Wednesday, 13 February 2013


A long time ago, there lived an eccentric but brilliant inventor in the city of Athens. His name was Daedalus, and his was a destiny of immortality, but hand in hand walked tragedy. Renowned far and wide for his mastery of craftsmanship and design, it was not long before his great name spread far beyond the borders of Attica. Delighted and humbled by success, when word arrived one day that he had been commissioned by the great King Minos of Crete, he hardly dared refuse. It was to be a decision that would change his life forever...

The Island of Crete
Photograph taken from the NASA Earth Observatory
King Minos ruled over a powerful nation, mastery of the seas and the envy of Greece was his.But he concealed a dark secret. A dreadful abomination had been born unto his family, a creature that had thus far been death to all who came in its way. This affliction had come about not long earlier, for , drunk on glory and the riches of his nation, Minos vowed to sacrifice to the gods the first thing which came from the Ocean. Hearing his words, Poseidon the Earthshaker and master of the Ocean, sent forth a shining white bull from the depths. Stunned, and entranced by the beats majesty, Minos had second thoughts. Forgetting his promise, the King kept the bull for his own, and sacrificed a lesser creature in its place. But the eyes of a god are always watching. Angered by his attempt at deception, Poseidon sent a terrible curse to drive madness into the monster's brain, all docility and peace banished from its raging mind. Worse still, the god placed a curse upon Queen Pasiphae, wife of the King, and inspired within her an unyielding lust for the monster. Minos was distraught at the destruction which was dealt to his lands. Only mighty Heracles was able to humble the Cretan Bull, and spirit it away to distant lands, but the beast left a legacy more horrific than Minos could ever have imagined. Powerless against her retribution, his wife gave birth to the monster's blighted seed. From the impious union was born a bloodthirsty fusion of man and bull - the Minotaur. Rumour began to spread on Crete of the princess's ghastly deed, and the King desperately tried to cover his family's dark secret, and thus turned to Daedalus.

Coming before the King, Daedalus heard Minos' terrible plight and dilemma. He could not slay the creature, as it was his own blood, and the murder of a family member was a crime against the gods that would pollute his royal line forever. He could not let it walk free either, lest his terrible shame be common knowledge. It was cunning Daedalus who concocted the solution. He devised an incredible feat of engineering within which to house the beast, "where rooms within themselves encircled lye, with various windings, to deceive the eye". The Great Labyrinth, upon its completion, defied all else that had come before it. Indeed, it was said that so intricate and outlandishly complex was the warren of passages and tunnels, even Daedalus himself only discovered the way out with great difficulty. Ever after, anything complicated has been called labyrinthine in English. Deep into the bowels of the darkness was the Minotaur cast, by his own grandfather, there forever to dwell and languish away from the touch of Apollo's rays (his fate is another story, and will come in a later post).

Daedalus and Icarus
Painting by Frederic Leighton 
Time passed on the idyllic island, yet Daedalus began to long for the home he had not seen for so long, to raise his young son, Icarus, in peace. But cruel Minos had other plans. Such was his shame and furious sensitivity at his Queen's unholy brood, and his envy of Daedalus' talents, he ordered both the inventor and his son thrown into the high tower over the Royal Palace, lest the secrets of the Labyrinth ever became public. The mighty Cretan navy patrolled the sea lanes around the island, and ruled the waves. Escape by sea was impossible. The Minoans ruled the trade routes by land. Escape by land was impossible. Cunning Daedalus knew there was but one choice, if they should ever hope to see home again, and it lay above:

  " In tedious exile now too long detain'd,
    Daedalus languish'd for his native land,
    The sea foreclos'd his flight; yet thus he said:
    Tho' Earth and water in subjection laid,
    O cruel Minos, thy dominion be,
    We'll go thro' air; for sure the air is free... "

So began his most ingenious work. Taking the tools that were cast in gaol with him, and using all materials he could find, he began to fire the bellows, and sweat dripped from his brow. High was the tower, refuge only to the birds of the sea as company to the illustrious duo, and Daedalus plucked the quills from their feathered forms, letting not one go to waste. Each one he honed and perfected, and arrayed them in rows, rising by degree from end to end. Through the middle he laid a twine of flax, and by wax was the plumage held fast. Life went on far below, convinced as Minos was that his secret was safe, as all the while the wings took majestic shape. All the while youthful Icarus, not yet wizened to the designs of men, idly played with the feathers and toyed with the wax, much to the father's amusement and frustration.

