The Story of the Labrys
Lockdown has currently put a hold on all our archiving work at the Charlotte Museum until we go back down to Level 2 or Level 1. But having a digital archive (on the museum’s website) has been a blessing towards learning something new about the collections. The red glass Leadlight Labrys from the ’80s looked like it has an extraordinary story behind it. The object came to the museum from a personal collection. It shows how symbols are a reminder of the past. It travels through time and still retains its significance.
Warriors of the past:
The labrys, also known as the double-edged axe originated in the archaeological contexts of Crete. The Minoan civilization in Crete was a largely matriarchal society, and labrys was one symbol of the Minoan Goddesses and religion. The symbol represents the female labia and also a butterfly. A ceremonial symbol in the Minoan religion had a different purpose among the Amazons.
One of the first book series that I read as a teenager was Rick Riordan’s, Percy Jackson. Trust me; this will not be a Percy Jackson rant but rather something I remembered while doing my research. The books follow Greek and Roman mythology stories, so basically war, more war, and pretty useless gods. One of the stories was of the Amazons. A group of brave women who, in the books, were the co-founders of Amazon.com. They were portrayed to be excellent in combat, hunting and were promising entrepreneurs. They worshipped the God of War and were fearless when it came to battle. The labrys was the preferred weapon of choice among these fighters. In the original Greek myths, the Amazons were described as daring female warriors who fought in the Trojan Wars and other champions like Hercules and Achilles. Everyone was aware of their existence. But were the Amazons real? Writers like Herodotus and Plato do not doubt their existence, and similar Amazon-like warrior stories have been recorded in Egypt and Asia. While the principles of the Minoan religion and the Amazons must have been different, the labrys remains to be the embodiment of the female spirit.
Warriors of the present:
In the 1970s, lesbian feminist warriors adopted the labrys as a symbol of empowerment. The labrys was envisioned as a tool that could cut through the webs of patriarchy and create a world where women could be disillusioned and actively participate in the political movement.
Sean Campbell, in 1999 designed the lesbian flag, which was purple and had the black inverted triangle and the labrys. The black inverted triangle was a symbol in the Nazi regime to identify “anti-social” people. The labrys on the flag is rather quite powerful. It represents the independence of an ancient warrior troupe and symbolizes the ongoing struggles of women in society.
Previously the labrys was used in political, social, and religious activities. I associate the use of the labrys with two things in the present-day freedom movement.
The labrys as a tool for bravery:
As mentioned earlier, we remember the past in different ways to enrich our present and future. Using the labrys as a symbol of resistance and bravery shows how we choose material culture from the past to represent the present. The lesbian feminist movement saw the ridiculous hold of patriarchy on women’s lives and demanded there be a change for a positive growing environment. Women were encouraged to support and liberate each other without the help of men. The movement also demanded more visibility of lesbian women within the mainstream feminist movement. The symbol by itself didn’t have any special powers. Women who held the labrys were powerful and fierce.
The labrys as a weapon for independence:
“Every woman who has come to consciousness can recall an almost endless series of oppressive, violating, insulting, assaulting acts against herself. Every woman is battered by such assaults - is on a psychic level, a battered woman,” says Mary Daly in her book GynEcology. With the recent law of abortion passing in Texas, we see how the state which is meant to protect people is only working on conditions that benefit a tiny community. Women are constantly empowering themselves to challenge the ridiculous patriarchal systems in place. It represents the need to accumulate facts and sources and put forward the best foot to fight against the majority. It shows the need to prepare and plan so that we never lose the fight. Amazon warriors earned their respect and dignity as they created fear in the minds of ancient heroes. They rightfully earned their place with their skills.
The essence of the labrys comes from its bearer. Once with the Amazon warriors, the labrys has become the face of a more significant cause, the fight against the patriarchy. As a consequence of it has also become integrated into lesbian culture as a symbol and is worn as a representation of strong, independent lesbian women. It has journeyed through physical combats and is now used in ideological combats. The Charlotte Museum’s logo is a labrys with two strong women wrestling each other. Their use of the labrys is assuring a safe space for memories and stories to be preserved. I find it very delightful when we use symbols of the past in our present. It also makes you wonder that what happened to these fearless, tactical horse-rider women groups. Did they disappear? Or did the controls of the majority eventually lead to lesser women coming forward and participating. The story of the labrys hence continues.
(These images of the labrys have been provided to me by the coordinator of the Charlotte Museum. I enjoy how just the symbol appears in many forms such as art, t-shirt design and jewelry. It shows that the labrys stands alone and evokes meaning because it is part of lesbian culture now.)
Annaida Varghese is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.