Axe & Labrys Symbolism and Meaning (Power, Rain & More)

Quick as lightning, the axe falls and shears. It crashes down and sometimes strikes sparks. Because of this, nearly all cultures associate the axe with thunder and rain, thus turning the axe into a fertility symbol.

There are many examples of the development of the axe evolving as a symbol along these lines.

Symbolism of the double-bladed axe (labrys)

The twin-bladed axe, related to the sign tau τ, is called the labrys and often has a distinct symbolic meaning from the single bladed axe.

The labrys, was used for hewing wood, amd was already sanctified in prehistoric times as a representation of sky and weather gods, and featured in the cult of the Mother-Goddess.

This double headed axe is to be found in a host of works of art from India to England, and especially in the Mediterranean countries in Africa and Crete.

Very often it is located over the head of an ox, just between its horns, when it comes to symbolize on the one hand the mandorla (related to horns because of its shape), and, on the other, the function of sacrifice in the relationship between the valley-symbol and the mountain-symbol (that is, between earth and heaven).

According to Luc Benoist, the this twin-bladed axe is the shape of the Hindu vajra and Jupiter’s thunderbolt, becoming, therefore, a symbol of celestial illumination.

It was a typical symbol in Minoan religious images from the 16th-15th century BCE, probably having come from Caria in Asia
Minor, where it survived in the cult of Zeus “of the Double Axe” (Labrandeus).

The double-headed axe in Minoan artefacts may also invoke divine protection. Its dual, half-moon curves may be a lunar symbol or may stand for the reconciliation of opposites

Nowadays the double-bladed axe (the labrys) is associated with the labyrinth, both being symbols in the Cretan cult. The word “labyrithn” itself is derived from the “labrys”.

The labyrinth denotes the world of existence, the pilgrimage in quest of the “Centre”.

Axes as symbols of rain making

The Maya and contemporary American Indians, the Celts and Tang Chinese Dynasty all called stone axes “thunder stone” and all said that they fell from Heaven.

Similarly, the Dogon and Bambara from Mali say that thunderbolts are axes which the water and fertility god hurls down to Earth from the sky.

This is why across many cultures, stone axes were kept in shrines dedicated to this god and used in seasonal rites and rain-making ceremonies.

They are also buried at seed time so that the fertilizing powers with which these stones are endowed may set germination in train.

Since they have the power to bring rain, stone axes have the power to make it stop if it rains too much, or at least that is what another African people, the Azende, claims.

In a number of legends current among Cambodians and the Montagnards of southern Vietnam, the axe, as the weapon of thunder, is the emblem of power. By opening up and piercing the Earth it symbolizes the latter’s fertilization by its marriage with Heaven.

Axes as a symbol of power and knowledge

An axe cutting into the bark of a tree is a symbol of spiritual penetration, of going to the heart of the mystery, as well as being an implement of release.

Although, in the iconography of Shiva for example, the axe may become a symbol of wrath and destruction, this may remain a positive role, with its destructive powers applied to maleficent influences.

Axes as symbols of unity

Through a sort of antonym which often occurs in the evolution of a symbol, what divides can also unite.

This apparently is the case in an age-old and important Chinese custom which connects the axe with wedding ceremonies. The young man and woman were only allowed to marry, on the principle of exogamy (marrying outside a tribe or community), if they belonged to different families; for more important even than its reproductive function, marriage served to unite such families.

In the distant past this alliance came about through diplomatic channels which necessitated the employment of a herald as a sort of go between. His emblem was the axe with which he stripped the twigs from two logs of wood and tied them into bundles. The motif of the bundle of wood constantly recurs in Chinese wedding hymns.

Twin headed axe (labrys) as symbol of duality

This duality of function is concretized in the twin-bladed axe (or labrys) which is at one and the same time destroyer and protector.

Its symbolism is linked with death-life duality and the duality of opposing and complementary forces and associates the double-headed axe with the Caduceus, the Vajra of the Hindus, Thor’s hammer and the two natures within the one person of Christ.

What divides is also what separates. Thus the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, when discussing the attributes of angels, writes:

The spears and battle-axe denote the dividing of things unlike, and the sharp and energetic and drastic operation of the discriminating powers.

Separation and discernment are also the powers of differentiation, specifically expressed in Greek mythology when an axe-blow splits Zeus’s skull and out sprang Athena.

To the psychologist, this is the intervention of the social environment upon the individual, introspective consciousness, an external intervention essential to the creation of the individual.

The Axe as a symbol of permanence

Mankind’s earliest combined weapon and tool, the axe is a focus of integration, the manifestation of something permanent, of a stored lightning charge.

The word itself seems to have its links with “axis”, so that the prehistoric axe might be the focus of the world of experience the axis.

Lastly the axe embedded in the tip of a pyramid or of a pointed stone cube has been interpreted in many different ways. In the light of everything mentioned so far, however, it may be understood quite clearly as the opening of the kernel, of the casket, of the secret or of the skies.

That is to say, as the final rite of initiation which brings awareness and partakes of enlightenment. The blade of the stone axe has struck a spark.

Axes as symbols of justice and power

The Romans had a well known symbol called the “fascia”, which was a bundle of wooden rods enclosing an axe.

This was a symbol of authority, implying power to punish the disobedient.

When leading Roman magistrates marched in procession through public streets, they were accompanied by attendants called lictors, who carried the fasces as a way of displaying their masters legal powers.

As an attribute of Justice personified , the fasces may include scales and a sword.

The fasces emblem was adopted by the Italian nationalist movement under Mussolini in the 1930s. Thus, the members of this group became known as fascisti or fascists.

Axes as weapons of the Amazons

The labrys or double-bladed axe stood for the Amazons and their Goddess under several of her classical names: Artemis, Gaea, Rhea, Demeter.

Perhaps originally a battle ax, it became a ceremonial scepter in Crete and at the Goddess’s oldest Greek shrine, Delphi.

Her priests adopted the name of labryadae, “ax-bearers.”

Various other uses of the axe symbol

A symbol of the power of light. The battle-axe has a significance which is equivalent to that of the sword, the hammer and the cross.

An axe is also the attribute of warriors, and represents the forceful solving of a problem.

The Mayans worshipped a deity known as God of the Ax.

Egypt’s god Ptah was also represented by an ax.

Tantric Buddhists explained that the gods use axes as weapons against unbelievers.

In Brittany, stone axes were built into chimneys, in the belief that they would avert the lightning that the pagan gods used to control. The theory behind this custom seems to have been that the lightning gods would be mollified byseeing that their ancient symbols were still used.

In modern times the labrys has been remembered for its Amazon associations, and has theretore been adopted by lesbian women as their amuletic symbol.

In Christian art, St Peter Martyr has an axe embedded in his skull. St. Matthew was martyred through the use of an axe.

An axe is one of the twelve ornaments On Chinese imperial robes and is the attribute of Lu Pan, god of carpenters.

It was an attribute of the Mesopotamian weather-god Adad and his Hittite counterpart, Teshub. Axes were buried in the foundations of Adad’s temple at Assur, for protection.


Resources:

  • A dictionary of symbols by Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
  • A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
  • Dictionary of symbols by Chetwynd, Tom
  • A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychology by Ackroyd, Eric
  • Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western art by Hall, James
  • Dictionary of symbols and imagery by Vries, Ad de
  • Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionary by Olderr, Steven
  • Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbols by Jobes, Gertrude
  • The complete dictionary of symbols by Tresidder, Jack
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