Daedalus: The Ancient Greek Problem Solver 

Daedalus is a mythical Greek inventor and problem solver who is one of the most well-known figures in Greek mythology. The myth of Daedalus and his son, Icarus, has been passed down from the Minoans. The Minoans thrived on the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea from 3500 BCE.

The stories of the genius Daedalus are as enthralling as they are tragic. Daedalus’ son, Icarus, is the boy who perished when he flew too close to the sun, wearing wings his father had fashioned.

Daedalus was responsible for creating the labyrinth that housed the bull-headed creature, known as the minotaur. Homer makes mention of the inventor in the Odyssey, as does Ovid. The myth of Icarus and Daedalus is one of the most famous stories from ancient Greece.

Who is Daedalus?

The tale of Daedalus, and the precarious situations he found himself in, have been told by ancient Greeks since the Bronze Age. The first mention of Daedalus appears on the Linear B tablets from Knossos (Crete), where he is referred to as Daidalos.

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The civilization that developed on mainland Greece, known as the Mycenaeans, was similarly enamored with the antics of the skilled inventor. The Myceneans told similar myths about the great carpenter and architect Daedalus, his family rivalries, and the tragic demise of his son.

Daedalus is an Athenian inventor, carpenter, architect, and creator, who the Greeks credit with the invention of carpentry and its tools. Depending on who retells the tale of Daedalus, he is Athenian or Cretian. The name Daedalus means “to work cunningly.”

The ancient master craftsman was blessed with his genius by the goddess Athena. Daedalus is known for the intricate figurines he carved, called Daedalic sculptures, and almost life-like sculptures called auto automatos.

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The sculptures are described as being extremely life-like, giving the impression they are in motion. Daedalus also designed children’s figurines that could move, likened to modern action figures. Not only was he a master carpenter, but he was an architect and builder too.

Daedalus and his son Icarus lived in Athens but had to flee the city when Daedalus was suspected of murder. Daedalus and Icarus settled in Crete, where most of Daedalus’ inventions were made. Daedalus settled in Italy in later life, becoming the palace sculptor for King Cocalus.

In addition to his many creations, Daedalus is known for attempting to murder his nephew Talos or Perdix, but he is most known for inventing the wings that led to his son’s death and for being the architect of the labyrinth that housed the mythical creature, the minotaur.

What is the Myth of Daedalus?

Daedalus first appears in ancient Greek mythology in 1400 BCE but is mentioned more frequently in the 5th Century. Ovid tells the tale of Daedalus and the wings in the Metamorphoses. Homer mentions Daedalus in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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The myth of Daedalus gives us insight into how the ancient Greeks perceived power, invention, and creativity within their society. The story of Daedalus is intertwined with the tale of the Athenian hero Theseus, who slew the minotaur.

The myths of Daedalus have been a popular choice for artists for millennia. The most frequent depiction found in ancient Greek art is the myth of Icarus and Daedalus’ flight from Crete.

Daedalus and Family Rivalry

According to Greek mythology Daedalus had two sons, Icarus and Lapyx. Neither son wanted to learn his father’s trade. Daedalus’ nephew, Talos, showed interest in his uncle’s inventions. The child became Daedalus’ apprentice.

Daedalus tutored Talos in the mechanical arts, for which Talos had great potential and talent, Daedalus was excited to share his knowledge with his nephew. The excitement quickly turned to resentment when his nephew showed a skill that could eclipse Daedalus’ own.

His nephew was a keen inventor, on his way to replacing Daedalus as the Athenian’s favorite craftsman. Talos is credited with the invention of the saw, which he based on the spine of a fish he saw washed up on the beach. In addition, Talos is believed to have invented the first compass.

Daedalus was jealous of his nephew’s talent and feared he would soon surpass him. Daedalus and Icarus lured his nephew to the highest point of Athens, the Acropolis. Daedalus told Talos he wanted to test his latest invention, wings.

Daedalus threw Talos from the Acropolis. The nephew did not die but instead was rescued by Athena, who turned him into a partridge. Daedalus and Icarus became pariahs in Athenian society and were driven out of the city. The pair fled to Crete.

Daedalus and Icarus in Crete

Daedalus and Icarus received a warm welcome from the king of Crete, Minos, who was familiar with the Athenian inventor’s work. Daedalus was popular in Crete. He served as the king’s artist, craftsman, and inventor. It was in Crete that Daedalus invented the first dancefloor for Princess Ariadne.

