The labrys symbolism is found in Minoan, Thracian, Greek, and Byzantine religion, mythology, and art, dating from the Middle Bronze Age onwards. The labrys also appears in African religious symbolism and mythology (see Shango).
Archeology suggests that the veneration of Zeus Labraundeos at Labraunda was far older than Plutarch imagined. As with its apparent cognate, "labyrinth", the word entered the Greek language as a loanword, so that its etymology, and even its original language, is not positively known. The loanword labyrinth was used in Greek, but the designation "The house of the Double Axe" for the palace at Knossos is an imaginative modern innovation.
The term, and the symbol, is most closely associated in historical records with the Minoan civilization, which reached its peak in the 2nd millennium BC. Some Minoan labrys have been found which are taller than a human and which might have been used during sacrifices. The sacrifices would likely have been of bulls. The labrys symbol has been found widely in the Bronze Age archaeological recovery at the Palace of Knossos on Crete. According to archaeological finds on Crete this double-axe was used specifically by Minoan priestesses for ceremonial uses. Of all the Minoan religious symbols, the axe was the holiest. To find such an axe in the hands of a Minoan woman would suggest strongly that she held a powerful position within the Minoan culture.
In the Near East and other parts of the region, eventually axes of this sort are often wielded by male divinities and appear to become symbols of the thunderbolt, but in Crete, unlike the Near East, this axe is never held by a male divinity, only by female divinities and her priestesses. .
The bull is a symbol of Zeus and indeed the labrys is associated with an archaic symbol of the thunder deity whom Zeus and others become as storm gods wielding their thunder weapons and are found in familiar motifs of Indo-European mythology. Examples are the Nordic god Thor, who hurls his mjollnir to cast thunder and lightning upon the earth, or Indra, who uses his favourite weapon the vajra. Similarly, Zeus throws his Keravnos to bring storm. The labrys, or pelekys, is the double axe Zeus uses to invoke storm.
"Many points go to prove that the double-axe is a representation of the lightning (...). The worship of it was kept up in the Greek island of Tenedos and in several cities in the south-west of former Hellenic Asia Minor, and it appears in later historical times in the cult of the thundergod of Asia Minor (Zeus Labrayndeus). An impression from a seal-stone shows the double-axe placed together with a zigzag line, which represents the flash of lightning" states Chr. Blinkenberg in The thunder weapon in religion and folklore; a study in comparative archaeology, 1911: 19. Control over a frightening natural phenomenon such as lightning always has been a chief reason for propitiation of deities.
In feminist interpretations (particularly by Marija Gimbutas) however, it is also interpreted as a symbol of the Mother Goddess and compared to the shape of a butterfly rather than an axe. Robert Graves interprets it as the symbol of the moon of the great goddesses, with the two curved edges indicating the waxing and waning phases on either side of a full moon.
The word labyrinthos (Mycenaean daburinthos) is probably connected with the word labrys. In the context of the Classical Greek myth of Theseus, the labyrinth of Greek mythology is frequently associated with the Minoan palace of Knossos and has a long tradition of use that extends before any written records explain the traditions.
On Greek vase paintings, a labrys sometimes appears in scenes of animal sacrifice, particularly as a weapon for the slaying of bulls.
On the "Perseus Vase" in Berlin (F1704; ca 570–560 BC), Hephaestus ritually flees his act of slicing open the head of Zeus to free Athena whose pregnant mother Zeus swallowed to prevent her offspring from dethroning him. Over the shoulder of Hephaestus is the instrument he has used, the double-headed axe. The more usual double-headed instrument of Hephaestus is the double-headed smith's hammer so the symbolism is important. Zeus swallowing the goddess symbolized the progressive suppression of the earlier traditional religious beliefs, symbolically dethroning the goddess, Metis, but allowing Athene (her daughter) to be "born" of Zeus because her worship was so pervasive and wide-spread that it could not be suppressed. That is likely the reason the labrys was depicted as the instrument used by Hephaestus (who much earlier had been a consort of the Earth goddess) to release Athene.
On Greek coins of the classical period (e.g. Pixodauros, etc.) a type of Zeus venerated at Labraunda in Caria that numismatists call Zeus Labraundeus stands with a tall lotus-tipped sceptre upright in his left hand and the double-headed axe over his right shoulder.
During the period of the 4th of August Regime (1936-1941), the labrys was used as main symbol of the Greek Fascist Youth EON (Ethniki Organosi Neolaias), as the regime's leader, Ioannis Metaxas believed the symbol to be the first symbol of all Hellenic civilizations. It is also used by black metal fans in Greece as a symbol of Greek Neopaganism. Further, it is used by Cretan folklore preservation societies and associations both in Greece and abroad, on occasion with the alternate English spelling "lavrys". As an LGBT symbol, the labrys is also used to represent lesbianism and feminism.