The Dramatic and Tragic Life of Ancient Greek Legend Daedalus
Daedalus is hailed as one of the most skilled artists and craftsmen in the Ancient Greek world. Said to be the son of the gods Athena and Hephaestus, as well as the son of the mortals Alcippe (daughter to Cecrops, the mythical founder of Athens) and King Erechtheus of Athens, Daedalus’ fame transcended the centuries, with his myths appearing in works by famous authors such as Ovid, Homer, and Pausanius, and appearing in the founding myths of Athens, Crete, and Sicily. His legend also persisted into the later medieval ages, and legends about Daedalus are well known still today.
Daedalus and the Labyrinth
The first mention of Daedalus comes from the works of Homer. In this work he is credited as the creator of the first “dancing-ground” for Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete. In this same myth, he is credited with the creation of the much more well-known labyrinth of Crete, which held the ferocious Minotaur. Said to be a great craftsman, Ovid suggests, in his Metamorphoses, that Daedalus constructed the labyrinth with such cunning that he himself could barely escape once the structure was built. Scholar Robin Lane Fox suggests that Daedalus was known throughout Greece before the works of Homer and as such, he was used as a point of comparison in the story as someone the audience would recognize.
Daedalus is credited with the creation of the labyrinth of Crete, which held the ferocious Minotaur. ‘The Cretan Legend’ (public domain)
The myth of the Minotaur begins with Poseidon, god of the sea, giving a white bull to King Minos of Crete that he was supposed to sacrifice to the gods. Instead, Minos kept it for himself, and as revenge Poseidon made the queen, Pasiphae, lust after the bull. It is claimed that Daedalus built a wooden cow for Pasiphae so that she would be able to mate with the white bull. From this, Pasiphae was impregnated with the minotaur; a beast being half man and half bull. Subsequently, Daedalus was commissioned to build the labyrinth to house the beast. Every nine years, seven Athenian boys and seven girls were sent to Crete, cast into the labyrinth and eaten by the minotaur. One year, the hero Theseus was one of the Athenian youths to be sent to his death. Falling in love with the king’s daughter, Ariadne, he won her heart and she agreed to help him through the labyrinth. Again, with the help of Daedalus, who offered Ariadne magical thread with which to lead Theseus through the labyrinth and back out again, Theseus was able to vanquish the minotaur and make it out of the impossible maze.
‘Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth’ by Edward Burne-Jones (public domain)
A continuation of the myth of the minotaur appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Once King Minos commissioned the labyrinth, he shut Daedalus and his son, Icarus, away in a tower on Crete, this way the man could not spread his knowledge of the maze. Daedalus, therefore, was not permitted to leave the isle of Crete and he was kept under strict watch; all of the sea vessels leaving the island would be searched before they could leave. From this imprisonment, Daedalus began working on inventing a pair of wings he could use to leave the tower. He tied feathers together and secured them with wax to a base. Once the wings were completed, and he had tested them out to find he could use them to hover or soar, he set to work building a pair for his son.
Daedalus builds wings for his son Icarus (public domain)
A Tragedy Unfolds
After learning to fly with the wings, Icarus was warned by his father not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax in the wings melt. He was also warned not to fly too low as the sea foam would wet the feathers and make them too heavy. Setting out, the two flew far from Crete, over Samos, Delos, and Lebynthos, but after a while the boy forgot himself and flew too close to the sun which caused the wax to melt and he plummeted to his death in the sea. It is said that, because of this, Athena later gifted Daedalus a pair of actual wings.
‘The Lament for Icarus’ by H J Draper (public domain)
The Death of Minos
Having escaped Crete, Daedalus found himself in the care of King Cocalus of Kamikos, Sicily. It is here that Daedalus built a temple to Apollo and hung up his wings in sacrifice to the god. It is around this time that King Minos discovered the disappearance of Daedalus and set out to find him, searching from city to city. Upon arrival in each location he challenged the people there with a riddle he knew only Daedalus could solve. He presented a seashell and asked the people to pull a piece of string through it. When he reached the kingdom of Cocalus, Daedalus came forward and tied the string to an ant, placing the ant at one end of the shell and honey at the other as bait, thus having the ant pull the thread through the shell. Minos demanded that Daedalus be handed over to him, but Cocalus convinced Minos to take a bath first, and it was in the bath that the daughters of Cocalus murdered the king of Crete. In some versions of this story it is Daedalus, himself, that kills the king by pouring boiling water over him.
Daedalus and Perdix
From the 5 th century BCE onwards, Athens claimed Daedalus as one of their own, thus replacing Crete as his birthplace and Sicily as his final destination. It is in Athens that he becomes the tutor of his nephew, sometimes referred to as Perdix, Talus, or Calos. This myth claims that one day Perdix was wandering on the beach and picked up an old fish bone. He was inspired by the jagged nature of the spine of the fish, and from this he invented the saw. Along with the saw Perdix is credited with numerous other inventions, rivaling his uncle in ingenuity and craftsmanship. As Perdix gained renown Daedalus grew jealous. Seeing an opportunity one day Daedalus threw Perdix from the acropolis, killing the boy. Subsequently, Athena turned Perdix into a partridge and left a partridge shaped scar on the right shoulder of Daedalus as a reminder.
Daedalus, the Skilled Craftsman
Daedalus is credited with having first conceived of masts and sails for ships of the Navy of Crete under the rule of Minos. Pausanius credits him with numerous archaic wooden statues. He is said to have carved statues so masterfully that they looked alive and would move around were it not for the chain that held them to the wall. Pliny, in his Natural History, credits Daedalus with the invention of carpentry, and later the Romans made him the patron of carpenters. In the medieval and early modern period of Romanticism, Daedauls became a popular subject. He came to denote the classic artists, a skilled craftsman, while his son symbolized the new romantic artist, passionate and rebellious.
Top image: ‘The Fall of Icarus’ (public domain)
Daedalus the greatest inventor of Ancient Greece. Explore Crete. Available at: http://www.explorecrete.com/mythology/daedalus.html
Daedalus. Greek Mythology Link. Available at: http://www.maicar.com/GML/Daedalus.html