The axe in ancient myth and religion (in the case of matriarchal religions and myth, usually a double-axe or labrys) is a subject so vast it would take an entire book (or blog) to do the matter any justice. Out of necessity then, this is just the briefest of overviews, a few relevant quotations, some pictures, and a bunch of links for those interested in looking further.
Oddly enough, the word labrys may have originated in Lydia - which you might recall was the kingdom that Clytemnestra's first husband reigned over (the labrys was associated with her 'stepfather' Zeus as well). Others say it may have come from further east, making its way from Caria to Crete and the Minoans.
Whatever the case, the image of the labrys predated actual axes of this kind - used for farming and harvesting as well as for sacrifice - by about 2,000 years. Its design may originate with the butterfly, symbolic of its regenerative powers (and of the moon and its phases, and perhaps even of the labia).
The Minoan civilization is that most readily associated with the double-axe, and by the time of the Middle Minoans, those labrys were showing up all over the place - some as high as nine feet tall, some made from gold, some strictly decorative, some likely used to sacrifice bulls (the word labyrinth derives from labrys). The labrys proved a durable symbol, and was thereafter taken up by Greek, Etruscan, Gaul, Druid, and Nordic peoples.
From Nobuo Komita's 'Notes on the Tutelary Goddess Athena' (1983) -
The double-axe is the earliest religious object found in cave sanctuaries of the Early Minoan period. Interestingly, the double-axe appeared always in the hands of a goddess and never held by a male deity. Since the double-axe was an important religious object... obviously the female deity played a dominant part in Minoan Crete... The double-axe might have acquired the sanctity from its use killing the sacrificial animal; however, the origin of the axe may be found in Old Europe. As Gimbutas suggested, the double-axe might have been the epiphany of the goddess in the form of a butterfly... Originally, the appearance of the double-axe was not associated with the axe, because the prototype of the double-axe emerged several thousand years earlier than the appearance of metal axes. The butterfly represents the goddess of regeneration together with the chrysalis.
Goddesses and other female mythic figures associated with the axe include: the ubiquitous Mother Goddess, the well-known but unnamed Cretan nature or snake goddess, Dictynna, Elaia, Lousia, Freya, Shango, Skeggjöld (a Valkyrie whose name meant "Axe Time"!!), Circe, Kybele, Ishtar, the Amazons (who were said to use a variation of this axe called a sagaris), Shiva, Kali, Puruhutika Devi, Grismadevi, Gaea, Rhea, Demeter, and Artemis. It's also worthy of note that in Ancient Egyptian, the hieroglyph for God ("Neter") looks like an axe ("the very word for God, the determinative word, is a symbol of an Axe, because the Axe represented the sort of swift, effective force that the action of divinity was").
The labrys was taken up as a symbol of power and empowerment in the 20th century by feminist, lesbian, new age, and pagan groups. Feminist writer and theologian Mary Daly (who just passed away a month ago) popularized this re-appraisal of the double-axe decades ago now; in 1984 she said --
"we often refer to the labrys as a feminist symbol. . . . an image that points beyond itself to deep Reality. When we activate its Metaphoric Potential, however, we whirl it, hurl our Selves with it. As Metaphor it carries us into new Realms, and it changes our perceptions, our be-ing. Used metaphorically, it is an instrument of change, of Metamorphosis. Flying with it, we shift from circular reasoning to Spiraling E-motional knowing and action".
D J Conway -
The labrys ("lip"), or double-headed axe, was the central ritual symbol and tool prominent in the Cretan region, and was carried only by women. We find this same feminine attachment and reverence for the labrys in the later Amazonian cultures. It is found in Paleolithic cave paintings.
The labrys is symbol of the female labia at the entrance of the womb and the butterfly, which is connected with rebirth. The double axe is also associated with the even more ancient hourglass figure of the Goddess. When mounted between cattle horns, the labrys was the holiest of Goddess symbols. The matriarchal Cretans made the double axe in all sizes, from delicate jewelry to nine foot tall specimens which stood at the ends of altars. This symbol also marked the entrance to Goddess sanctuaries.
The labrys was a feminine only ceremonial weapon, also used by women in agricultural working and battle.
The two heads symbolize the waxing and waning Moons. The labrys design is found on matriarchal murals and mosaics, pottery, seals, and amulets. It was exclusively a symbol of the Great Goddess, until part of its symbolism was later transferred to the Nordic god Thor.