Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Labrys – The Symmetric Doubleheaded Axe

Posted by Fredsvenn on September 14, 2013

The axe (or ax) is an implement that has been used for millennia to shape, split and cut wood; to harvest timber; as a weapon; and as a ceremonial or heraldic symbol. The axe has many forms and specialised uses but generally consists of an axe head with a handle, or helve.

Before the modern axe, the stone-age hand axe was used from 1.5 million years BP without a handle. It was later fastened to a wooden handle. The earliest examples of handled axes have heads of stone with some form of wooden handle attached (hafted) in a method to suit the available materials and use. Axes made of copper, bronze, iron, steel appeared as these technologies developed.

Initially axes were probably not hafted (see hand axe). The first true hafted axes are known from the Mesolithic period (ca. 6000 BC). Axes made from ground stone are known since the Neolithic. Few wooden hafts have been found from this period, but it seems that the axe was normally hafted by wedging. Birch-tar and raw-hide lashings were used to fix the blade.

From the late Neolithic/Chalcolithic onwards, axes were made of copper or copper mixed with arsenic. These axes were flat and hafted much like their stone predecessors. Axes continued to be made in this manner with the introduction of Bronze metallurgy. Eventually the hafting method changed and the flat axe developed into the ‘flanged axe,’ then palstaves, and later winged and socketed axes.

The Proto-Indo-European word for “axe” may have been pelek’u- (Greek pelekus πέλεκυς, Sanskrit parashu, see also Parashurama), but the word was probably a loan, or a Neolithic wanderwort, ultimately related to Sumerian balag, Akkadian pilaku- .

At least since the late Neolithic, elaborate axes (battle-axes, T-axes, etc.) had a religious significance and probably indicated the exalted status of their owner. Certain types almost never show traces of wear; deposits of unshafted axe blades from the middle Neolithic (such as at the Somerset Levels in Britain) may have been gifts to the deities.

A common weapon was the shaft-hole copper battle-ax, of a type also found in central and northern Europe. There is evidence that the distribution of this weapon resulted from a migration of horse-riding folk, the so-called Battle-Ax people, who spread Indo-European speech. Their place of origin is not certain, but it was more probably in the east than in the west of their area of spread.

The roots of Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, a Neolithic–Eneolithic archaeological culture which existed from approximately 4800 to 3000 BC, from the Carpathian Mountains to the Dniester and Dnieper regions in modern-day Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, encompassing an area of more than 35,000 km2 (14,000 sq mi), can be found in the Starčevo-Körös-Criș and Vinča cultures of the 6th to 5th millennia, with additional influence from the Bug-Dniester culture (6500-5000 BC).

During the early period of its existence (in the 5th millennium BC), the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture was also influenced by the Linear Pottery culture from the north, and by the Boian-Giulesti culture from the south. Through colonization and acculturation from these other cultures, the formative Precucuteni/Trypillia A culture was established.

Over the course of the fifth millennium, the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture expanded from its ‘homeland’ in the Prut-Siret region along the eastern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains into the basins and plains of the Dnieper and Southern Bug rivers of central Ukraine. Settlements also developed in the southeastern stretches of the Carpathian Mountains, with the materials known locally as the Ariuşd culture.

Most of the settlements were located close to rivers, with fewer settlements located on the plateaus. Most early dwellings took the form of pit houses, though they were accompanied by an ever-increasing incidence of above-ground clay houses. The floors and hearths of these structures were made of clay, and the walls of clay-plastered wood or reeds. Roofing was made of thatched straw or reeds. As with the Sredny Stog culture the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture had Axes, including double-headed axes, hammer axes and possible battle axes.

The Sredny Stog culture, which had contact with the agricultural Cucuteni-Trypillian culture in the west and was a contemporary of the Khvalynsk culture, was a pre-kurgan archaeological culture, named after the Dnieper river islet of Seredny Stih where it was first located, dating from the 5th millennium BC. It was situated across the Dnieper river on both its shores, with sporadic settlements to the west and east.

