Sunday, 31 January 2010

Goddess With An Axe!

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.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Working Women With Axes!

Let's not forget sometimes an axe is just an axe.

Friday, 29 January 2010


Axes have been around for a good eight thousand years or so.

Chances are good some woman somewhere killed someone with one soon after they showed up on the scene - but the first female axe murderer that I'm aware of is Clytemnestra -- figure of Greek myth, offspring of perhaps the all-time weird sex scene: that of Zeus (that's the King of the Gods, Zeus) seducing and/or raping her mortal mother Leda while disguised as a swan.

Later that night, Leda goes for seconds with her husband Tyndareus (King of Sparta at the time); this sperm-filled freakfest resulted in four children, borne of 'two eggs': Clytemnestra and Castor were Tyndareus' and therefore mortal, Helen and Polydeuces were Zeus' and therefore immortal. You can perhaps see where our heroine got a bum steer - not only was she not immortal like one brother & sister (and her human brother Castor got to be half-immortal later on too), but her sister Helen was considered nothing less than the most beautiful woman in the world.

Clytemnestra grows up and marries Tantalus (King of Lydia). Hubby #1's second cousin was Agamemnon (King of Argos and/or Mycenae), a nice enough guy when played by Sean Connery in Time Bandits sure, but he kills cousin Tantalus and takes Clytemnestra to be his wife. So again, not a nice deal for her.

And things aren't getting better for Clytemnestra just yet either. Husband #2 Agamemnon goes on to lead the Greeks during the Trojan War - the war to win her sister Helen back from the Trojans, remember - and during this war he has their daughter Iphigeneia sent out to him on the pretext of her marrying Achilles (played by Brad Pitt in Troy, you may recall), only to then kill her as a way of getting the weather to improve.

So it's hard to fault Clytemnestra back at home for hooking up with Aegisthus. This guy's mother was also his sister, and after he was born she abandoned him, forcing him to suck at a goat's titty just to survive. I'm guessing he had some issues also. Anyways, when hubby #2 finally got back home from the Trojan War, Aegisthus gave Clytemnestra the head's up and she decapitated Agamemnon and his new Trojan ho Cassandra with an axe* (I'd like to say she didn't see it coming).

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon had other children besides meteorological human sacrifice Iphigeneia; among these was a boy, Orestes, and the original Daddy's girl, Electra. Now, these two weren't too thrilled about their mother having killed their father (even though their father had killed their mother's first husband), and you can probably guess where this is going -- these two bad seeds get together with mutual sex-toy (and Agamemnon's nephew) Pylades and the three decide to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

They show up at the couple's place and make short work of Aegisthus. Clytemnestra is told by her servants of his death and declares, "bring me my man-killing axe" - an awesome line that portends more female axe chopping and bloody action. Sadly, things go the other way, she doesn't get her hands on the axe, and Orestes kills her too - but not she before curses him old-school. After killing his mom, Orestes finds himself hounded by Furies. In the end, the only thing that'll set things right is bathing in pig's blood at the Temple of Delphi.

*I should note that some scholars believe axe is an incorrect translation and that Clytemnestra used a sword. Axe is better though, all the way. Let's just go with axe.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Woman With An Axe!

There's just something about a woman with an axe.

Why is that? What is so special about this image, this idea? I hope to reveal something of the answer over the next week or so with a series of posts on a few different subjects having to do with those ladies and their axes --

On the one hand, the axe has a utilitarian role in many women's day-to-day lives; on the other, it's a common weapon in the fantasy of warrior women art. The historic case of Lizzie Borden is of course impossible to escape in any such analysis - indeed, the commonality of the axe as a weapon in murders committed by women is one key to its fascination. The axe as religious symbol, the axe as power symbol, the axe as sexual symbol - why, I'll even toss in some axe-throwing, what the heck.

I hope you will join me in celebrating this potent image of woman and axe.