The mythical genius of Daidalos, the first polymath

A figure best known for building the labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur and building the wings that led to his son Ikaros’s death, the inventor, sculptor and scientist of Greek mythology, says author Michael Wilson, left a legacy in the real world that is not always acknowledged…

An Etruscan scarab made of Carmelite featuring a winged Daidalos

Such was the renown of Daidalos [also known as Daedalus] in ancient times that the Greek philosopher Socrates proudly boasted of having been descended from him. The legendary craftsman was a pioneering sculptor and architect, an inventor, engineer and scientist. He carried out major works all over the Mediterranean: Athens, Crete, Sicily, Italy, Sardinia and Egypt, and he also spent time in Libya and Turkey.

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Among his great works were the labyrinth at Knossos in Crete; a temple of Apollo at Cumae; a temple of Britomartis in Crete; the city of Akragas and a flood control system for Megaris, both in Sicily; large cone-shaped towers in Sardinia; and a gateway for the temple of Ptah in Memphis, Egypt. Some also believe that he was responsible for building the palace of Knossos.

He was not wealthy enough to support his myriad projects independently, so relied on the munificence of rich patrons. Yet these, of course, could withdraw their patronage when they wished, and Daidalos’s extensive travel was not driven by a sense of adventure, but was often because of his need to escape from some tricky situation in which he had become embroiled.

The earliest-known reference to Daidalos can be found on a clay tablet dated to 1380 BCE, from Knossos. It lists the offerings that were made to a shrine to him.  He is then mentioned by Homer in the Iliad as the maker of a dancing floor at Knossos for the princess Ariadne. But detailed descriptions of his life and achievements aren’t found until much later, from around the second century BCE to the second century CE in the works of writers and historians like Pseudo-Apollodorus, Diodorus Siculus, Virgil, Ovid, Pausanias and Hyginus.

A marble statue of a young man
A marble statue of a young man (about 530 BCE). (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is through these writings that the craftsmanship of Daidalos emerges. He is considered the father of sculpture as he was the first to produce statues that had open eyes, arms freed from the sides of the body, and legs separated from one another. He even gave his name to a style of sculpture – Daedalic – which is characterised by eastern, orientalising features and became prominent in the seventh century BCE.

As well as his great works of architecture and art, a variety of inventions are attributed to Daidalos, including the axe, plumb-line, gimlet, glue, isinglass, adze, auger, hammer, drill, potter’s wheel, and the use of masts and yards for ships. That was not enough, according to ancient sources, as he also murdered his nephew in a fit of jealousy after the talented boy had developed the saw and the compass.

An ill-fated flight

And, of course, it is widely known from mythology that Daidalos was the first human to fly. While many of his works and inventions were of great benefit to humankind, some of his projects, though no doubt well-intentioned, had unfortunate consequences – and not just for his son Ikaros (also known as Icarus).

Daidalos built a wooden cow device for Queen Pasiphae of Crete, who had been cursed to fall in love with a bull, and so precipitated the first experiment in cross-species fertilisation. This, however, resulted in the birth of the Minotaur. It was to house this creature that Daidalos was ordered by Pasiphae’s husband, King Minos, to build the labyrinth at Knossos.

Next, he helped Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who had fallen in love with the Greek hero Theseus. Each year, Athens had to send to Crete seven maidens and seven young men to be fed to the Minotaur. Theseus had bravely volunteered to be part of this group so that he could kill the creature and rid Athens of this dreadful tribute.

Ariadne asked Daidalos for help and he came up with the ingenious idea of using a ball of thread to help Theseus find his way out of the labyrinth. Ariadne supplied Theseus with a sword and so the Minotaur was killed. But the love affair between the two youngsters didn’t end happily as Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos after they’d escaped from Crete.

Minos, on finding out that Daidalos had connived with Theseus, imprisoned him and his son, Ikaros. In order to escape, Daidalos built flying devices – possibly feathered wings but, more likely, hang gliders – for the two of them. As is well covered in the myth, the escape ended badly for Ikaros when he flew too close to the sun, causing the wax on the wings to melt and sending him plummeting to his death.

A portrait of Daidalos and Icarus
‘Daidalos and Icarus’ by Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641). The work shows Daidalos warning his son, Ikaros, of the dangers associated with flying. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

After retrieving and burying Ikaros, Daidalos travelled on to Sicily where he was welcomed by King Kokalos and his daughters. Here, he continued building and designing civil engineering projects. But Minos was determined to find and punish him for a growing list of grievances: enabling his wife to mate with a bull, helping Theseus kill the Minotaur, and escaping from Crete himself.

Minos knew that Daidalos couldn’t resist an intellectual challenge, so he announced a prize to whoever could devise a way of stringing a linen thread through a conch shell. Minos was convinced only Daidalos could solve this puzzle.

Sure enough, Daidalos came up with the ingenious solution of piercing a hole in the tip of the conch shell, smearing this with honey, and tying a gossamer thread to an ant. Attracted by the honey, the ant would wind its way through the spirals of the shell, taking the thread with it. Daidalos then tied a linen thread to the gossamer and pulled that through the hole.

Terracotta amphora from Attica, Greece. c500 BCE
Terracotta amphora from Attica, Greece. c500 BCE. Theseus and the minotaur fight while Ariadne looks on. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When Kokalos told Minos the solution to the puzzle, the king of Crete knew that Daidalos must be in Sicily, but Kokalos and his daughters decided to murder Minos instead and make it look like an accident.

Kokalos invited Minos to a conference at his palace and there his daughters persuaded their honoured guest to have a bath. While bathing, he was scalded to death by (according to different versions of the story) hot oil, hot water or boiling pitch. And so perished the most famous king of the first great Mediterranean civilisation. Minos’s army and navy were now leaderless, with some returning home and others settling in Sicily and Italy. Unfortunately, we don’t really know when the above events took place, but could this perhaps have been the beginning of the end for the Minoan civilisation? We do know that the Mycenaeans conquered Crete in the 16th century BCE and became the dominant force in the Aegean. Daidalos was responsible not only for many of the great advances associated with the Minoan civilisation, but, through his involvement in the death of Minos, may also have played a part in its demise.

Nearing the end of an exciting and productive life, though fraught at times, Daidalos retired to a beautiful part of the Turkish coast near Telmessos (the modern-day Fethiye). Although the Cretan colony was ruled by one of Minos’s brothers, Sarpedon, at the time, he had become a bitter enemy of Minos and was therefore sympathetic towards Daidalos.

It was there that Daidalos died after being bitten by a snake. A town grew up around his burial place, named Daidala after him. This became important because it was on the frontier between two significant and influential regions, Caria and Lycia, and is mentioned by a number of Roman authors.

Sign close to the site of the city of Deadala
Sign close to the site of the city of Deadala (Daidala, Daedala) near Gocek, Turkey. (Image courtesy of the Wilson sisters)

Although based in mythology, Daidalos is a significant figure in western culture. His inventions left an important legacy, and his life and works have been a constant inspiration to artists throughout history. Philosophers too have drawn on his life to illustrate their beliefs, such as the famed 20th century debate on science between Bertrand Russell (author of Icarus, or the Future of Science) and JBS Haldane (Daedalus, or Science and the Future).

While later polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci are widely known and respected, far less attention has been paid to the first great polymath, Daidalos, and it’s about time this was rectified.

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Michael Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at University College London and the author of Into the Labyrinth: In Search of Daidalos (Austen Macauley Publishers, 2020)