In its three largest cemeteries, Alexandria (39 individuals), Igren (17) and Dereivka (14), evidence of inhumation in flat graves (ground level pits) has been found. This parallels the practise of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, and is in contrast with the later Yamna culture, which practiced tumuli burials, according to the Kurgan hypothesis.

In Sredny Stog culture, the deceased were laid to rest on their backs with the legs flexed. The use of ochre in the burial was practiced, as with the kurgan cultures. For this and other reasons, Yuri Rassamakin suggests that the Sredny Stog culture should be considered as an areal term, with at least four distinct cultural elements co-existing inside the same geographical area.

The expert Dmytro Telegin has divided the chronology of Sredny Stog into two distinct phases. Phase II (ca. 4000–3500 BC) used corded ware pottery which may have originated there, and stone battle-axes of the type later associated with expanding Indo-European cultures to the West. Most notably, it has perhaps the earliest evidence of horse domestication (in phase II), with finds suggestive of cheek-pieces (psalia).

In the context of the modified Kurgan hypothesis of Marija Gimbutas, this pre-kurgan archaeological culture could represent the Urheimat (homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language. The culture ended at around 3500 BC, when Yamna culture expanded westward replacing Sredny Stog, and coming into direct contact with the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture in the western Ukraine.

The Funnel(-neck-)beaker culture, short TRB or TBK from (German) Trichter(-rand-)becherkultur (ca 4300 BC–ca 2800 BC) was an archaeological culture in north-central Europe. The culture used Battle Axes which were stone versions of Central Europe’s copper axes. The culture imported copper from Central Europe, especially daggers and axes. The early versions were multi-angled, and the later are called double-edged, although one of the edges is more rounded.

TRB developed as a technological merger of local neolithic and mesolithic techno-complexes between the lower Elbe and middle Vistula rivers, introducing farming and husbandry as a major source of food to the pottery-using hunter-gatherers north of this line.

Preceded by Lengyel-influenced STK groups/Late Lengyel and Baden-Boleraz in the southeast, Rössen groups in the southwest and the Ertebølle-Ellerbek groups in the north, the TRB techno-complex is divided into a northern group including modern northern eastalbingian Germany and southern Scandinavia (TRB-N, roughly the area that previously belonged to the Ertebølle-Ellerbek complex), a western group between Zuiderzee and lower Elbe, an eastern group centered around the Vistula catchment, roughly ranging from Oder to Bug, and south-central groups (TRB-MES, Altmark) around the middle and upper Elbe and Saale.

Especially in the southern and eastern groups, local sequences of variants emerged. In the late 4th millennium BC, the Globular Amphora culture (KAK) replaced most of the eastern and subsequently also the southern TRB groups, reducing the TRB area to modern northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. The younger TRB in these areas was superseded by the Single Grave culture (EGK) at about 2800 BC. The north-central European megaliths were built primarily during the TRB era.

In the context of the Kurgan hypothesis, the culture is seen as non-Indo-European, representing the culture of what Marija Gimbutas termed Old Europe, the peoples of which were later to be governed by the Indo-European-language-speaking peoples (see Yamna culture) intruding from the east. The political relation between the aboriginal and intrusive cultures resulted in quick and smooth cultural morphosis into Corded Ware culture.

Heterodoxically, Dutch publications mention mixed burials and propose a quick and smooth internal change to Corded Ware within two generations occurring about 2900 BC in Dutch and Danish TRB territory, probably precluded by economic, cultural and religious changes in East Germany, and call the migrationist view of steppe intrusions introducing Indo-European languages obsolete (at least in this part of the world). It is more likely that Indo-European languages were adopted by local populations because they represented a new way of life, bringing with them horses and cattle and the status they represented.

It has been suggested that the Funnelbeaker culture was the origin of the gene allowing adults of Northern European descent to digest lactose. It was claimed that in the area formerly inhabited by this culture, prevalence of the gene is virtually universal.

