From New World Encyclopedia

In Greek mythology, Daedalus (Latin, also Hellenized Latin Daedalos, Greek Daidalos (Δαίδαλος) meaning "cunning worker," and Etruscan Taitle) was a most skillful artificer, or craftsman, so skillful that he was said to have invented images that seemed to move about.[1] Daedalus had two sons: Icarus and Iapyx, along with a nephew, Perdix. He is first mentioned by Homer as the creator of a wide dancing-ground for Ariadne [2]. Homer refers to Ariadne by her Cretan title, the "Lady of the Labyrinth" [3]. The Labyrinth on Crete in which the Minotaur was kept was also created by the artificer Daedalus. The story of the labyrinth is told where Theseus is challenged to kill the Minotaur, finding his way with the help of Ariadne's thread.

Ignoring Homer, later writers envisaged the labyrinth as an edifice rather than a single path to the center and out again, and gave it numberless winding passages and turns that opened into one another, seeming to have neither beginning nor end (see labyrinth as opposed to maze). Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, suggests that Daedalus constructed the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it.[4] Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, who needed it to imprison his wife's son the Minotaur. The story is told that Poseidon had given a white bull to Minos so that he might use it as a sacrifice. Instead, Minos kept it for himself; and in revenge, Poseidon made his wife lust for the bull.[5] For Minos' wife, Pasiphaë, Daedalus also built the wooden cow so she could mate with the bull, for the Greeks imagined the Minoan bull of the sun to be an actual, earthly bull.

Athenians transferred Cretan Daedalus to make him Athenian-born, the grandson of the ancient king Erechtheus, who fled to Crete, having killed his nephew, Perdix. Over time, other stories were told of Daedalus. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Bulfinch combined these into a single synoptic view of material which Andrew Stewart calls a "historically-intractable farrago of 'evidence', heavily tinged with Athenian cultural chauvinism."

Greek mythology has exercised an extensive and profound influence on the culture, arts and literature of Western civilization and Greek mythological themes have remained continually relevant throughout western literary history.[6] Greek myths remain the archetypal sources for much of Western fiction, poetry, film and visual art. Greek mythology has played a pivotal role in the development of modern studies of mythology, psychology, and philology, and it continues to be a part of the heritage and language of the global community.

Daedalus and Icarus

Among these anecdotes, one told in Ovid's Metamorphoses (VIII: 183-235)[7] that Daedalus was shut up in a tower to prevent his knowledge of the labyrinth from spreading to the public. He could not leave Crete by sea, as the king kept strict watch on all vessels, permitting none to sail without being carefully searched. Since Minos controlled the land and sea routes, Daedalus set to work to fabricate wings for himself and his young son Icarus. He tied feathers together, from smallest to largest so as to form an increasing surface. The larger ones he secured with thread and the smaller with wax, and gave the whole a gentle curvature like the wings of a bird. When the work was finally done, the artist, waving his wings, found himself buoyed upward and hung suspended, poising himself on the beaten air. He next equipped his son in the same manner, and taught him how to fly. When both were prepared for flight, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax, nor too low because the sea foam would make the wings wet and they would no longer fly. Thus the father and son flew away.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (detail) by Peter Brueghel the Elder, ca. 1558[8]

They had passed Samos, Delos and Lebynthos when the boy began to soar upward as if to reach heaven. The blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together and they came off. Icarus fell into the sea. His father cried, bitterly lamenting his own arts, and called the land near the place where Icarus fell into the ocean Icaria in memory of his child.

Eventually Daedalus arrived safely in Sicily, in the care of King Cocalus, where he built a temple to Apollo, and hung up his wings, an offering to the god. In an alternative version given by Virgil in Book 10 of the Aeneid, Daedalus flies to Cumae, and founds his temple there, rather than in Sicily.

