Daedalus was a mythical Greek inventor, architect and sculptor. In Greek mythology, it is said that Daedalus built, among other things, the paradigmatic Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. The name Daedalus means ‘cleverly forged’.
Daedalus is a mythical character, but behind his name, there is an immense number of characters. In Daedalus, various Greek writers personified the development of the arts of sculpture and architecture, especially among Athenians and Cretans.
It is said that he lived in the early heroic period, in the age of Minos and of Theseus. However, Homer does not mention it, except in a dubious passage.
What is the origin of Daedalus?
The ancient writers, generally, represent Daedalus as an Athenian, of the real race of the Erechtheidae. Others called him Cretan because of the long time he lived in Crete.
According to Diodorus, who gives the fullest account of him, Daedalus was the son of Metion, who was the son of Eupalamus, and the latter the son of Erichthonius. Other authors suggest that Daedalus was, in fact, the son of Eupalamo, or of Palamaon. His mother’s name was Alcippe, or Iphinoë, or Phrasimede.
Dédalo devoted himself to sculpture and made great improvements in art. He had two children: Icarus and Yápige. In his story, his nephew, Talos (or Perdix), becomes important.
The envy of the creator
Daedalus was so proud of his achievements that he could not stand the idea of having a rival. The architect’s sister had placed her son in charge of Daedalus to teach him mechanical arts.
The name of the young man was Perdix, although it is also known as Talos or Calos. Perdix was a scholar in art and showed surprising evidence of ingenuity.
According to Greek mythology, Perdix, walking along the seashore, picked up the spine of a fish. Inspired by the shape of the spine, he took a piece of iron and forged it by imitating the thorn and thus inventing the saw.
On another occasion, Perdix put two pieces of iron together. Connecting them at one end with a rivet, and sharpening the other ends invented the compass.
Daedalus was so envious of his nephew’s achievements that he seized an opportunity to push Perdix and fall from the Acropolis. The Goddess Athena turned Perdix into a partridge, which allowed her to land safely. At the same time, he left a scar that looked like a partridge on Daedalus’s right shoulder.
Daedalus was condemned for this crime and left Athens after a time of concealment.
Crete, a labyrinth and a wooden cow
Upon arriving in Crete, Daedalus was received at the court of King Minos and his wife, Pasiphae. Unfortunately, in a very short time, he was involved in another dire situation.
It happened that Minos had chosen to keep a magnificent white bull that the god Poseidon had given him, instead of offering it in sacrifice to the sea god. In his anger, Poseidon had induced Pasiphae to physically desire the bull.
Pasiphae asked Daedalus to create a wooden cow in which she could hide and mate with the bull. In this way, she became pregnant and gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with a human body and a bull’s head.
Minos also addressed Daedalus and asked him to build a labyrinth, to lock the Minotaur there and not to escape. This is the famous minotaur’s labyrinth.
Before the order of King Minos to build a prison house for the Minotaur, Daedalus built one of the greatest architectural works. The labyrinth had endless corridors and complicated turns, which would confuse anyone who entered it to the point that finding the exit was impossible.
Every seven years, the Athenians had to send seven young men and seven maidens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. This sacrifice was intended to maintain peace between the two parties, due to the unjust murder of Androgeos, a son of Minos.
With the following ‘shipment’ of Athenians, Theseus arrived as a volunteer and immediately fell in love with Ariadne, daughter of King Minos. The princess did not want to see her beloved die and, therefore, asked the craftsman for help.
Daedalus gave Theseus a ball of thread. Theseus could achieve a leak: securing a linen thread at the entrance of the Labyrinth and following that thread again to return. This helped the hero find a way back once he had killed the beast.
The flight of Daedalus and Icarus
King Minos was furious at the treacherous act of having built the cow of wood. As punishment, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the endless labyrinth.
Daedalus knew a way out of the labyrinth; however, they could not escape from the island because all maritime routes were constantly monitored. Therefore, Daedalus had to manage to escape and built two pairs of wings of wooden sticks, which served as support to waxed real feathers.
Daedalus gave specific instructions to Icarus about how to fly. Daedalus told Icarus not to fly too low, because the water could soak the feathers, but not too high because the Sun could melt the wax.
They managed to escape and went to Sicily, but soon, Icarus left aside the advice of his father and flew higher and higher. The sun melted the wax destroying its wings and made it fall into the sea in which it would die drowned.
Icarus fell into the sea near Samos and his body was washed ashore on a nearby island. This island was called Icaria in his honor and the sea around the island was called the Icaria Sea.
A lot of anecdotal details were forging the reputation of Daedalus as an innovator in many arts. In the Natural History of Pliny, the invention of carpentry is attributed to him.
In Greek mythology, it is said that he conceived masts and sails for ships for the Minos Navy. Pausanias, for his part, attributed to Daedalus the construction of numerous archaic wooden cult figures that impressed him throughout Greece.
It is also said that he carved statues in great detail that, because of their high realism, seemed alive. Such statues would have escaped if it were not for the chain that tied them to the wall.
Thus, Daedalus gave his name to any anonymous Greek gunner. In addition, he was credited with many Greek contraptions that represented an exquisite skill.
Interpretation of the legend
Daedalus and Icarus are represented in numerous Greek vases, precious stones and Pompeian murals. A famous Roman relief shows Daedalus modeling the wings with which they escaped from Crete.
Later artists as varied as Pieter Brueghel, who painted the fall of Icarus, as well as Anthony van Dyck and Charles Le Brun have also paid tribute to him. In addition, Daedalus is represented in the painting by Brill and the set of sculptures by Antonio Canova.
Writers like James Joyce and W.H. Auden were inspired by the legends of Daedalus and have helped keep his name and legend alive in the 21st century.
The story of Daedalus encourages others to consider with great care the long-term consequences of their own inventions. Daedalus works as a dialectical resource for creations, trying to prevent those inventions from doing more harm than good.
As in the story of the wings of Icarus, Daedalus is represented helping to create something that has negative consequences later.
This is the case of the creation of the monstrous almost impenetrable maze of the Minotaur. Its construction made killing the beast an effort of legendary difficulty.