A paper published in 2007 by Burger et al. indicated that the genetic variant that causes lactase persistence in most Europeans (-13,910*T) was rare or absent in early farmers from central Europe. A study published by Yuval Itan and colleagues in 2010 clearly shows this. A study published in 2009, also by Itan et al., suggests that the Linear Pottery culture (also known as Linearbandkeramik or LBK), which preceded the TRB culture by some 1,500 years, was the culture in which this trait started to co-evolve with the culture of dairying.

Ancient DNA extracted from three individuals ascribed to a TRB horizon in Gökhem, Sweden, were found to possess mtDNA haplogroups H, J, and T.

The culture is named for its characteristic ceramics, beakers and amphorae with funnel-shaped tops, which were probably used for drinking. One find assigned to the Funnelbeaker culture is the Bronocice pot, which shows the oldest known depiction of a wheeled vehicle (here, a 2-axled, 4-wheeled wagon). The pot dates to approximately 3500 BC.

The houses were centered around a monumental grave, a symbol of social cohesion. Burial practices were varied, depending on region and changed over time. Inhumation seems to have been the rule.

The oldest graves consisted of wooden chambered cairns inside long barrows, but were later made in the form of passage graves and dolmens. Originally, the structures were probably covered with a heap of dirt and the entrance was blocked by a stone.

The Funnelbeaker culture marks the appearance of megalithic tombs at the coasts of the Baltic and of the North sea, an example of which are the Sieben Steinhäuser in northern Germany. The megalithic structures of Ireland, France and Portugal are somewhat older and have been connected to earlier archeological cultures of those areas.

The graves were probably not intended for every member of the settlement, but for only an elite. At graves, the people sacrificed ceramic vessels that probably contained food, and axes and other flint objects.

Axes and vessels were also deposed in streams and lakes near the farmlands, and virtually all Sweden’s 10,000 flint axes that have been found from this culture were probably sacrificed in water.

They also constructed large cult centres surrounded by pales, earthworks and moats. The largest one is found at Sarup on Fyn. Another cult centre at Stävie near Lund.

The Labrys is the doubleheaded axe, known to the Classical Greeks as pelekus) but which predated the arrival of the Hellenes in the Aegean world. Representations of the labrys are on Neolithic finds of “Old Europe”, and the labrys is continued in Minoan Thracian, Greek (and Byzantine) art and mythology. It also appears in African mythology. Today, it is sometimes used as a symbol associated with female and matristic power.

The Labrys or Double Axe, is an over-determined, many layered symbol that Carl Jung believed was an archetype, an indelible marker of the Great Mother myth, in the Psyche of every human being, male and female. The Labrys is not a weapon, and it is of equal psychological importance to men and women. The “battle-axes” were primarily a status object.

Labrys is the term for a symmetric doubleheaded axe. The double-bitted axe remains a forestry tool to this day, and the labrys certainly functioned as a tool and hewing axe before it was invested with symbolic function.

The Labrys is a double-sided hatchet or axe, which, in accordance with archaeological data, was widely used in ancient Europe, Africa and Asia as both a battle weapon and harvesting tool. It can be said with some certainty that “the Labrys peoples” had a large ethnic, social, and cultural inheritance from the hunters-fishers of the forest cultures.

The motives of the Labrys are found in ceramic ornaments of the Bronze Age agricultural societies of different geographical locations. This symbol is Typical for the art of Neolithic “Old Europe”, for Minoan, Thracian, Greek (and Byzantine) art and mythology. It played a significant ritual role in the ancient Mediterranean region and was closely connected with the cult of the Mother Goddess.

Plutarch relates the word labrys with a Lydian word for axe. This was a cult-word that was introduced from Anatolia, where such symbols have been found in Catal Huyuk from the neolithic age. Similar symbols have been found on plates of Linear pottery culture in Romania. Clay miniature axes (axes, hammers or double axes) belonging to this period have been found.

In 1998 a labrys, complete with an elaborately embellished haft, was found at Cham-Eslen, Canton of Zug, Switzerland. The haft was 120 cm long and wrapped in ornamented birch-bark. The axe blade is 17.4 cm long and made of antigorite, mined in the Gotthard-area. The haft goes through a biconical drilled hole and is fastened by wedges of antler and by birch-tar. It belongs to the early Cortaillod culture.

