Daedalus: The Great Greek Inventor (14 Key Facts)

Daedalus, whose name means “swiftly wrought,” was an ancient Greek craftsman with a brilliant and incomparable mind. Read on to discover more.

Nov 6, 2021By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
daedalus icarus with daedalus and minotaur cretan bull
Armed Three Master with Daedalus and Icarus in the Sky, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561-65, via the Metropolitan Museum; with Daedalus and the Minotaur (or Cretan Bull), by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1636, via Museo de Belas Artes da Coruña

 

Daedalus from Greek mythology was the greatest genius of his time. He was a craftsman accredited with many creations that were revolutionary: automatons, the labyrinth, and the first dancefloor. Whilst Daedalus’ inventions were spectacular, a great part of his myth is filled with tragedy. One of the most famous elements of his myth is the story of Daedalus and Icarus, about the boy who flew too close to the sun, and left a grieving father behind.

 

1. Daedalus and Icarus: The Meaning of Their Names

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Relief of Daedalus and Icarus, date unknown, via Metropolitan Museum

 

Daedalus is the Latin spelling of the Greek Daidalos. Likewise, Icarus comes from Ikaros. The name Daidalos derives from the ancient Greek word δαιδάλλω (daidallo) meaning “to work cunningly”.  Daedalus (or Daidalos) means “skilfully wrought” which alludes to his talent at working with his hands, machinery, carpentry, and with other human tools. He had many titles such as inventor, architect, and craftsman.

 

Since the name reflects him so well, the ancient historian Pausanias suggested that Daedalus was not his name at birth but was given to him as an honor later in life. In fact, there is a series of Greek sculptures that are named the “Daedalic sculptures”. This whole range of art has his name, but this does not mean that he himself created all these artworks, but that all these artists created their art in homage to his style.

 

Similarly, Icarus’ name reflects his role in myth. The Greek version — Ikaros — is suggested to derive from two Greek words. The first, “heko” (ἥκω) means “to have come,” “to be present,” or “to have reached a point”. The second word, “aer” (ἀήρ) means “air, wind, or space”. Together, the name means “the one who reaches the sky” which aptly reflects Icarus’ soaring flight.

 

2. An Ingenious Athenian Inventor 

derrick higgins daedalus workshop
Daedalus Workshop, by Derrick Higgins, 2010, via Fine Art America

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As always, there are many versions of these myths — they come from the adaptation of stories from different cultures. Daedalus’ origin is most regularly suggested to be either from Crete or from Athens. In the Athenian version of the myth, Daedalus was from Athens. Blessed by the patron of the city, the goddess Athena, he had a nonpareil creative and brilliant mind. Athena was the goddess of wisdom and craft, and so Daedalus’ talents fell under her wing.

 

However, other versions suggest that Daedalus could have been a Cretan. This is likely due to most of his inventions being for the Cretans. The suspicion is that the ancient Athenians wished to adopt him into their own culture, and so changed his origin.

 

3. A Fantastic Workshop Full of Automatons

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Atelier Henri Bouchard in the museum, La Piscine, of Roubaix, France, via Wikmedia Commons

 

One of the most impressive inventions of Daedalus were his automata. In Ancient Greek, “automatos” means “self-acting” and this is because Daedalus’ sculptures were so lifelike that they appeared to be alive.

 

Philostratus the Elder describes an artwork depicting Daedalus: “This is the workshop of Daidalos; and about it are statues, some with forms blocked out, others in a quite complete state in that they are already stepping forward and give promise of walking about. Before the time of Daidalos, you know, the art of making statues had not yet conceived such a thing.” (Imagines 1.16)

 

In one myth, when Heracles the Greek hero visits Daedalus’ workshop, he smashes one of the statues, deceived by its realism into thinking he was being attacked by a real person. Callistratus writes: “Daidalos, if one is to place credence in the Kretan marvel, had the power to construct statues endowed with motion and to compel gold to feel human sensations.” (Descriptions 8)

 

4. Daedalus Taught His Nephew

clodion poetry music child statues
Poetry and Music, by Clodion, c.1774-1778, Samuel H. Kress Collection, via the National Gallery of Art Washington

 

Daedalus lived in Athens with his son, Icarus. In some versions of the myth, Daedalus had another son named Iapyx, who was interested in medicine — but most versions of the myth focus on Daedalus and Icarus’ relationship. While Daedalus was a very skilled craftsman, Icarus did not have his father’s talent nor his interest in craft.

