In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a skilled craftsman and inventor who designed and built the Labyrinth on Crete, where the Minotaur was kept. Daedalus also made the wings that he and his son Icarus used to escape from Crete. The name Daedalus means "ingenious" or "clever."
The Master Craftsperson. Daedalus lived in Athens, where he was known for his skills as an inventor, artist, and sculptor. Indeed, it was said that the statues Daedalus made were so realistic that they had to be chained to keep them from running away.
Daedalus's nephew Talus (also called Perdix) came to serve as an apprentice to his uncle. The boy soon showed remarkable talent, inventing the saw by copying either the jawbone of a snake or the spine of a fish. Before long, Daedalus grew jealous of Talus, believing that the boy might become as great a craftsman as he was. This idea was more than Daedalus could bear. He killed Talus by pushing him off a cliff into the sea.
The Labyrinth. Because of his crime, Daedalus was forced to leave Athens. He went to Crete, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and began working for King Minos, the Cretan ruler.
The story of Daedalus and Icarus has inspired many writers and artists. The Roman poet Ovid told the myth in his work Metamorphoses, and Irish novelist James Joyce named his literary hero Stephen Daedalus. The Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder painted a landscape showing Icarus's fall.
The fate of Icarus has also drawn attention as an example of human folly or bravado. Icarus would not accept reasonable limits. He went too far, flying beyond the bounds that had been set. As a result, he met with disaster.
Minos had asked the sea god Poseidon (Neptune) for a sacrificial bull, and a beautiful white bull had emerged from the sea. Indeed, the bull was so magnificent that Minos decided to keep it rather than sacrifice it to Poseidon. The angry sea god punished the king by causing his wife, Pasiphae, to fall helplessly in love with the bull. At the request of the queen, Daedalus built a lifelike model of a cow in which she could conceal herself and spend time with her beloved bull. As a result of these visits, Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull.
King Minos wanted to hide the Minotaur. He ordered Daedalus to construct a prison from which the monster could never escape. Daedalus designed the Labyrinth, a mazelike network of winding passages that had only one entrance. Its layout was so complex that no one who entered it could ever find a way out. King Minos kept the Minotaur imprisoned in the Labyrinth.
The Minotaur was given humans to eat. Some were provided by the city of Athens. After suffering defeat in battle with Crete, Athens had to send King Minos a yearly tribute of seven boys and seven girls. These unfortunate Athenians were sent into the Labyrinth one by one as food for the Minotaur.
One year the Greek hero Theseus* came to Crete as one of the youths. He was determined to put an end to the human sacrifice. Ariadne, the king's daughter, fell in love with Theseus and asked Daedalus to help her find a way of saving him. When Theseus went into the Labyrinth to slay the Minotaur, Ariadne gave him a ball of string that she had obtained from Daedalus. Theseus tied the string to the entrance of the Labyrinth and unwound it as he made his way toward the Minotaur. He killed the beast and then used the string to find his way out of the Labyrinth.
Daedalus and Icarus. When King Minos discovered what had happened, he was furious. To punish Daedalus for his role in the escape, the king imprisoned him and his young son Icarus in the Labyrinth.
Daedalus put his talents to work. Day after day, he collected the feathers of birds. He also gathered wax from a beehive. When he had enough feathers and wax, Daedalus set to work making two pairs of enormous wings, one pair for himself and the other for Icarus.
Daedalus carefully instructed his son how to use the wings to fly He warned Icarus not to fly too high or too low. If he flew too high, the sun's heat could melt the wax that held the wings together. If he flew too low, he risked being swept up by the sea.
With that, father and son took off from Crete. The wings worked well, and Daedalus and Icarus began to fly across the sea. However, Icarus did not pay attention to his father's warning. He flew higher and higher until the sun's heat melted the wax in his wings. Icarus fell into the ocean and drowned. Daedalus managed to fly safely to Sicily.
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.