Then, at long last, the day of reckoning arrived. The final stroke of Daedalus' hammer fell upon the brazen wings, and together did they neatly fit. Four had he made, two for the father and two for the son. With steady hand he lashed them to his back, and took his first flap. With flawless balance he rose into the air, and for the first time did man know the sensation of flight. But purpose was not forgotten by the old master, and he at once bade young Icarus hurry. Chance, which seldom comes twice, was now to be seized. Thus did the father bid the son:

                                          " My boy, take care,
                                            To wing your course along the middle air;
                                            If low, the surges wet your flagging plumes;
                                            If high, the sun the melting wax consumes:
                                            Steer between both: nor to the northern skies,
                                            Nor south to Orion turn your giddy eyes;
                                            But follow me... "
                                                 - DAEDALUS WARNS ICARUS

Icarus Fallen
Painting by  Herbert James Draper
So with concern and fear for the audacious breakout, Daedalus fixed a pair of wings to his son, tears rolling down his cheek. All ready now, he embraced his son,knowing not it would be his last. Turning now to vast window, father and son took position, and together leapt into the azure yonder.With the joy of the winds in his hair, young Icarus soared triumphantly to the domain of the clouds, excitement fused with the thrill of adventure of the god's own land. Daedalus lead them on, as Crete fell far behind. The isles of the sea punctuated the haze far below, Delos, Paros on the left, Samos and Lebynthos on the right. For an age the air was their abode, but it was then that the warnings of his father began to desert headstrong Icarus. With the world at his feet, to the Heavens he now aspired, pride rising higher than his wings. Thundering forth, poor Daedalus was left behind. The father called out to the son, but upon deaf ears his cries fell. To the dominion of Helios Icarus set his sights, and to the burning orb he spurred his wings. So great his hubris, so hungry his eyes, he thought nothing of the rising heat. His body withstood the burning glow, but not all things could. The quills which bore him flight were bound in wax, and the radiant sun began to undo the work of the master. Softer and softer did it run, as Icarus soared on and on. Soon no more could it take, and vaporised it soon became. The eyes of Icarus widened in terror, as he saw his folly laid bare before him, but too late. Feathers tumbling all around, the haughty boy lingered for a moment in silence before with a deafening scream he plummeted from the Heavens. For an age the foolish boy fell, until there on the crest of the ocean he met his fate, in waters which henceforth bore his name.

Poor Daedalus meanwhile, desperate to find his son, called out in vain, for father he was no more. "Ho Icarus! Where are you? As he flies; Where shall I seek my boy? He cries again, and saw his feathers scatter'd on the main...". Far below on the calm surface of the water he spied the feathers his own hands had bound. Feeling the warmth of the sun high above, he knew at once. Grief insurmountable gripped poor Daedalus, and against his own craft he cursed, and the island below he named Icaria in his son's memory. For an age it seemed, the great inventor mourned on high, hoping on hope it was not true, All had been in vain, his great breakout for naught. Against King Minos he raged, whose cruelty had forced him into a cage.

Fatigued at last from wearying flight, on the fertile Sicilian pastures he came to rest, where Cocalus, King of that realm, gave the great man sanctuary, for great was the name of the Daedalus, and great the esteem in which he was held. Hanging up his wings for the last time, the inventor prayed to Apollo, offering his gift of flight. For a time Apollo granted him peace, until disturbing news arrived. Minos, enraged that his quarry had escaped his clutches, had set out in hot pursuit, hunting them down through all the kingdoms of Greece. But the bitter Cretan King knew well that Daedalus was no fool, and would not remain in plain sight, and enacted a cunning scheme to lure him out. In the court of each city he presented a dilemma. Brandishing from his robes a spiralled seashell, he promised great reward to the one who could run a string through its heart without breaking it apart. Many times he presented his challenge, and every time his hosts failed.

Then one day to Cocalus a messenger of the heartless King approached, and once more did he produce the shell. Cocalus, oblivious to the identity of the stranger's master, summoned his newfound friend. The wizened old inventor, marvelling at the task, yet unaware of its creator, saw at once a plan. Setting a drop of honey at one end, he released an ant at the other, and round the creature a string tied. The tiny insect soldiered through the shell, fixed on the honey, bearing the string with it in tow. Marvelling at the wisdom of Daedalus, Cocalus proudly presented the result to the messenger, who at once alerted his King. Well did Minos know that only Daedalus could have solved this riddle, and demanded at once that Cocalus hand him over. Seeing the malevolent nature of Minos, and the humble genius of Daedalus, however, Cocalus made his choice. He agreed, though persuaded Minos to bathe first. It would prove to be the Cretan's last. Some say the agents of the Sicilian slew the King as he bathed, others that the inventor boiled the water. For certain, however, Daedalus was at last avenged, and his nemesis ended. Some small measure of peace was at last his...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which goes all out on archaic high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which goes all out on archaic high poetry)

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