The Cortaillod culture is one of several archaeologically defined cultures belonging to the Neolithic period of Switzerland. The Cortaillod Culture in the west of the region is contemporary with the Pfyn Culture in the east and dates from between 3900-3500 BC. The Classic Cortaillod Culture of the western Alpine foreland and the Early Cortaillod Culture of central Switzerland pre-date this at 4300-3900 BC.

V. Danilenko, analyzing in his work “Kosmogony of Prehistorical Societies” spiral ornaments, which were widely used to decorate ceramic pots of the Early Bronze Age agricultural European societies, describes a basic ornamental motive of the double-edged axe.

The Labrys is used in the ornaments in close connection with the sun disk, “earthy” motives of an ox, and such symbols of the sky as a bird and dragon. In many patterns, the Labrys seems to untite all those symbolic elements together. In some pots, the Labrys also has a additional element of “eyes”, painted on its edges, which is interpreted by V. Danilenko as one more association with the sky and the solar cult. The motives of the ceramic ornaments of the Tripol culture seem to be tightly related to those of ancient Crete, where the similar symbolism is observed.

In Minoan Crete, the double axe (labrys) had a special significance, used by women priests in religious ceremonies. And the symbol refers to deification ceremonies; part of the leaping over the bull symbol also found at Crete; whereby aspirant becomes able to speak as a God to create any reality; the symbol being really a sky map.

The Minoan civilization features a flying anthropomorfal Labrys with its head in a form of a shining solar disk: Thus, the Labrys, as a cosmic and, in some cases, solar symbol, which connects together opposite elements of earth and sky, is a typical motive of art on the ceramic ornaments of Crete, Tripol, and other cultures. The Labrys seems to compose a core of their symbolic plot, being a basic character directly connected with the sun, which reflects some important functions between the sun and the sky.

In the Near East and other parts of the region, eventually axes of this sort are often wielded by male divinities and appear to become symbols of the thunderbolt. Labrys may be associated with an archaic symbol of the thunder deity whom as storm gods wield their thunder weapons and are found in some motifs of Indo-European mythology.

Teshub was the Hurrian god of sky and storm. He was derived from the Hattian Taru. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun, although this name is from the Hittite root *tarh- “to defeat, conquer”.

Teshub is depicted holding a triple thunderbolt and a weapon, usually an axe (often double-headed) or mace. The sacred bull common throughout Anatolia was his signature animal, represented by his horned crown or by his steeds Seri and Hurri, who drew his chariot or carried him on their backs.

In the Hurrian schema, Teshub was paired with Hebat the mother goddess; in the Hittite, with the sun goddess Arinniti of Arinna—a cultus of great antiquity which has similarities with the venerated bulls and mothers at Çatalhöyük in the Neolithic era. His son was called Sarruma, the mountain god.

The double-axe accompanies the Hurrian god of sky and storm Teshub. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun. Both are depicted holding a triple thunderbolt, and a double axe on the other hand. Similarly, Zeus throws his Keravnos to bring storm. The labrys, or pelekys, is the double axe Zeus uses to invoke storm, and the relative modern Greek word for lightning is star-axe.

In feminist interpretations however, it is interpreted as a symbol of the Mother Goddess, and especially as the symbol of matriarchy, or of a butterfly.

Labrys symbolism is found in Minoan, Thracian, and Greek religion, mythology, and art, dating from the Middle Bronze Age onwards, and surviving in the Byzantine Empire.

It seems natural to interpret names of Carian sanctuaries like Labranda in the most literal sense as the place of the sacred labrys, which was the Lydian (or Carian) name for the Greek, or double-edged axe. In Labraunda of Caria the double-axe accompanies the storm-god Zeus Labraundos.

On Greek coins of the classical period (e.g. Pixodauros, etc.) a type of Zeus venerated at Labraunda in Caria that numismatists call Zeus Labraundeus (Ζεὺς Λαβρανδεύς) stands with a tall lotus-tipped sceptre upright in his left hand and the double-headed axe over his right shoulder.

