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«KRISTOPHER JAMES IDE A Senior Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Honors Program in the Department of Comparative ...»

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The Daedalus of History and Myth:

The Meaning of Creation in Literature from Homer to Joyce


A Senior Thesis

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the

Honors Program in the Department of Comparative Literature

University of California, Davis

June 2011


Brenda Deen Schildgen, Advisor

Dept. of Comparative Literature

Part I: Introduction and Overview It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that everyone aware of Greek mythology is at least familiar with the story of Icarus, the winged boy who fell to his death upon flying too close to the sun. Almost everyone knows about the dark, twisting paths of the Labyrinth and the terrible half-man, half-bull Minotaur imprisoned deep within its elusive center. They may even know about the Greek hero named Theseus who traversed the Labyrinth with the aid of a thread and slew the Minotaur. But few people have any conception of the man who quietly resides behind all of these stories, and without whom, they would have no foundation on which to stand; the Labyrinth would never have been built, the Minotaur never created, Icarus would have never been born, and nor would Icarus have ever taken his fatal flight.

His name is Daedalus, and he encompasses many talents: architect, engineer, inventor, metalsmith, sculptor, and father. But he is also a symbol and a metaphor. As history has progressed, Daedalus himself has become a figure from which a succession of artists and writers have drawn inspiration for the structuring of their own works. His larger myth cycle however, with all of its attendant characters, can also be understood as a vehicle carrying the secrets behind the creative act itself, revealing the benefits of inspiration rooted in observation of the natural world, demonstrating the need for destruction, sacrifice, and major shifts in perspective, and depicting the dangers of invention falling into corrupted hands. Daedalus' particular story, and the larger myth cycle in which he revolves, has been told and retold by various authors throughout classical and modern times to suit many different purposes and according to their respective cultural beliefs. This study will explore the works of these authors and their purposes, either artistic or political. It will also show that Daedalus himself also comes to represent an unbroken chain in the larger translatio studii, the transference of knowledge/skill/techne from one culture to another. Tracing specific textual references from the ancient world will show that Daedalus preserves an older, more established body of knowledge that originally came to the Mediterranean from Egypt and the East, through the ancient Minoan culture on Crete to Greece during their ascent to power and influence, from Greece to Rome, and beyond Rome's decline to the rest of Western culture. This study will then conclude by showing how Daedalus as a literary figure and the Daedalus myth cycle as a whole has continued to influence literature even today, creating a vital thematic thread from Homer down to the 21st century.

At this point however, in order to accomplish this, it is important to first provide a composite formation of the Daedalus myth cycle. A brief re-telling of the basic elements of the cycle will establish both the mythological context in which the story exists and the conceptual foundation at the base of this inquiry's assertions. The story most people are popularly familiar with is that of the Roman poet, Ovid, his works being continually influential on Western writers since the time of ancient Rome. Older sources written in Greek vary widely in their depiction and often disagree on specific details, if giving much information at all about Daedalus himself, but it is possible to construct an overall narrative of his story without regard to language, place, or chronology.

According to Ovid's Metamorphosis, the earliest chapter in Daedalus' story begins in archaic age Athens, before the various tribes of Hellenes were incorporated into the city-state Athens eventually came to be, when he appears as a fully grown adult. No tales remain that speak of his childhood or upbringing, although it seems the Athenians of the classical age later incorporated him into their genealogies as a way of claiming him and his story for their own.

At this point in Daedalus' life, his nephew, alternatively known as either Talus/Talos or Perdix (partridge), shows great promise as an inventor. According to legend, Perdix invented the compass, and having been inspired from a fish's backbone, also created the first saw. Daedalus is overcome with envy and one day tosses Perdix from the top of the acropolis, killing him. For the murder and for blaspheming the sacred acropolis, Daedalus is banished from Athens and becomes an exile (Ovid, Met. 8, 236-259). This part of his story is problematic for any study of Daedalus that seeks to laud his talents and inspirational qualities, and yet is a necessary part of his story. This scar on his character works to make Daedalus distinctly human; he is unlike the gods because his skills and sphere of influence have limits. Even though he is able to create art and artifice in a godlike, superior way, he is never considered a demigod like Hercules. Therefore Daedalus' level of skill, while superior, is portrayed as potentially attainable by other humans.

At this point, there are no surviving stories about where he went after his exile or for how long, who he met, or what specifically he may have learned, but his story eventually continues in Crete when he is a mature man with a teenage son of his own named Icarus.

Apollodorus continues the story in his Library, telling the most complete version of the Daedalus myth cycle from the ancient world. He reveals how Daedalus' skill and abilities are widely known by Minos, Pasiphae, and the ruling elite on Crete, a much more highly advanced civilization than archaic Athens. Pasiphae one day enlists Daedalus to build her an artificial cow body into which she desires to crawl so she might copulate with a special bull Minos once failed to sacrifice according to the god Poseidon's wishes, and for which Pasiphae was driven mad with an unnatural lust by the god in order to revenge Minos' failure.

Daedalus' artificial cow works perfectly and from this union, Pasiphae gives birth to the halfman, half-bull Minotaur. Minos is appalled and conscripts Daedalus, presumably for his role in bringing him to life, to build the famous Labyrinth in order to forever imprison the Minotaur from the light of day. This Daedalus does so skillfully, so that once it is finished, he himself scarcely can remember the way out of its convoluted corridors. Eventually he and Icarus are both imprisoned in the Labyrinth as well, either as a punishment, or to protect the Labyrinth's secrets (Apollodorus, Library, III, xv, 8).

