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Daedalus - Inventor

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A Greek man making wings, melting a candle in a castle tower

The story of Daedalus, the Athenian inventor and master craftsman, is a popular one; one that has lasted with its story-line and meaning more or less intact for the last two and half thousand years. Scenes from this story, like the labyrinth where the Minotaur was imprisoned, and the flight and death of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, have endured to the present day, in such tales as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Finally, the spirit of Daedalus, and his love for invention and crafts, has inspired inventors throughout history.

Deadalus: A History

Many writers of ancient Greece and Rome have included Daedalus in their tales and descriptions of the world around them, from the earliest epics to later compilations of myths and more factual accounts that describe various places and events to travellers and researchers. This entry makes use of the stories of Daedalus that are recounted in Apollodorus' Library and Epitome, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Diodorus of Sicily's (also known as Diodorus Sicullus) The Library of History and Pausanias' Description of Greece. These texts tell the main story of Daedalus (the latter being more interested in his work, as part of its tourist's handbook structure), and a small mention is made in Virgil's Aeneid.

Origins of an Evil Genius

According to Apollodorus, Daedalus' mother was Alcippe, and his father was Eupalamus (whose name meant 'skillful'), who in turn was the son of Metion ('knowledgeable'). Diodorus reverses Metion and Eupalamus, and adds that he (Eupalamus) was the son of Erechtheus. He also says that Daedalus was of the clan of Erechtheids. All Pausanias says on the matter is that he 'belonged to the royal Athenian clan called the Metionidae'. Daedalus lived in Athens, and is said to have been taught by Athena.

But then Daedalus was forced to leave Athens after killing his nephew in a fit of jealous rage, fearing that his talents might surpass his own, when he saw that his nephew had invented the saw from a snake's jaw. Apollodorus calls the nephew Talos, son of his Daedalus' sister Perdix, and says that Daedalus fled to Crete after being condemned to death in the Areopagus for throwing Talos off the Acropolis. Ovid calls the nephew Perdix, and says that after Daedalus threw him from 'Minerva's fane' (Athena's temple, on the Acropolis), and said it was an accident: 'Pallas, goddess of ingenious men' changed the nephew into a partridge (Perdix = partridge)1. Pausanias calls the nephew Calos, which is similar to Apollodorus' Talos, the difference possibly being a result of an error somewhere long ago. He also said that Daedalus went into exile of his own accord. Diodorus puts the nephew's name as Talos, and adds that, when Daedalus was caught in the act of burying the body, he explained that he was burying a snake (referring to the tale of how the nephew, whatever his name was, invented the saw with the jawbone of a snake). Daedalus was caught, put on trial, but fled to one of the demes of Attica2, which were then known as the Daedalidae.

Daedalus and the Minotaur

Daedalus travelled to Crete, where Pausanias mentions that he made wooden images for King Minos and his daughters, and made that island famous for its wooden images. Here the story differs somewhat, either due to variations, censoring or because the author substituted a more 'sensible' version. Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, had fallen in love with a bull, which Apollodorus says had been sent by Poseidon, as a sign that Minos should ascend the throne of Crete. Diodorus says that Poseidon had made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull because Minos had excluded the fine white bull from the annual sacrifices to the sea god and substituted an inferior beast.

Apollodorus and Diodorus agree that Daedalus had assisted Pasiphae in her bizarre affection by fashioning a wooden frame disguised as a cow so that Pasiphae might couple with the bull. The result of this union was the Minotaur, a creature whose top half was a bull, with the lower half of a man. Apollodorus, Virgil and Ovid all have Daedalus designing a labyrinth, which Minos orders the construction of, so as to keep the Minotaur locked up, and proceeds to feed seven men and seven women of Athens to the monster every year, in revenge for the death of his son Androgeus in Athens. Here the story of the Athenian hero Theseus intersects with that of Daedalus. Ariadne, daughter of Minos, falls in love with Theseus, who has set himself on a mission to kill the Minotaur. Daedalus gives Ariadne a ball of thread to give to Theseus, who uses it to find his way in and out of the maze. These three authors have Minos imprison Daedalus for his role in the death of the Minotaur (Apollodorus has him place Daedalus in the labyrinth itself). Pausanias excludes the tale of the Minotaur and says that Minos had Daedalus condemned and thrown into prison on some charge. Ovid also mentions that he is held captive by Minos, but does not give a reason.

