Classical Mythology: The Limits of Craftsmanship

The Limits of Craftsmanship

Daedalus, the most renowned inventor of ancient Greece, also suffered from deadly jealousy. An ingenious artist and artisan, Daedalus was credited with inventing the wedge, the axe, the level, and sails, among other items. After learning smithcraft from the goddess Athena, he forged the sword of Peleus, which Achilles later wielded in battle. A masterful sculptor, Daedalus once carved a monument to Heracles so realistic that Heracles himself attacked it with a stone, thinking it was one of his enemies.

Yet his skill and his fame didn't stop Daedalus from envying the skills of others. And perhaps his greatest invention would lead only to tragedy.

Towering Ambition

Daedalus gained his greatest fame in the service of King Minos of Crete, but he was an Athenian by birth. Indeed, most storytellers claim that he was a direct descendent of Erechtheus, the fabled king of Athens (son of Pandion and father of Procris).

While still living in Athens, Daedalus took as an apprentice his nephew, Talos, the son of his sister. Just 12 years old, the boy showed great promise as an artisan—too great, as it turned out. Inspired by seeing the jagged spine of a fish, Talos invented the saw (though Daedalus claimed this invention as his own). The boy also invented the potter's wheel and the drafter's compass (the kind used to draw circles).

His nephew's inventiveness and skill drove Daedalus (who was no slouch in these departments himself) mad with jealousy. Unable to bear the possibility that the student might surpass the teacher, Daedalus lured his nephew to the roof of the temple of Athena and shoved him over the edge. After stuffing his nephew's body into a bag, Daedalus attempted to carry it off for a secret burial, but the bloodstains on the bag gave him away.

When his sister learned that Daedalus had murdered her son, she hanged herself. Daedalus, who either fled before the trial or was tried and banished for the murder, was forced to become an exile from his homeland.

Fly Like an Eagle, Drop Like a Stone

Daedalus ended up on Crete, where both King Minos and Queen Pasipha put his ingenuity to work. For Pasipha, he built the fake cow that allowed her to satisfy her lust for a gorgeous white bull given to Minos by Poseidon. For Minos, Daedalus designed the Labyrinth—a building with a maze of passageways so intricate it was virtually inescapable—to house the shameful offspring of that union: the Minotaur (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus).

Minos soon imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, too—to punish the inventor for the device that allowed Pasipha to mate with the bull. Yet Daedalus and his son escaped the inescapable prison. Three millennia before the Wright brothers took to the air, Daedalus made wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son. As both father and son escaped the Labyrinth, soaring upward on their wings, onlookers must have thought they were witnessing gods.

Read All About It

The tragic tale of Daedalus and Icarus—as well as the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Procne and Philomela, Cephalus and Procris, and Phathon—can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid wove these tales beautifully, usually ending with some miraculous transformation.

Despite his father's warnings to fly neither too low (because the sea spray might soak the wings) nor too high (because the sun might melt the wax), Icarus grew heady and soared ever closer to the sun. As the wax melted, the boy's wings fell apart. Icarus plunged down into the sea south of Samos—a body of water now called the Icarian Sea.

Daedalus, who had lost sight of his son, began calling for him. Hearing no answer, he desperately searched the surface of the water. But all he could see were scattered feathers.

Heracles later found the body of Icarus washed ashore on a small eastern Aegean island. Heracles buried him on the island, which became known as Icaria.

The Shell Game

A broken man, Daedalus took refuge on Sicily as a guest of Cocalus, king of Camicus. There, he endeared himself to the king's daughters by making scores of beautiful and innovative toys.

King Minos, however, would not give up his campaign of vengeance against Daedalus. He sailed throughout the Mediterranean Sea, stopping at every port to offer a handsome reward to anyone who could thread a string through a spiral seashell. When Cocalus accepted the challenge and, the next morning, handed Minos a threaded shell, Minos knew he had found the refuge of Daedalus. (Daedalus accomplished the task by tying a thread to an ant and luring it through the seashell with honey.)

When Minos demanded that Cocalus surrender Daedalus, the king reluctantly promised to do so—but only after that night's feast. Cocalus ordered his daughters to attend to their honored guest in his bath prior to the feast. They took care of him all right: They poured pots and pots of boiling water over Minos, killing him instantly.

Daedalus, freed of all obligations—but at such a high cost—lived out the rest of his lonely days on Sicily.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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