While in Crete, Daedalus was asked to invent a rather peculiar suit for the king of Crete’s wife, Pasiphaë. Poseidon, the Olympian god of the sea, had gifted the Minoan king and Queen a white bull to be sacrificed to him.

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Minos disobeyed Poseidon’s request and kept the animal instead. Poseidon and Athena sought revenge on the king by making his wife lust after the bull. Consumed with desire for the beast, Pasiphaë asked the master craftsman to create a cow suit so that she could mate with the animal. Daedalus created a wooden cow that Pasiphaë climbed inside to perform the act.

Pasiphaë was impregnated by the bull and birthed a creature that was half man, half bull called the Minotaur. Minos ordered Daedalus to build a Labyrinth to house the monster.

Daedalus, Theseus, and Myth of the Minotaur

Daedalus designed an intricate cage for the mythical beast in the form of a labyrinth, built beneath the palace. It consisted of a series of twisting passageways that seemed impossible to navigate, even for Daedalus.

King Minos used the creature to seek revenge on the Athenian ruler after the death of Minos’ son. The king asked for fourteen Athenian children, seven girls, and seven boys, which he imprisoned in the labyrinth for the Minotaur to eat.

One year, the prince of Athens, Theseus, was brought to the labyrinth as a sacrifice. He was determined to defeat the Minotaur. He succeeded but became confused in the labyrinth. Luckily, the king’s daughter, Ariadne had fallen in love with the hero.

Ariadne convinced Daedalus to help her and Theseus defeat the minotaur and escape the labyrinth. The princess used a ball of string to mark the way out of the prison for Theseus. Without Daedalus, Theseus would have been trapped in the maze.

Minos was furious with Daedalus for his role in helping Theseus escape, and so he imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth. Daedalus hatched a cunning plan to escape the labyrinth. Daedalus knew he and his son would be caught if they tried to escape Crete by land or sea.

Daedalus and Icarus would escape imprisonment by way of the sky. The inventor fashioned wings for himself and Icarus out of beeswax, string, and bird feathers.

The Myth of Icarus and Daedalus

Daedalus and his son Icarus escaped the maze by flying out of it. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too low because the sea foam would wet the feathers. The seafoam would loosen the wax, and he could fall. Icarus was also warned not to fly too high because the sun would melt the wax, and the wings would fall apart.

Once the father and son were clear of Crete, Icarus began joyfully swooping through the skies. In his excitement, Icarus did not heed his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun. The wax holding his wings together melted, and he plunged into the Aegean Sea and drowned.

Daedalus found the lifeless body of Icarus ashore on an island he named Icaria, where he buried his son. In the process, he was taunted by a partridge that looked suspiciously like the partridge into which Athena had transformed his nephew. Icarus’ death is interpreted as the gods’ retribution for the attempted murder of his nephew.

Grief-stricken, Daedalus continued his flight until he reached Italy. Upon reaching Sicily, Daedalus was welcomed by King Cocalus.

Daedalus and the Spiral Seashell

While in Sicily Daedalus built a temple to the god Apollo and hung up his wings as an offering.

King Minos did not forget Daedalus’ treachery. Minos scoured Greece trying to find him.

When Minos reached a new city or town, he would offer a reward in return for a riddle to be solved. Minos would present a spiral seashell and ask for a string to be run through it. Minos knew the only person who would be able to thread the string through the shell would be Daedalus.

When Minos arrived in Sicily, he approached King Cocalus with the shell. Cocalus gave the shell to Daedalus in secret. Of course, Daedalus solved the impossible puzzle. He tied the string to an ant and coerced the ant through the shell with honey.

When Cocalus presented the solved puzzle, Minos knew he had finally found Daedalus and demanded Cocalus turn Daedalus over to him to answer for his crime. Cocalus was not willing to give Daedalus to Minos. Instead, he hatched a plan to kill Minos in his chamber.

How Minos died is up for interpretation, with some stories stating Cocalus’ daughters murdered Minos in the bath by pouring boiling water over him. Others say he was poisoned, and some even suggest it was Daedalus himself who killed Minos.

After the death of King Minos, Daedalus continued to build and create wonders for the ancient world, until his death.

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