest discovered labrys was from 100.000 years B.C. It was excavated in northern Greece in Paleokastro, an ancient settlement near Siatista.
The labrys was a sacred symbol of the Minoan religion during the Bronze Age. Some examples of the double-headed axe were discovered at the site of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete.
The Labrys: Meaning and Symbolism
The labrys was the symbol of Mother Goddess and denoted the authority of women, female deities, and matriarchy. If a woman carried a double-headed warrior axe in the Minoan civilization, she was assumed to have a powerful position in society.
Moreover, the labrys was also used by Minoan priestesses to slaughter animals, such as bulls, for religious sacrifices.
During the Mycenaean period, around 1600 to 1100 B.C., the double-axe was used to represent lightning. Archeology experts believe that the labrys on the altar of Knossos were worshiped as protective goddesses or lightning gods.
Historians and archeologists also believe that people from that era wore a stone axe talisman as it was believed to be thunderstone, worn in reverence of the thunder gods.
The symbol also signified rebirth and transformation. Originally, it was strongly associated with women, and it was long after the decline of Minoan civilization, the labrys started being associated with the male gods.
For instance, in Greek mythology, the labrys is an ancient symbol closely associated with Zeus, the god of thunder and the most powerful god in Olympus, who was believed to have used his axe to summon storms. However, the Greeks used the word pelekys instead of labrys to refer to Zeus’s axe.
In Indo-European mythology, the double axe is associated with Tahrun or Teshub – the thunder goddesses considered to be the predecessors of Zeus. In Roman Crete, the labrys was used in association with the Amazons. An ancient mosaic depicts an amazon warrior wielding an axe-like weapon during war.
Many symbolic representations of the labrys can also be found in other ancient cultures including European and African cultures. It was also used on crockery, especially plates, of the Linear Ceramics in Romania. Alongside the Linear A inscriptions, a gold double-sided axe was discovered in a cave in Arkalochori (Crete).
The Labrys Symbol in the Modern Era
During the 1930s and 1940s, the double-sided axe became a politicized symbol of Greek dictatorship. Ioannis Metaxas chose the symbol for his fascist supremacy. During this time, it was used to represent the government-backed National Organization of Youth for the 4th of August Regime.
In the 1940s, the labrys symbol was used in the Vichy France regime during World War II. It was featured on coins, propaganda literature, and the personal flag of Philippe Pétain, the ruler of France back then. During the 1960s, the labrys appeared on the flag of Ordine Nuovo – the Italian neo-fascist and far-right movement.
Despite its use as the symbol of fascism and neo-fascism, the double axe has been reclaimed for various women’s movements. It is used in memory of pre-patriarchal societies and to represent the neo-pagan Goddess movement and Hellenic polytheism. Moreover, in Minoan artwork, only women are depicted using the labrys.
Today, it is used as a symbol of matriarchy and solidarity among women, particularly lesbians. The labrys symbol also inspires jewelry designs from bracelet charms and ring motifs to pendants and earrings. Some designs depict it alongside the Minoan bull, while others have elaborate silver or gold detailing on the symbol.
The Labrys Flag
For quite some time now, the labrys symbol has been associated with female empowerment. It is strongly tied to the Amazons – a legendary women-only warrior society that shunned patriarchy.
The battle-axe represents the courage and strength of these female warriors. Due to its symbolism of female valor and perseverance, the labrys was adopted as a befitting lesbian symbol by the Anglo-American lesbian feminists in the 1970s.
Since then, the labrys symbol has been largely used to signify the strength and independence of lesbians. In 1999, the distinctive symbol was used to create the first lesbian pride flag.
Designed by Sean Campbell, the labrys flag features a prominent, white-hued, double-headed axe and an inverted black triangle juxtaposed by a purple background.
The iconic labrys is used as the symbol of matriarchal power, while the inverted triangle signifies the lesbian struggle; Nazis historically used it to identify lesbians, who were then sent to concentration camps because of their sexual orientation.
The purple background represents lavenders and violets that have long been used as popular euphemisms for homosexuality in canonical and widely appreciated literature, particularly Sappho’s poetry.
Despite the powerful imagery of the labrys flag, many members of the lesbian community criticize its acceptance as the official lesbian flag.
The flag was created by a homosexual male graphic designer instead of stemming from within the community. Since representation matters significantly within the LGBT community, many members don’t feel comfortable accepting a flag created by a man as their official emblem.
In 2016, a luxury fashion brand Vetements worked with Comme des Garçons to design a line of sweaters as a tribute to the LGBTQIA+ pride. One of these limited edition designs features the labrys flag – a white labrys on an inverted black triangle with a purple background.
This wraps up our article on the labrys symbol and flag. If you enjoyed reading it, you will probably like our detailed piece on the bigender flag here. Thanks for reading with us!