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The Symbolism of the Axe

by Harold Meij

The axe is one of the most prominent symbols of the 22nd Degree of the Scottish Rite (Knight Royal Axe, Prins of Libanus). Such axes were said to have been used to cut down cedars used in the building of King Solomon's Temple, The Ark of the Convenant, and even Noah's Ark. The initials on the axe are those of Solomon and Noah, whereas the initials on the handle are those of Libanus and Tsidun, Libanus referring to the area where the cedars were found, and Tsidun, the city whose people helped cut down the trees. The initials on the one side of the blade are said to be those of Shem, Ham, Japheth (The three sons of Noah), Moses, Aholiab, and Bezaleel (who together led a large group of workers who worked in fine metals, rare wood, and precious stones). Initials on the other side of the blade are those of Adoniram (civil servant responsible for acquiring laborers), Cyrus (original issuer of decree allowing the rebuilding of the Temple), Darius (who re-issued Cyrus's decree and provided for all costs from royal revenue), Zerubbabel (credited with the Temple's reconstruction), Nehemiah (who rebuilt Jerusalem's walls) and Ezra (to collect contributions from the Babylonian Jews). These initials appear to represent the prominent people who, in their own ways, helped rebuild the Temple.

The axe is one of the oldest tools of modern man. As with so many symbols, it has an dualistic association, in this case representing both destruction and creation.

In pre-historic times, axes were made from stone, which sometimes created sparks. Many ancient cultures associated sparks with thunder, which in turn was known to have great powers. American Indians, the Chinese and even the Celts called axes "thunder stones". As such, axes became closely associated with power, both the power of destruction, and the power of creation

Thunder led the axe to become an important symbol of power. Axes were often depicted on Chinese robes worn by top officials, representing the Emperors power to guide the nation through tough times if need be. Similar usage is often also seen in European heraldry, where a lion or other powerful animal is shown holding an axe as a symbol of the nations, or its leaders, powers. Other flags prominently show an exe, including those of the Royal Standard of Norway, Telemark (also Norway), Santa Isabel Province (Solomon Islands), and Toporiv in the Ukraine.

The axe is most often used as a symbol of creation. As axes were closely associated with thunder, it also naturally became associated with rain, an important giver of life. Axes were also an essential tool in spreading civilizations. This is the context in which the symbol is used in the 22nd Degree. Using the axe to represent the spreading of civilizations can also been seen in flags. For example, the coat-of-arms of Brazilian municipality of Brusque shows an axe, added there to remember the "pioneering work of the first settlers and explorers". It is also a German tradition to strike a blow with an axe at the site of a new building. This custom originated from the legend of St. Wolfgang, who after having selected a solitary spot in the wilderness, prayed, and then threw his axe into the thicket; the spot on which the axe fell he regarded as the place where God intended he should build his place.

 An example of a double-axe

The axe is also a symbol of destruction, as it can be used as a weapon, as was often the case with a weapon known as a battle-axe. This was probably an older usage of the symbol, as the earliest axes must have been double sided stones attached to an end of a piece of wood to serve as a tool.

As axes were often used for killing large animals intended as a sacrifice, some cultures associated the axe with sacrifices. This especially grew since martyrs such as Barnabus, Matthew, and Matthias were executed with an axe, and were often portrayed with one.

St. Matthew (W Auer 1890)           
St. Wolfgang (W Auer 1890)
 15th Century depiction of St. Matthias

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Last modified: March 22, 2014