Deadalus and Icarus

Daedalus' son Icarus, whose mother was Naucrate, a slave woman of Minos, was also thrown into prison with him. All these authors give the name as Icarus. There are various stories telling of the escape of Daedalus and Icarus, but the most common and famous is that recounted by Apollodorus, Ovid and Virgil.

After a long exile, Daedalus longed to return home, or at least leave Crete (according to Ovid). To this end he constructed wings for himself and Icarus from feathers, wax and thread (Apollodorus only mentions glue as a component of the wings). Ovid's lengthy and poetic version depicts young Icarus playing with the feathers and wax and so slowing the work. However, when the wings are ready for flight, Icarus is big enough to require his own set, so their construction would have taken at least ten years.

Finally, the two are ready for take-off. Daedalus instructs Icarus in how to fly. According to Apollodorus, Daedalus says 'neither to fly high, lest the glue should melt in the sun, and the wings should drop off, nor to fly near the sea, lest the pinions should be detached by damp.' Ovid says much the same thing, warning that the waters may impede the flight, and the sun may burn the wings. But, Icarus forgets his father's sound advice, and soars ever higher, wanting to touch the skies. But, the heat of the sun melts the glue/wax, the wings come to pieces and Icarus falls down into the sea, now named the Icarian sea. Apollodorus has Daedalus fly on to Sicily, but Ovid has him find the body of his son on an island, now named Icaria, and bury it. As he does this, a partridge watches him, which is really Perdix, the nephew Daedalus had killed in a fit of jealousy.

Diodorus gives two accounts of the escape of Daedalus and Icarus (both of which exclude the story of the Minotaur). One story has Pasiphae keep Daedalus and Icarus hidden from Minos who is after revenge for his assisting Pasiphae in her love of the bull. Minos has all boats searched and announces a reward for Daedalus' capture, but Daedalus builds wings for himself and Icarus. Icarus flies too high and his wax melts, but, as opposed to Apollodorus' and Ovid's versions, Daedalus flies close to the sea and keeps the wax moist.

The other version Diodorus gives relates that Daedalus had overheard Minos making threats upon him because of his assistance to Pasiphae, who provides boats for Daedalus and his son Icarus to escape upon. When disembarking in a reckless manner, Icarus falls off the boat and drowns. The island they had landed at became known as Icaria, and the sea Icarian. Pausanias' report is similar: the wings of other writers become ships' sails, which Daedalus had invented to enable him to out-sail the oared fleet of Minos. In the open sea, Icarus' boat capsized, as he was a clumsy helmsman. His body washed up on Icaria where it was recognized and buried by Heracles, who happened to be passing by.

In Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas, the hero of the epic arrives in Cumae, where he finds a temple dedicated to Apollo. According to Virgil, an ancient story tells how Daedalus had landed in Cumae, and dedicated his wings to Apollo, as well as building a temple to the god. On its huge bronze doors, he carved the story so far: the birth of the Minotaur by Pasiphae and the labyrinth which housed it; he detailed the death of Androgeus, son of Minos, in Athens; the tribute of 14 young Athenians to feed the Minotaur; and how the Minotaur was killed by Theseus. However, when Daedalus reaches the scene of his escape from Crete, he cannot bring himself to display the death of Icarus.

Deadalus in Cocalus' Court

All these authors (except Virgil) have Daedalus arrive in Camicus (Pausanias says Inycus) in Sicily, where he asks for refuge from Minos at the court of King Cocalus. Ovid finishes his story here. Apollodorus reports that:

Minos pursued Daedalus, and in every country that he searched he carried a spiral shell and promised to give a great reward to him who should pass a thread through the shell, believing that by that means he should discover Daedalus.

Minos came to Sicily and showed the shell to Cocalus, who promised that he could thread it. Cocalus, however, passed it on to Daedalus, who bored a hole in the shell and tied a thread to an ant, and had the ant pass through the shell (some say he smeared honey on the hole). Cocalus returned the completed puzzle to Minos, who immediately deduced that Cocalus was hiding Daedalus and demanded he be surrendered. Cocalus promised to do so, but first offered to let Minos stay the night.

In Pausanias and Diodorus, the story of the spiral shell is not mentioned. Instead, Minos sails an army to Sicily and demands Daedalus. In Pausanias' version, Cocalus refuses the ultimatum, but in both versions, Minos stays the night.

