A labrys is a double-headed ax found in ancient Minoan and Hellenic culture. Due to the abundance of labryses in Minoan ruins on the isle of Crete, and labryses featured with women in Minoan images, speculation by scholars linking the ax to Minoan religion and matriarchy has generated a series of women-empowered myths concerning Minoan civilization. These new myths, along with classical Greek myths describing the labrys as a weapon wielded by female warriors, have inspired Lesbians to adopt the labrys as a symbol of women’s strength.
Double-Headed Ax in Minoan Culture
Images of the double-headed ax can be found in different places in the region around the Aegean Sea. Ruins of the Minoan civilization on Crete (2800-1400 BCE) have a large number of such images, some made of gold or bronze and placed upon staffs, others featured on pottery and in paintings. The association of labyrinth (ancient Greek: “place of the labrys”) with Crete and the Minotaur (“Bull of Minos,” a monster kept in the labyrinth) links the labrys with Minoan civilization in Greek myth.
The presence of the double-headed ax among the ruins of a people who had a fondness for bulls, and who often depicted women as important figures in ritual settings, has led some scholars to postulate the ax was for bull sacrifice, and that women held prestigious positions in Minoan society as priestesses and leaders. These assumptions inspire descriptions of Minoan civilization as women-centered, or that Minoan women were on par with men in the public sphere. Minoan civilization has taken on a mythical aura as a goddess-centered matriarchy, an assumption that is feasible but by no means conclusive.
Labrys in Lydian Language and Greek Myth
Speculation about Minoan politics and religion notwithstanding, the double-headed ax is associated with Zeus, women warriors, goddesses, and queens in Greek myth. Zeus has among his titles the name of Zeus Labrayndeus (“Zeus, God of the Labrys”) and has been portrayed carrying a labrys. The Zeus-labrys association is given a strong feminine element in the myth of Metis, Titan of Good Counsel. Zeus feared Metis would bear his future replacement as king of the gods, and so he swallowed Metis after getting her pregnant. Zeus was then plagued with tremendous headaches because Metis lodged in his head and pounded metal as she made armor for her soon-to-be-born child. Finally, the pain became too much for Zeus. Hephaestus (God of Ironwork) took a labrys, split open Zeus’ skull, and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom and War) jumped out in full armor.
Classical Greek myths preserved in Roman times concerning the Amazons, a society of female warriors, mention the double-headed ax in the context of a woman-centered warrior society. The god-human Herakles (Greek: “Glory of Hera,” Hercules to the Romans) is included in myths about Amazons in stories concerning the near-impossible tasks (Twelve Labors of Herakles) that Hera, Queen of Heaven, required of him. One such task was to obtain the girdle of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, who freely gave the girdle to Herakles. A fight broke out between the Amazons and Herakles because of Hera’s secret interference. Herakles killed Hippolyte and took her labrys as well as the girdle. He gave the labrys to Omphale, Queen of the Lydians, to whom he was temporarily enslaved. While serving Omphale, Herakles was forced to dress as a woman and do women’s work, while Omphale wore his lion skin cloak and carried his club, establishing women’s ownership of labrys and (temporarily) Herakles.
Labrys as Lesbian Symbol and Symbol of Greek/Cretan Pride
Some scholars who examine these histories and myths from feminist perspectives have created a new mythology that links Amazons to Minoans, Minoan civilization to women’s rights and matriarchy, and powerful Minoan women to the labrys. From these new myths, the labrys emerged in the LGBTQ community after Stonewall as a symbol for Lesbians and for women’s empowerment. The labrys is often worn as a pendant or earrings.
The labrys was incorporated into the Military Pride flag designed by Todd Shinkle to represent Lesbians in the US Military. Labrys is also the name for a LGBTQ organization in Kyrgyzstan that advocates for Lesbians, Bisexual women, Gay men, and Transgender people. The group registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the Kyrgyz authorities in 2006, but refrained from using the word “lesbian” in official documents because of the stigma attached to homosexual identity. There is also a Serbian Lesbian group called Labris.
In addition to being a Lesbian and LGBTQ symbol, the labrys is a symbol of the people of Crete, and also for Greek nationalism. A dance troupe of Cretan American women and men called Labrys was started by the Omonoia Cretan Society in Long Island, New York.
Human Rights Watch. These Everyday Humiliations: Violence Against Lesbians, Bisexual Women, and Transgender Men in Kyrgyzstan. New York: Human Rights Organization, 2008.
Klomar, Kathleen L. Reclaiming Klytemnestra: Revenge or Reconciliation. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2003.
Stawell, F. Melian. Clue to the Cretan Scripts. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003.