Labrys - Tools of Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Tools of Witchcraft

The labrys is a double-headed ax used for agricultural, military, ritual, and magical use. It is a primeval symbol found in Paleolithic cave paintings but now most often identified with the Amazons and with Minoan women’s mystery traditions.

The labrys is associated with the labyrinth, the famous maze-like structure of the Palace of Knossos in Crete that allegedly once housed the Minotaur. (See HORNED ONE: Minotaur.) The labrys was the emblem placed on the door of the labyrinth.

The labrys is a mysterious symbol, ubiquitous in the ancient Mediterranean from tiny ornamental replicas to powerful battleaxes. A nine-foot tall labrys is believed to have stood beside an altar of Athena.

In Mediterranean regions, the labrys was intensely identified with women. As a weapon, it was identified with the Amazons (and, further north, with the Valkyries). The use of the term “old battle-ax” to describe a powerful, sharptongued older woman may derive from the labrys. In ancient Greek art, the labrys was almost exclusively depicted as a woman’s weapon; men rarely if ever wield it, with one crucial exception: according to Greek mythology, Athena was born fully-formed from Zeus’ head after he swallowed her pregnant mother, Metis. Hephaestus performed the equivalent of a cranial caesarian section by cleaving Zeus’ skull open with a labrys so Athena could emerge. The labrys remains among Athena’s sacred attributes. It is also identified with Ariadne and with Demeter, who used a labrys as her scepter or magic wand.

Various origins and symbolism are attributed to the labrys, none mutually exclusive:

Image The labrys derives its shape and name from the labia, the vaginal lips; the handle of the ax might represent the phallus or the vaginal canal

Image Archeologist Marija Gimbutas suggested that the labrys derives its shape from that of the butterfly, itself symbolic of the human soul, reincarnation, and rebirth

Image The two heads of the labrys represent the waxing and waning moon

Image In ancient times, the labrys was sometimes mounted between bull’s horns, intensifying all three of the symbols and meanings listed

In the ancient Mediterranean, Anatolia, and Middle East, the labrys was a woman’s tool. However, the double-headed ax is also associated with Thor (Northern Europe) and Chango (West Africa, African Diaspora)—both intensely masculine thunder-gods whose myths feature episodes of cross-dressing.

In the twenty-first century, the labrys has emerged as a feminist and lesbian symbol of pride. The labrys is also incorporated into various witchcraft and Neo-Pagan women’s spiritual and magical rituals. Some believe the labrys is the ancestor of the magic wand and that when deities like Circe are described as holding a “wand” what is really meant is a labrys. (See page 703, Wands.)