Diodorus explains that Cocalus kept Minos in the hot water of the bath too long (he neglects to say how he managed to do this) thus killing him. He returns the body to the Cretans, explaining that Minos slipped in the bath. The Cretans aren't the least bit suspicious, sail home and build a marvellous tomb for Minos. Apollodorus' and Pausanias' give a different account. The daughters of Cocalus had become fond of Daedalus' artistic skill, and to please him and keep him, they plotted to kill Minos. Pausanias finishes here, but Apollodorus continues, and says that the daughters drenched him with boiling water, thus scalding him to death. Other texts give boiling pitch, and the method of assassination is via a plumbing system originally installed by Daedalus. Some say that it was at Daedalus' suggestion that the princesses passed a pipe through the roof to drench Minos with.

And that is the end of the story of Daedalus. However, there is a small epilogue: in Diodorus, Iolaus summons Daedalus from Sicily to assist in the construction of a new colony in Sardinia. Also, it is said that statues made by Daedalus can walk, talk, see, and looked every bit like the people they represent.

Deconstructing Daedalus the Man

It is difficult to discern the personality of Daedalus from these different accounts, and the actions of the man himself conflict with each other. How could a man kill his nephew in cold blood out of professional jealousy, assist someone in bizarre acts with an animal, and show such compassion and sadness as depicted by Ovid when his son Icarus fell from the sky? First, the aims and methods of the authors, who are our source of knowledge, are different.

Apollodorus was an Athenian scholar who put together his collection of myths out of antiquarian professional interest. These were for people researching the myths and legends of Greece, not for entertainment. Consequently, his works are rather dry, serious, simple and to the point. His account of the adventures of Daedalus reads more like a short synopsis or summary of a longer tale. His sole descriptive line about Daedalus is that 'he was an excellent architect, and the first inventor of images'.

Pausanias is even more serious and sober. His apparent aim was to write a tourist's guide to ancient Greece, so he concentrates more upon the inventions and works of art attributed to Daedalus than the his story. All we get is a brief biography. The wondrous tales of the Minotaur and the flight of Daedalus and Icarus are removed as too fantastic (or were not known to the author). Instead, Daedalus is thrown into prison on some charge, and he escaped. He does however say that the escape was performed using sails, freshly invented by Daedalus.

Diodorus is similar, but devotes more attention to the legend of Daedalus. Diodorus of Sicily set out to relate the entire history of the (Greek) world from the dawn of time. A trifle ambitious, but at over a dozen books, he may have come fairly close. Of course, some areas of history would be completely unknown, such as during and before the Dark Ages (1100 - 800 BC), so any writer of this period would have to rely on myths and legends. Hence, the accounts of Daedalus appear where they intersect with history, such as the hostilities between Minos and Cocalus. Where possible,myths are rationalized: Diodorus mentions Daedalus' and Icarus' escape via boat, but then adds the story of the flight, commenting 'even though the myth is a tale of marvel, we nonetheless thought it best not to leave it unmentioned.'

Ovid, however, is writing poetry, where a dull, serious story would be unacceptable. As a result, this version is the most emotional and moving. For example;

As he spoke, he fitted on his son the plumed wings with trembling hands, while down his withered cheeks the tears were falling. Then he gave his son a last kiss.

Here, Daedalus is depicted as caring, afraid for his son's safety. Also, when he sees that Icarus has died Ovid says 'he began to rail and curse his art'. However, he also shows a dark side to the great inventor. When he finds that his nephew Perdix has invented the saw:

Daedalus, enraged and envious, sought to slay the youth, and cast him headlong from Minerva's Fane - then spread the rumour of an accident.'

It is quite unlikely that this story is true, although maybe each portion has a separate basis in fact. Among the list of inventions attributed to Daedalus, there is the axe, the awl3, the bevel4, images, and he also is said to have improved statues with open eyes, legs in stride and hands and arms out-stretched5. It is unlikely that only one man invented and did so many things, like an early Da Vinci or Edison, but he is certainly a genius of much the same inspiration and imagination as these greats. According to Sir James Frazer, who is responsible for the translation of Apollodorus used here,

Through the clouds of fable which gathered round his life and adventures, we may dimly discern the figure of a vagabond artist as versatile as Leonardo Da Vinci and as unscrupulous as Benvenuto Cellini.