In the context of the Classical Greek myth of Theseus, the labyrinth of Greek mythology is frequently associated with the Minoan palace of Knossos and has a long tradition of use that extends before any written records explain the traditions.

The word labyrinthos (Mycenaean daburintos) is probably connected with the word labrys. In the context of the myth of Theseus, the labyrinth of Greek mythology is frequently associated with the Minoan palace of Knossos.

In historical times, the priests of Delphi were called Labryaden, “the double-axe men”, which indicates Minoan origin. The double-axe, labrys, was the holy symbol of the Cretan labyrinth.

Britomartis, also known as Diktynna (“hunting nets”), was the Minoan goddess of mountains and hunting. The oldest aspect of the Cretan goddess was as Mother of Mountains, who appears on Minoan seals with the demonic features of a Gorgon, accompanied by the double-axes of power and gripping divine snakes. Her terror-inspiring aspect was softened by calling her Britomartis, the “good virgin”, a euphemism to allay her dangerous aspect.

She is among the Minoan goddess figures that passed through the Mycenaeans’ culture into classical Greek mythology, with transformations that are unclear in both transferrals. The goddess addressed as “Britomartis” was worshipped in Crete as an aspect of Potnia, the “Mistress”. For the Greeks, Britomartis was a mountain nymph (an oread) whom Greeks recognized also in Artemis and in Aphaea, the “invisible” patroness of Aegina.

Herakles, having slain Hippolyte and taken her axe with the rest of her arms, gave it to Omphale. The kings of Lydia who succeeded her carried this as one of their sacred insignia of office, and passed it down from father to son until Candaules. Candaules, however, disdained it and gave it to one of his companions to carry.

When Gyges rebelled and was making war upon Candaules, Arselis came with a force from Mylasa to the assistance of Gyges, slew Candaules and his companion, and took the axe to Caria with the other spoils of war. And having set up a statue of Zeus, he put the axe in his hand and called the god, “Labrandeus,” labrys being the Lydian word for ‘axe’.

Archeology suggests that the veneration of Zeus Labraundeos at Labraunda was far older than Plutarch imagined. Like its apparent cognate “labyrinth”, the word entered the Greek language as a loanword, so that its etymology, and even its original language, is not positively known. The loanword labyrinth was used in Greek, but the designation “The house of the Double Axe” for the palace at Knossos is an imaginative modern innovation.

The labrys symbol has been found widely in the Bronze Age archaeological recovery at the Palace of Knossos on Crete. The word labyrinth, which the Greeks used for the palace of Knossos is derived from “labrys”. However the designation “The house of the Double Axe” cannot be limited to the palace of Knossos, because the same symbols were discovered in other palaces of Crete.

In Crete the symbol always accompanies female divinities and it was probably the symbol of the arche of the creation (Mater-arche:matriarchy). In Crete, the symbol of the double-axe always accompanies goddesses, and it seems that it was the symbol of the beginning (arche) of the creation.

Sometimes the double-axe is combined with the sacral-knot which seems that was a symbol of holiness. Such symbols have been found in Crete, and also on some goldrings from Mycenae.

In the Mycenaean context, the labrys has a wide range of sizes, from miniature forms to giant forms that measure 1.20 meters. However, the labrys site is frequently associated with the moon and can be a symbol of a goddess of vegetation, the forerunner of Demeter, who, on Mycenaean seals, is found under a tree. The goddess has an ax in her hand and receives as gifts poppies and fruits.

Of all the Minoan religious symbols, the axe was the holiest. The term, and the symbol, is most closely associated in historical records with the Minoan civilization, which reached its peak in the 2nd millennium BC, and specifically with the worship of a Goddess.

Some Minoan labrys have been found which are taller than a man and which might have been used during sacrifices. The sacrifices would likely have been of bulls. In feminist interpretations (particularly by Marija Gimbutas), it is also interpreted as a symbol of the Mother Goddess and compared to the shape of a butterfly rather than an axe.

According to archaeological finds on Crete this double-axe was used specifically by Minoan priestesses for ceremonial uses. It seems that the goddess of the double-axe presided over the Minoan palaces, and especially over the palace of Knossos.

