Mythic Monday: Crafty Daedalus

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Top image: The Athenian craftsman Daedalus hovers over his fallen son Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, causing him to plunge to his death. Credit: © Thinkstock

Daedalus, a skilled artisan of ancient Athens, was a colorful figure of Greek mythology. If Daedalus were a modern-day comic book superhero, his origin story might include a mad scientist piecing together the inquiring mind of Thomas Edison, the vision of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the versatile genius of Leonardo da Vinci, and the rugged physicality of a rugby star. The mythical Daedalus is perhaps best known for his construction of the mazelike labyrinth and for building the wings his son Icarus wore while flying too close to the sun.

Daedalus was well known in ancient Greece for his facility with wood and metals. The son of Athenian royalty, his name translates as “cunning worker.” Stories credit him for inventing the saw, the axe, a drill, and even glue. He built dams and thermal baths. Some tales note his talent in carving statues so lifelike they seemed to move.

For all his virtues, Daedalus had a vindictive streak. He was said to have murdered his talented apprenticed nephew Perdix (also called Talos) in a fit of jealous rage. After this crime, Daedalus fled with his young son Icarus to the island of Crete. Minos, the king of Crete, hired the fugitive Daedalus to create ingenious inventions. Daedalus designed and constructed the labyrinth to imprison the half-man, half-bull monster called the Minotaur. The Minotaur had the misfortune of being the illegitimate son of Minos’s wife, Pasiphae.

As the story goes, Daedalus helped Theseus—a fellow Athenian—escape the labyrinth, kill the Minotaur, and elope with Minos’s daughter Ariadne. The enraged Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the maze. Trapped in his own creation, the cunning craftsman fashioned wings of feathers, wax, and thread. Each with his own pair of wings, then, Daedalus and Icarus flew up and away from the labyrinth and away from Crete itself. Unfortunately, the wax in Icarus’s wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, and he plunged to his death. King Minos later tracked Daedalus to Sicily, where some legends say the craftsman boiled the king alive in a bathtub he had built especially for that purpose.

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