 

Instead, Daedalus taught his craft to his nephew, Perdix. As a young boy, Perdix had shown a huge interest in Daedalus’ inventions, and he had shown signs of becoming a talented inventor himself. One of Perdix’s inventions was a saw. He found a fish skeleton on the beach one day and took the jagged structure of the spine and attached it to a stick of metal. This became the first model for a saw, which has become a staple of toolbox equipment. In addition, Perdix is said to have invented the first compass.

 

5. A Dark and Jealous Side

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Perdix, falling from the Acropolis, is turned into a partridge by Minerva (Athena) by Sébastien Leclerc, c.1676, via the British Museum.

 

At first, Daedalus was overjoyed to have an enthusiastic apprentice in Perdix. However, dark jealousy soon began to worm its way into Daedalus’ mind. Daedalus very much enjoyed his reputation as a brilliant inventor, and he grew resentful of the idea that this young boy could surpass him. Clouded by envy, one myth proposes that Daedalus pushed Perdix off the Acropolis, which was one of the highest points in Athens.

 

As Perdix plummeted to his death, Athena turned him into a partridge, and so saved him from death. Partridges nest either on the ground or in low greenery, such as hedges and shrubs; the bird is wary of heights. Whilst Perdix would never be able to practice his craft again, Daedalus would face punishment. The Athenians charged Daedalus with murder and so Daedalus and Icarus fled to Crete.

 

6. The First Dancefloor

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Ariadne Dancing Accompanied by Panther, c.1790-1810, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London; with Photograph of the Labyrinth of the Chartes Cathedral, photo by Sylvain Sonnet, France, via the Smithsonian Magazine

 

King Minos of Crete welcomed Daedalus and Icarus heartily — and greedily. Daedalus’ reputation preceded him, and King Minos was overjoyed to hire him as his personal engineer. Daedalus won the hearts of the Cretans by inventing animated toys for children and the first dance floor for Princess Ariadne. Ariadne is often associated with spiral imagery; first for the labyrinthine meandering patterns of the dancing floor, and second for the movement of dance. Ariadne was famous in Cretan legend for her skill at dancing and her involvement in dancing rituals led to her title as the Great Goddess.

 

Brewster Ghiselin describes the dancefloor: “On the pavement of Ariadne’s dancing-place the master builder Daedalus inlaid in white marble a pattern of mosaic for the guidance of the dancers, not to the end of constricting their movements but to show simultaneously the ground of accord on which they were moving and the limits of settled order their movements would be constantly transcending….”

 

7. Advanced Seafaring Technology  

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Armed Three Master with Daedalus and Icarus in the Sky, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561-65, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

According to legend, Daedalus also invented sails. Before Daedalus, the movement of ships had been directed by oars. Daedalus figured out how to harness the power of the wind through the mast and sail. This advanced maritime technology to a huge extent. In Pliny’s Natural History, he accredits the creation of the sail to Icarus, and he credits Daedalus with the mast and yardarm. Either way, the Minoan fleet was supposedly one of the greatest fleets in Greece at the time.

 

8. A Cow Suit for Pasiphae 

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Daedalus and the Minotaur (or Cretan Bull), by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1636, via Museo de  Belas Artes da Coruña

 

Another of Daedalus’ creations in Crete was the cow suit. King Minos had received a magnificent white bull from Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, to be used in a sacrifice to the god. However, upon seeing its magnificence, Minos gluttonously kept the bull for himself and sacrificed an ordinary bull to the god instead.

 

In punishment, the God Poseidon cursed Minos’ wife, Queen Pasiphae, with a desire for the bull. She pressured Daedalus into helping her mate with the bull, so he created a hollow wooden cow covered in cow skin so that Pasiphae could climb inside the contraption and mate with the bull. This union resulted in the Minotaur — a mythical creature that was half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur was later trapped within the Labyrinth, the next invention of Daedalus.