Minos, meanwhile, searched for Daedalus by travelling from city to city asking a riddle. He presented a spiral seashell and asked for a string to be run through it. When he reached Camicus, King Cocalus, knowing Daedalus would be able to solve the riddle, privately fetched the old man to him. He tied the string to an ant which, lured by a drop of honey at one end, walked through the seashell stringing it all the way through. Minos then knew Daedalus was in the court of King Cocalus and demanded he be handed over. Cocalus managed to convince Minos to take a bath first, where Cocalus' daughters killed Minos.

Daedalus and Perdix

Daedalus was so proud of his achievements that he could not bear the idea of a rival. His sister had placed her son Perdix under his charge to be taught the mechanical arts. He was an apt scholar and showed striking evidence of ingenuity. Walking on the seashore, he picked up the spine of a fish[9]. Imitating it, he took a piece of iron and notched it on the edge, and thus invented the saw. He put two pieces of iron together, connecting them at one end with a rivet, and sharpening the other ends, and made a pair of compasses. It is also supposed in myth that he invented a way to transfer the soul of a human being into a machine, thus creating a machine with a soul and rendering the soul immortal. Daedalus was so envious of his nephew's accomplishments that he took advantage of an opportunity, when they were together one day on the top of a high tower, to push him off. But Minerva, who favors ingenuity, saw him falling and arrested his fate by changing him into a bird called after his name, the partridge. This bird does not build his nest in the trees, nor take lofty flights, but nestles in the hedges, and mindful of his fall, avoids high places. For this crime, Daedalus was tried and banished.

The Innovator

Daedalus had a reputation as an innovator in many arts. In Pliny's Natural History (7.198) he is credited with inventing carpentry "and with it the saw, axe, plumb-line, drill, glue, and isinglass." Pausanias, in travelling around Greece, attributed to Daedalus numerous archaic wooden cult figures (see xoana) that impressed him: "All the works of this artist, though somewhat uncouth to look at, nevertheless have a touch of the divine in them." [10]

Daedalus gave his name, eponymously, to any Greek artificer and to many Greek contraptions that represented dexterous skill. At Plataea there was a festival, the Daedala, in which a temporary wooden altar was fashioned, an effigy was made from an oak-tree and dressed in bridal attire. It was carried in a cart with a woman who acted as bridesmaid. The image was called Daedale and the archaic ritual given an explanation through a myth to the purpose.

In the period of Romanticism, Daedalus came to denote the classic artist, a skilled mature craftsman, while Icarus symbolizes the romantic artist, an undisputed prototype of the classic artist, whose impetuous, passionate and rebellious nature, as well as his defiance of formal aesthetic and social conventions, may ultimately prove to be self-destructive. Irish author James Joyce named his hero in semiautobiographical story Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen Dedalus, who envisages his future artist-self "a hawklike man flying above the waves.”


  1. "This is the workshop of Daidalos," wrote Philostratus in Immagines (1.16), "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."
  2. Iliad xviii.591
  3. Iliad xviii.96
  4. Penelope Reed Doob. The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages., 36, ISBN 0801480000
  5. Edith Hamilton. Mythology. (Mentor, New American Library, 1953. ISBN 0451627024), 151
  6. John M. Foley. Homer's Traditional Art. (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. ISBN 0271028106), 43.
  7. Ovid. Metamorphoses, Chapter 8, translated by A. S. Kline,[1]University of Virginia. Retrieved October 11, 2008.
  8. Ovid: "Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky."
  9. Some versions say it is a serpent's jaw that is used as the basis for the saw
  10. In Description of Greece 2.4.5. Pausanias listed existing works that were attributed to Daedalus in the second century C.E., Description 9.40.3 [2] perseus Retrieved October 11, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Modern Library. OCLC 3520385
  • Doob, Penelope Reed. The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0801423932
  • Foley, John M. Homer's Traditional Art. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. ISBN 0271028106
  • Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Mentor: New American Library, 1953. ISBN 0451627024

External links

All links retrieved January 12, 2024.


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