In the meantime, Minos' son happens to be accidentally killed while in Attica and in order to appease Minos’ wrath, the Athenians agree to yearly offer seven young men and seven maidens as a sacrifice to the Minotaur. One particular year, the Athenian king's longlost son appears and becomes part of the sacrificial lot. Theseus boasts he will kill the Minotaur and return safely to Athens with the rest of the youths, thereby freeing his people from the oppression of the obligation to Minos (Apollodorus, Epitome, I, 6-9).

One of Minos' daughters, Ariadne, falls in love with Theseus and decides to help him, asking Daedalus for help. He tells her to give Theseus a ball of thread so he might be able to tie one end to the starting point, wind through the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, and then retrace his path along the thread to safely find his way out again. While Theseus is accomplishing this hero's task, Daedalus is putting the finishing touches on two sets of artificial wings he has created, one for him and one for his son, to fly far away from the Labyrinth and the tyranny of Minos. He warns Icarus not to fly too low or the spray from the sea will weigh down his wings, and not to fly too high or the sun's heat will melt the wax holding the feathered wings together. Daedalus and Icarus launch themselves upon the air, but Icarus disobeys his father and flies too high, sure enough melting his wings and swiftly plummeting to his death in the sea hundreds of feet below and causing great despair in his father (Apollodorus, Epitome, I, 11-13).

While some sources differ on where Daedalus actually flew, the next time Daedalus resurfaces he is in Sicily. This chapter of the story has Daedalus working as a kind of tutor for King Cocalus' daughters, and inventing nothing more exciting than complicated dolls for children. One day Minos and his entourage appear during their Mediterranean-wide search for Daedalus who he blames for everything. Minos challenges everyone to attempt running a thread through the twists of a conch shell, knowing that Daedalus would not be able to resist such a challenge, and thereby hoping to draw him out of hiding. Daedalus accomplishes this by drilling a hole in one end and putting a drop of honey there while tying the thread to an ant that he lets walk through the shell, enticed and driven toward the sweet reward at the other side. Minos knows Daedalus is being sheltered by Cocalus, but before Cocalus gives him up, Cocalus' daughters and Daedalus conspire against Minos, boiling him alive while he takes a bath (Apollodorus, Epitome, I, 13-16).

The final chapter of Daedalus' overall story has him moving to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia where he eventually fades away into obscurity and death, childless and alone (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10.17). Not only does he cease inventing and crafting things, but he no longer has any role in directly influencing the larger story of the Athenian rise to cultural prominence. It is as if he was only remembered at all because he happened to overlap with the story of how Theseus became king and founded what would become classical Athens. And yet, references to the man and his creations abound throughout a variety of ancient sources, preserving the evidence of Daedalus and his story as a vitally important part of the cultural sphere of the ancient Greek and Roman mind, a powerful symbol of creative skill and craft utilized by a series of ancient authors, and the key to understanding how the Greeks themselves received the translatio studii from earlier civilizations. Daedalus' fading away into the background may also reflect the role of a creative person finally stepping away from his or her creations once having finished them.

Daedalus' story is finished, and so as the author of his own life choices, he fades away in order to allow the fantastic story a life of its own.

Part II: Ancient Sources: Who is Daedalus?

In contrast to the composite of the myth here constructed, references in ancient Greek and Latin sources provide versions of how the character of Daedalus and his story have been constructed over time, where and how the details of the overall story differ, how widespread he was in the everyday imagination, and just how important he was as a symbolic figure and organizing principle for other creative people in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

In the historical literature, the oldest, direct reference made about Daedalus is as a person of great creative skill, or techne, in Book 18 of Homer's Iliad. While many scholars disagree about the actual date of composition of the Iliad, it is possible to date it within a range of "the late eighth or early seventh century B.C." (Fagles, 5), but it may have been orally transmitted for centuries prior to having been written down. Either way, it is easily the oldest work of what we designate as Western literature.

Book 18 contains the story of Hephaestus crafting the magnificent shield of Achilles, an apt place for the poet Homer to place a reference to the father of all human craftsmen, Daedalus. Homer mentions Daedalus, or DaidaloV, as a proper name only once in the entire epic. It appears within a very detailed description of the concentric rings being carved into the shield, where one of the rings contains imagery of youth dancing on the "circle Daedalus once laid out on Cnossos' spacious fields for Ariadne the girl with lustrous hair" (Homer, Iliad, trans. by Fagles, 690-692). Rather than "circle," other translators supply "dancing floor" (Lattimore). The word in Greek is "coron," which is a noun referring to a place where the "coroi," the dancing choruses, perform. This early reference not only presents Daedalus as some kind of skillful maker connected to creative expression (dancing), but firmly establishes his presence in Crete at an unspecified time prior to the writing down of Homer's epic. There is no mention of a "labyrinth" or any other part of the Daedalus cycle, although the reference to Ariadne is a definite link to the overall setting and characters of the myth.

As will be seen, Herodotus supplies a possible dating of Daedalus' time in Crete by crossreferencing the date of the Trojan War.

The word "daidala " with its obvious relationship to DaidaloV/Daedalus, often appears in the epic in an adjectival sense to describe many well-wrought objects. In fact, in the beginning of the very next Book of the Iliad, “daidala” is used twice to describe the Hephaestus-made armor as its splendor first shocks the Myrmidon ranks (Homer, Iliad, 19, 13-19). Though it is unclear whether Daedalus was so named because of his skill to make “daidala,” or the adjective arose due to a man named Daedalus’ craftsmanship and skill, still the close linguistic relationship suggests a sense of the character of Daedalus at this point in his mythological origins. “Daidala” can be used to describe both man-made objects and those crafted by gods like Hephaestus, suggesting Daedalus himself has an almost god-like level of quality to his work.

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