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The Secret Identity of the Labrys

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

When I tell people I follow a Minoan spiritual path, one comment that regularly comes up involves “those massive double-axe weapons.” Sometimes Wiccans will compare the labrys to the athame or the coven sword – a strong, sharp weapon that’s meant to signify the practitioner’s will, strength, passion and so on. But that’s not an accurate comparison. Yes, there have been cultures that used double-bladed axes as weapons, and very effective ones at that. And we know the Minoans made all sorts of bronze weapons for export; they may have been the world’s first major arms dealers, even though they probably had no military of their own.

But if you look carefully at the actual labyrses found in the ruins on Crete, the first thing you notice is that they’re incredibly flimsy. They are made of sheet metal, either gold or gold-plated, that’s not much thicker than tinfoil. Honestly, you could crumple most of them with your bare hands. That doesn’t strike me as a way to make a weapon.

So if the labrys is not a weapon, what on earth is it?

It is a representation of wings. Specifically, it is a butterfly. Carol Christ came very close to this idea in a blog post she made a couple of years ago. She understood the idea of wings, but she assumed wings meant ‘bird’ since birds are a prominent symbol of the divine in Minoan art.

If you look carefully at the overall shape of the labrys, you’ll see that it does not mimic a bird’s wings at all but it does a remarkable job of looking like a butterfly, down to the ‘body’ section in the middle. So why would the Minoans want to use giant butterfly symbols as the focal point for their worship? Because of the wonderful, layered, magical symbolism of the butterfly. Let’s look at those layers.

First there’s the basic transformation that every school child knows about, from egg to caterpillar through the cocoon stage to the butterfly. Nature is magic! Now consider that the Minoans, like many other people in the pre-Abrahamic world, did not think of death as evil but simply as another phase of existence. To them, death was just a transformation from one state of being to another. They believed that people continued to exist after death, in the Underworld (the land of the Ancestors), guided and guarded by the Melissae and by Ariadne herself, who was, among other things, a psychopomp for her people. The Minoans honored the Ancestors at their harvest festival every year and spoke to them through the priesthood. The dead were not forgotten; in fact, they were not even gone, just transformed.

Butterflies have long signified the human soul in cultures around the world. As I googled my way around the internet to research this blog post, I was amazed to discover that these beautiful insects are still linked with the beloved dead today, and in a truly unique way: they often appear as a sign of after-death communication from loved ones. The Ancestors are always with us, as the Minoans would have said.

There’s one more layer of symbolism to the labrys that brings the process full circle. In addition to looking like a butterfly, the labrys looks like a vulva – the external female genitalia. The ‘wings’ are the labia and the ‘butterfly body’ in the center is the clitoris. Why is this important? Because it is through the vulva that we are born into this world. The butterfly is the soul and the vulva is the gateway through which it enters the world, to return to incarnation among the beloved.

You can look for further symbolism, if you like, in the pole that many labryses were mounted on. A pole that is inserted into a vulva – what do you think that might be? While the Victorian-era archaeologists who dug up the ancient ruins on Crete might have been titillated by this idea, we should recognize that to the Minoans, sexuality was sacred and was regarded with respect, not embarrassment.

The metal labryses that adorned the shrines and temples may have been mounted on poles but there are many more representations of labryses that are ‘poleless,’ especially on pottery. You can see a number of different labryses, both made of metal and painted on ceramics, on my Ancient Minoans Pinterest board.

So the next time you see a labrys, instead of picturing some ancient warrior wielding it, try imagining it coming to life and taking flight, its butterfly wings flashing gold in the sunlight, reminding you that there is more to life than first meets the eye.

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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