It is possible that Daedalus was a name assigned by the people of the Dark Ages to the many of the wonders left to them from the Mycenaean, or Bronze Age. The name Daedalus meant 'ingenious', and this title may have applied quite well to the amazing images and architectural wonders that existed at that time. The name Daedalus would also look rather good on a work of art, and give an unscrupulous merchant - a good reason to jack up prices.

Daedalus is the embodiment of creativity and the archetype of inventors everywhere. His love of mechanics and art, as shown by his assistance to Pasiphae and his solution to Minos' shell puzzle, overrides all inhibitions he might have. He has no regard for the consequences of his inventions before hand, but afterwards he must atone for them. He exiles himself from Athens after killing his nephew in a fit of jealousy, he designs a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, and he curses all he has ever achieved when his own son dies as a result of his own ingenuity.

Inventions and Works Attributed to Daedalus

The following list is a collection of objects/ideas which, according to the ancient writers, were invented by Daedalus. The writers names are in brackets at the end of each item. It is believed that:

  • He invented a folding chair in the temple of Athena Polias, in Athens. (Pausanias)

  • He is responsible for sails for ships. (Pausanias)

  • He was the first to represent open eyes, legs separated in stride, and arms and hands extended in statues.

  • He cultivated building art, stone working and statue making. (Diodorus)

  • He invented the axe, the awl, and the bevel.

  • He created the naked wooden image of Heracles in sanctuary of Athena Chalinitis in Corinth. (Pausanias)

  • He is responsible for another wooden Heracles on the border of Arcadia and Messenia, now in a Hermaeum. (Pausanias)

  • He created an image in an Oracle and a wooden Heracles in the sanctuary of Heracles in Boeotia. (Pausanias)

  • He is the man behind the image of Heracles in Thebes. (Pausanias)

  • He is responsible for the construction of the Oracle of Trophonius at Lebadeia. (Pausanias)

  • He produced two wooden images in Crete. (Pausanias)

  • He created the statue of Britomartis at Olus. (Pausanias)

  • He was the inspiration behind an Athena at Cnossus. (Pausanias), as well as Ariadne's Dance (a dancing floor). (Pausanias, Homer)

  • He is the mind behind a wooden image of Aphrodite on Delos. (Pausanias)

  • He is the architect of Temple of Apollo in Cumae. (Virgil)

  • He created the Propylon at the temple of Hephaestus in Memphis, and statue of himself in the same temple. (Diodorus)

  • He was behind the gymnasia and courts of justice in Sardinia. (Diodorus)

  • He produced the Holumbethra (a swimming bath, reservoir or a lock) in Megaris in Sicily. (Diodorus)

  • He turned the royal residence of King Cocalus into an impregnable fortress. (Diodorus)

  • He planned a sauna in a grotto in Selinus, possibly with curative properties. (Diodorus)

  • He created a golden ram for Aphrodite on Mount Eryx. (Diodorus)


  • Apollodorus, The Library and Epitome - translated by Frazer, Sir James George (from Perseus Project) (Library 3.15.8 Epitome 1.8-15)

  • Avery, Catherine B 1997, The New Century Handbook Of Greek Mythology And Legend, Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc

  • March, Dr Jennifer R 1998, Dictionary of Classical Mythology Cassell

  • Diodorus Sicullus, The Library Of History- translated by Oldfather, CH 1952

  • Diodorus Sicullus I, II, III (1.61, 1.97.5-6, 4.30.1, 4.76.1-79.2)

  • Levi, Peter 1985, A History Of Greek Literature Viking

  • Pausanias, Description Of Greece (from Perseus) (1.21.4, 1.27.1, 24.5, 7.4.4-7, 8.35.2, 8.53.8, 9.11.4-5, 9.39.8, 9.40.3-4)

  • Perseus Project Homepage

  • Ovid Metamorphoses - translated by More, Brookes (from Perseus) (8152-262)

  • Virgil Aeneid – translated by Williams, Theodore C (from Perseus) (6.14-33)

1And says that the partridge bird never seeks to 'rise in lofty flight, for it is mindful of its former fall.'2The demes of Attica were local organisations who had their own political and administrative powers.3A tool used to pierce holes in leather.4 A tool for creating angles in carpentry.5The list is similar for Talos/Calos/Perdix.

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