A Linear B inscription on tablet Gg702 found in Knossos, was interpreted “da-pu-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja= labynthoio potnoiai” ( to the Mistress of the labyrinth), and she was undoubtedly the goddess of the palace.

The word labyrinthos (Mycenaean daburinthos) is probably connected with the word labrys. In the Linear B (Mycenean Greek) script a symbol similar to a double-axe represents the phonetic sign a .

Several double axes were found at the Arkalochori cave in Crete, with inscriptions in the Linear A script. A golden axe assumed to be from Alkalochori is now exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Among the double axes, the second-millennium bronze Arkalochori Axe with an inscription was excavated by Marinatos in 1934. It has been suggested that these might be Linear A but it seems that “the characters on the axe are no more than a ‘pseudo-inscription* engraved by an illiterate in uncomprehending imitation of authentic Linear A characters on other similar axes.”

On Greek vase paintings, a labrys sometimes appears in scenes of animal sacrifice, particularly as a weapon for the slaying of bulls. Some Minoan labrys have been found which are taller than a human and which might have been used during sacrifices. The sacrifices would likely have been of bulls.

The labrys is one of the oldest symbols of Greek civilization; to the Romans, it was known as a bipennis. It should be noted that the priests at Delphi in classical Greece were called Labryades (the men of the double axe).

On the “Perseus Vase” in Berlin (F1704; ca 570–560 BC), Hephaestus ritually flees his act of slicing open the head of Zeus to free Athena whose pregnant mother Zeus swallowed to prevent her offspring from dethroning him. Over the shoulder of Hephaestus is the instrument he has used, the double-headed axe. The more usual double-headed instrument of Hephaestus is the double-headed smith’s hammer so the symbolism is important.

Zeus swallowing the goddess symbolized the progressive suppression of the earlier traditional religious beliefs, symbolically dethroning the goddess, Metis, but allowing Athene (her daughter) to be “born” of Zeus because her worship was so pervasive and widespread that it could not be suppressed. That is likely the reason the labrys was depicted as the instrument used by Hephaestus (who much earlier had been a consort of the Earth goddess) to release Athene.

The double-axe also appears in Thracian art. On the Aleksandrovo kurgan fresco, a Thracian burial mound and tomb excavated near Aleksandrovo, Haskovo Province, South-Eastern Bulgaria, dated to c. 4th century BC., it is probably wielded by Zalmoxis.

The fresco in the main chamber depicts a hunting scene where a boar is attacked by a mounted hunter and a naked man wielding a double-axe. The double-axe is interpreted as representing royal power, the naked man as representing Zalmoxis, the Thracian solar god corresponding to Zeus.

A battle axe (also battle-axe or battle-ax) is an axe specifically designed for combat. Battle axes were specialized versions of utility axes. Many were suitable for use in one hand, while others were larger and were deployed two-handed.

The Corded Ware culture (in Middle Europe c. 2900 – 2450/2350 cal. BC), alternatively characterized as the Battle Axe culture or Single Grave culture, is an enormous European archaeological horizon that begins in the late Neolithic (Stone Age), flourishes through the Copper Age and culminates in the early Bronze Age.

Corded Ware culture is associated with some of the Indo-European family of languages by many scholars and believed to be related to the Catacomb culture.

Around 2400 BC the people of the Corded Ware replaced their predecessors and expanded to Danubian and Nordic areas of western Germany. One related branch invaded Denmark and southern Sweden, while the mid-Danubian basin, though showing more continuity, shows also clear traits of new Indo-European elites (Vučedol culture).

It receives its name Corded Ware from the ornamentation of its characteristic pottery, Single Grave from its burial custom, and Battle Axe from its characteristic grave offering to males, a stone battle axe (which was by this time an inefficient weapon but a traditional status symbol).

The culture was the first to introduce corded pottery decorations into the steppes and shows a profuse use of the polished battle axe, providing a link to the West.

The Labrys – Semiotic Analysis

Iron Labrys found at ancient Thracian residence

Kiss My Axe – The History of the Ancient Labrys

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