 

9. Creator of the Famous Labyrinth

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Theseus Mosaic, from Roman Villa on the Loiger Fields near Salzburg, via Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Antikensammlung

 

Unfortunately, King Minos was also a sadistic leader, and so he had Daedalus create the Labyrinth — an impossible series of winding corridors in which the Minotaur was caged. Every year, Minos fed the Minotaur fourteen youths in a gruesome display of power, striking fear into citizens’ hearts. The Labyrinth was one of the greatest architectural inventions of all time. It was an intricate array of passages so complicated that no one could find their way out. Daedalus succeeded so well in ensuring that the labyrinth was unnavigable, that when he himself was trapped inside, he struggled to find a way out.

 

10. Without Daedalus, the Hero Theseus Would Have Died 

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Theseus and the Minotaur on a Greek Amphora, 6th century BCE, via the MET Museum

 

The Prince of Athens, Theseus, came to Crete as one of the tributes to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. The prince wanted to defeat the Minotaur so that King Minos would no longer feed the helpless Athenian youths to it.

 

Theseus underestimated the confusing layout of the maze, but Princess Ariadne did not. She had taken a liking to the prince and wanted to elope with him. Ariadne desperately went to Daedalus and begged him to help her find a way to save Theseus. Daedalus gave her the idea to use a ball of string and attached it to the entrance so that Theseus could find his way back to the door after he had killed the Minotaur. Ariadne would wait at the door to help Theseus out and they escaped on a ship.

 

11. A Prison of His Own Making

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Icarus and Daedalus, by Giovanni David, 1775, via Metropolitan Museum

 

Despite Daedalus’ good intentions to help the princess, Minos discovered Daedalus’ betrayal and so he threw Daedalus and Icarus into the Labyrinth. Luckily, the Minotaur had been killed, but Daedalus found the maze very difficult to navigate and he and his son were trapped there for a long time.

 

12. Daedalus Created His Infamous Wings to Escape Prison

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Daedalus pondering wings, labyrinth, and sea, by Charles Holroyd, 1895, via British Museum

 

Daedalus and Icarus spent hours and hours collecting feathers from the floor of the labyrinth and they found wax from beehives that had settled in the open corridors of the labyrinth. With the wax and feathers, Daedalus fashioned two sets of wings. He fastened the wings to Icarus’ back and told his son not to fly too high, or the sun would melt the wax, but also not to fly too low, otherwise the water would wet the feathers and drag him down.

 

13. Daedalus Named an Island After His Son

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Daedalus and Icarus, by Stefano Della Bella, 1644, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

With Daedalus and Icarus free, they ascended from the labyrinth into the sky. However, Icarus soon got giddy on the exhilarating flight, and he forgot his father’s instructions. He soared as high as he could go. The sun melted the wax, and Icarus plummeted into the ocean, the feathers scattered on the water.

 

Daedalus was devastated. However, the flight and fall of Icarus, and his death, are seen as a reversal of fate for Daedalus who had killed Perdix by pushing him from a great height. For the murder of Perdix, the gods punished Daedalus with the death of his son, in a poignantly similar way.

 

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Calyx-krater depicting Daedalus carrying the dead body of his son Icarus, c. 390-380 BCE, via British Museum

 

Daedalus eventually recovered the body of his son and buried him on an island near the fall. He named the island Icaria after his son. After this, Daedalus was to live a solitary life.

 

14. Solving an Impossible Puzzle 

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Still Life, by Sebastien Stoskopff, c. 1650-57, via Princeton University Art Museum

 

Still being hunted by Minos, Daedalus fled to Sicily where he found protection under King Cocalus. King Minos searched every town and island for Daedalus, as he wanted revenge. In each place, Minos would present a puzzle to the citizens: he had a spiral seashell and he wanted someone to thread a string through it.

 

When presenting the puzzle to King Cocalus, Cocalus took it behind the scenes and gave it to Daedalus to figure out. Daedalus managed to solve the puzzle by attaching a string to an ant, and then enticing the ant through the shell by dropping honey at the end. After Daedalus solved the puzzle and Cocalus presented the shell to Minos, Minos demanded to be given Daedalus — he knew that he was the mind that had solved the puzzle.

 

Cocalus agreed, but he insisted that Minos experience Sicilian hospitality first. Cocalus convinced Minos to have a bath attended by his daughters. Minos agreed, but the daughters, aided by Daedalus, or some say by Cocalus, murdered Minos in the tub. Daedalus then lived to a ripe old age, continuing to invent magnificent things, but grieving the loss of his son.



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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.