Daedalus: The legendary Craftsman with wings

This painting represents Daedalus putting the wings on his son Icarus.
Daedalus and Icarus painted by Follower of Caravaggio

In Greek Mythology, Daedalus was the legendary, skillful inventor and craftsman, who built the Labyrinth on Crete and managed to create two pairs of wings for himself and his son Icarus, with the purpose to fly across the sea and escape from the king Minos. According to the ancient myths, the illustrious Athenian master was infamously known for having murdered his apprentice and nephew, Perdix, who managed to outshine him as a craftsman.

The Crime of Daedalus

In the city of Athens there lived a gifted craftsman named Daedalus. No one could be compared with him in arts. The statues he sculpted looked like alive, the tools and utensils he had invented were awesome and useful. Among them the axe, which people have been using ever since. However, Daedalus felt always jealous of his fame and could not accept the idea of someone, overshadowing his accomplishments. Thus, when he noticed that his nephew and pupil Perdix (Talos) had surpassed him as a craftsman, he lured the young man to the edge of a cliff and threw him down from there. For such a murder, the Athenians banished Daedalus from his hometown. He had been exiled forever and could never come back. However, a time afterwards he found shelter on the island of Crete, under the rule of the powerful king Minos.

Daedalus and the Labyrinth of Crete

Daedalus created many marvelous works of art and architecture for the king of Crete. Among them – the famous Labyrinth, where Minos imprisoned the terrible Minotaur. A fearsome creature with human body, but the head and tail of a bull. When Theseus killed the monster and abandoned Crete with the princess Ariadne, Minos became enraged with Daedalus, because of having advised his daughter about the labyrinth. He had incarcerated the master and his son Icarus inside it.

The great craftsman began to long for his homeland every day. However, there was no way to escape, since the ships of the Cretan king guarded all the routes out. Therefore, it was impossible neither to arrive to the island unnoticed, nor to escape from it.

Finally, after having observed the birds flying in the boundless sky, Daedalus had a daring idea. He decided to craft a pair of wings and fly away from Crete with his son Icarus. “The king might own everything in Crete, but the air is beyond his control!” thought Daedalus and put his hands to work.

Daedalus and Icarus escape from Crete

Daedalus got some bird feathers and started to work. He had crafted four large wings, fastening the feathers with linen threads and wax. Once finished, he called his son Icarus and told him about the precautions: “Today we will get away, flying like two birds in the sky. Be careful, do not ascend very high in the air, if not the radiant Helios could melt the wax of your wings and make you fall down. Fly after me and do not lag behind.”

Daedalus put on his wings, and soared into the air with Icarus. The people below looked at them with amazement and horror. No one never had flown like a bird in the air! Daedalus and Icarus glided farther and farther away. From time to time the master looked at his son with worry.

The death of Icarus

This painting represents the dead Icarus lying on a rock and sea nymphs lamenting his death.
The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Icarus flied as a great expert with wings. The sensation of flight had made him lose his mind, to such an extent, that he forgot his father’s instructions and soared very high in the sky. At this time Helios had devised him approaching and scorched the wax of his wings. As a result, the feathers scattered away in the air and Icarus fell into the sea. He died because of the crash.

The craftsman stays in Sicily

Daedalus saw the feathers, floating on the water and realized what had happened. He cursed his art and the day, when he decided to flee from Crete. However, he could not stay in one place for a long time if he wanted to reach land. He continued flying and finally had arrived to the island of Sicily.

He decided to stay here, since Sicily was far away from Crete, and the vengeful Minos would not find him. Thereupon, the Sicilian king Cocalus accepted Daedalus and the master began to live in his palace.

Minos tries to find Daedalus

But Daedalus’ peaceful life didn’t last long. He learned that Minos had traveled around Greece in his search. In fact, the Cretan king invented a smart trick to catch the wise craftsman. He asked for a riddle to be solved in all the cities, he had been visiting. He presented a reward for a person, able to run a thin string across a spiral seashell.

Finally, at Camicus in Sicily, the king Cocalus accepted the challenge without knowing that Minos pursued Daedalus. Shortly afterwards the Athenian master had solved the riddle. He tied the string to an ant and made him run through the shell, lured by a drop of honey.

Cocalus expected for a generous reward, after such a prowess; otherwise Minos asked him to hand over the fugitive master. Cocalus felt afraid to disobey the order of the fearsome king, but didn’t want to lose Daedalus. Thus, he plotted against Minos and yarned for his early death.

The death of Minos

Cocalus decided to get rid of Minos. For such a purpose he invited him to his palace for a feast, and afterwards offered him to take a pleasant bath. Unsuspecting, the Cretan king accepted the offer. Thereupon meanwhile he bathed, the daughters of Cocalus poured boiling water on him, and he perished in terrible agony. This way, Daedalus got rid of his persecutor and stayed living happily in Sicily, until his old age.

No one knows for sure, how was the death of the great master. However, the rumors say that he found death on a small Islet in Egypt. The inhabitants of this island worshipped him as a god, all the time after it.