My Labrys, My Self
Every time I put it on, it is cold. A small piece of metal, a double-sided axe. A skinny black rubber necklace suspends it around my neck; it nestles between my breasts. Originally from Crete in Greece, the labrys is an adopted icon of lesbians. Minoan people shaped the double-sided axe for daily use and wielded it for power. Among the ancients, the labrys was associated with female divinities. Among the lesbians who adopted it during the 1970s, it symbolized women’s power. I recall as a younger woman imagining Amazon’s wielding it in battle; this image was purely imaginative.
When I first came out, I remember seeing labryses hanging around women's necks. Dangling from long thick silver chains or hanging at the bottom of black, skinny leather ropes, the Labrys was one of those symbols that only other lesbians recognized. One could wear a labrys without revealing oneself as a lesbian, unlike the other, equally popular, double women's symbol, which, upon scrutiny by friends, family, or curious bystanders, revealed itself immediately as lesbian. The labrys suggested both lesbian power and, when necessary, lesbian anonymity, an important attribute in hostile environments.
As a young woman, I wanted to wear a labrys. Two things stopped me. The sterling silver ones were expensive on my college student budget. I never could quite bring myself to spend the $100-$150 for a large labrys, and a large one was the kind I wanted. If I was going to wear a labrys, I did not want a small, inobtrusive one. I wanted a labrys that announced itself as dykey. Though that conscious announcement with a large labrys was the second stumbling block: I never quite felt enough like a dyke to buy a labrys and wear it publicly with defiance. I feared I would wear a battle symbol when I was not yet tested, when I had not yet proven my mettle as a battle-surviving dyke. I worried that wearing a labrys would feel false or worse demonstrate hubris. What if I wore a labrys and then, when confronted with battle, crumbled? What if I wore a labrys and then never survived life’s hardships, earning the right to wear one as a battle-tested dyke?
All around me, women wore them. At the Michigan Womyn 's Music Festival, I would see that glint of silver swinging between women's naked breasts as they walked the land. At the feminist bookstores, some women would wear one on short chains, ringing their necks. The labrys would sit right between their breast bones, an amulet of protection from a homophobic world, a statement of defiance to a world hostile to lesbians. Other women would wear them on longer chains, the double-sided hatchet bouncing between their pendulous breasts. Some women wore them as earrings—two hanging from each lobe, proudly announcing dykeyness. Each time I saw one, I wanted one. I wanted a labrys, though more than the silver object, I wanted the strength, the power, the defiance that the labrys suggested. More than the symbol, I wanted the life of these lesbians, their proud bodies, their battle-worn grit, their determined survival.
In recent years, the labrys has fallen out of fashion. I rarely see a lesbian wearing one. Even at the last Michigan festival, I did not see the usual silver or gold labryses adorning women’s bodies; it seemed there were even fewer labrys tattoos on women's backs and calves and arms. The labrys—even the double womon’s symbol—seems replaced by flags and triangles, by co-gendered solidarity. I support, even celebrate, these symbols. We must cast our lot together, especially as we prepare for the next rounds of backlash, of hatred, of violence, of oppression against queers. Symbols—rainbow flag, pink and black triangles—provide a touchstone for defiance when suppression is at hand.
I miss the labrys. Perhaps women do not need the superpower of a coded symbol any longer; yet perhaps the labrys is more important than ever. At midlife, I find myself wearing a labrys. It is silver. It measures about one inch from top to bottom, perhaps three quarters of an inch across. It is neither finely nor elaborately decorated, but has ornamental flourishes. The handle is wound with two pieces of silver at the base. The center, between the two blades, has two triangles made by dots and a rectangle. There is a maker’s mark on the back of the hatchet.
The silver is not clean and shiny yet neither is it blackened. I could probably clean it, but I am waiting to see if the oil and moisture from my skin will shine it and add to the patina. The provenance of this particular labrys is meaningful; it is not a labrys that I purchased new. It is a labrys given to me by a step-son while cleaning out a lesbian family home.
If you have cleaned someone’s home after their death, you know how large and overwhelming such a project is. Look around your own home, all your favorite objects, the things that surround you on a daily basis, things with meaning to you, things that have particularly utility, either daily or at different times during the year. Now imagine you have died (an imagining no one likes, one our body viscerally rejects). When your family or friends come to clear out your possessions, these meanings of your special objects will not be evident. The utility of your items will not impress them. They will have their own mops for their floors, their own knick-knacks for their shelves, their own library of books. Much of what you own is destined, after death, for a landfill, the recycle bin, a thrift store. So the fact that this labrys was rescued from such a fate, the fact that it sits on my nightstand, that I wear it each day, seems like nothing short of a miracle.
Slowing, I am coming to think of this labrys as my labrys, though in my mind it continues to be the saved labrys of a famous writer. I continue to consider myself more steward than owner. Every night, the silver becomes cold when it sits on the nightstand. Unattached to my body or anyone else’s, the labrys is without context. It is another hunk of cold, decorative silver. It lacks meaning. Around my neck, it comes alive. Around my neck, it whispers, it shouts, it beckons: lesbian.
Perhaps I have earned this labrys as my younger self imagined I must. Though while I have weathered more battles than my twenty-year-old self, I feel even less battle-ready now than I did then. At a time when the President calls for Muslim registries and some Democrats declaim identity politics, I am wearing this symbol of lesbian. Perhaps the labrys will become an antiquated symbol, without meaning to a younger generation, but to me it suggests a engagement in the world politically and culturally as a lesbian. I do not consider this labrys a sign of combat readiness, rather I think of it as a protective amulet. The labrys between my breasts is a symbol of where I cast my lot when the chips are down. It is my label freely chosen.
Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. Her research has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, Frontiers, and other journals. Enszer is the author of four collections of poetry, Avowed (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), Lilith’s Demons (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2015), Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013), and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker (Sinister Wisdom/A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2016) and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011). Milk & Honey was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. Enszer has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland.