My Name Is Daedalus
by Danko Antolovic
The narrator of this memoir speaks to us from a mythical past, not from a historical one. He and his contemporaries are figures of legend whose world might have plausibly been that of the Aegean in the late Bronze Age, between 1500 and 1200 BC; the legends themselves were first told to us at a much later time.
The narrator would have been born in a walled city, in the place that was perhaps already called Athens; his mother tongue would have been a distant ancestor of what we today know as Greek, and he would have possessed highly refined skills of a Bronze Age craftsman.
His fictional — rather than mythological — insights into the ordered structure of the labyrinth and the problem of flight are insights that an educated and inquisitive mind of that time could have achieved.
Chapter 1: Talos
My name is Daedalus. I am Athenian, of royal descent if the truth be told, since great king Erechtheus was my ancestor several generations in the past.
My branch of the Erechtheid family did not rise to prominence, however, either through wealth or through battlefield bravery, and I have no great claim to royal status. Rather, my parents’ household in Athens was of quite ordinary station, and I had a contented, happy childhood of an ordinary boy. We did not possess great wealth, but neither were we poor, and I grew up wanting for nothing that a child would need, from sustaining food on the table to good schooling.
Like all boys, I suffered patiently through my early education, but I had some natural abilities that showed themselves soon in my life, and which did not go unnoticed by my parents and tutors. I have always remained grateful for their attentiveness to the inclinations of my early years.
I was good at drawing and also at shaping clay and carving wood, and I had a great desire to understand how things work. I watched the buzzing wasps as they built their nests in trees and ants as they foraged on the ground. I observed boatmen who rowed and sailed their boats and merchants who drove oxcarts in the streets. I had a good sense of proportion, and I took to making small replicas of things that attracted my curiosity: I made little houses and temples from clay or wood, sometimes an animal or human figure, leaving them strewn around my childhood home. It made me immensely happy if I succeeded in making a replica that imitated the purpose as well as the appearance of the thing it represented.
I liked to make boats, perhaps because of the everyday presence of the sea and seafaring, and also because it is not all that difficult to make a small boat that floats nicely on the surface of the water without capsizing or sinking. I made many little boats and rafts with sails, and I sometimes sent them out onto the open sea under a favorable breeze, watching them grow smaller in the distance until they vanished in the sun’s glare on the waves.
Thanks to my parents’ foresight and good judgment, I was taught how to write, and I was also instructed in the customs of my land, in good manners and in the worship of the gods. But my father and mother knew what was really dear to me and, as soon as I was old enough, they sent me to notable Athenian craftsmen for apprenticeship and instruction.
I started under the tutelage of a master shipbuilder, learning carpentry and boat-building. I soon became proficient with tools, learned the properties of wood, and did my part in building a boat or two. To the sincere delight of my master, I became a competent novice carpenter very quickly and, although refinement and experience still lay in the future, my parents allowed me to enter into another apprenticeship, that with a stone mason who made monuments and temple decorations. With him, I mastered the strenuous and delicate art of working hard stone into pleasing and beautiful shapes. My last instruction was in metalworking, and thus I learned to cast lead and gold, and to work copper and bronze into multitudes of shapes, from fine ornaments to plows and spear points.
Those were happy years of my early youth. I threw myself into learning the skills with the drive and tenacity of a boy soon to be a young man, and I spent long days in the workshop, working on the task given me by the master, striving to make every detail just right. More than once did the morning find me asleep by the workbench, spent torches piled up by my side, and more than once did the master smith admonish me not to neglect proper eating and rest, lest my attention slip and I burn myself with hot bronze. Still, I remained strong and healthy, and my world was one of long, busy days of learning and work.
All schooling must end someday, however, and by the time bronze, copper, and gold came to yield willingly to my hand, I sensed that I was ready to make my way in the world as a craftsman. With a few kind recommendations from my craft masters at first and, by the word of mouth later, I began to find employment and was soon able to support myself with my new skills. I did this for a year or two, and by the time I reached the age of twenty, I was already somewhat known as a craftsman and artisan. Athenians who knew me called upon me quite often for various tasks they wished to have done: some large, some small, some intricate and exciting, some mundane. I enjoyed my work, and the work provided for a modest but comfortable living for a single young man that I was.
My older sister, Polycaste, had a son, a twelve-year old, and she asked me on one occasion if I would take him as an apprentice and teach him the crafts. The boy’s name was Talos, and, according to his mother, he had a good mind and showed great promise as a craftsman. I was fond of my sister, and it also flattered me that she thought me a good enough artisan to entrust the instruction of her son to me, so I agreed. It was a decision whose shadow would never leave me.
There was no doubt that Talos was bright. He was quick to learn, and he liked to play with things in new and different ways. One time he was sawing at a piece of wood with an animal jawbone or some such thing; then he went to a smith whom his parents knew, and asked him to make a jagged strip of bronze, similar to that jawbone. Naturally, the bronze strip cut the wood much better and faster.
He indeed had the makings of a craftsman, but he also harbored very high regard for his gifts and was convinced of his own future importance, all of which was merely incongruous and annoying in a child of so young an age. Perhaps his parents praised him too much; whatever the reason, his officious and self-important ways led his peers to call him “Partridge,” and the nickname stuck to him.
Talos remained with me for two months, and he learned much in that time. I was working for a wealthy customer who wanted to have his home adorned in a fashionably pious style; the man was very particular about it, so I spent a great deal of time studying the temples in the city and trying to find a way to apply their decorations to a family dwelling.
One good place to study was the Acropolis, so I decided to go up there, and I took Talos with me. We made the long climb up the narrow steps and remained on the high plateau of the palace and temple complex throughout the day.
I pointed out to Talos the things I knew about the construction of such buildings — subtle proportions, finely fitted stone blocks, intricate ornaments — and he would reply with a casual “But of course!” as if he knew all of that already. “And just how many of these have you built, you marvelous child? ” I thought to myself
I had drawn numerous sketches of building decorations, which I hoped I could use for my customer’s house. As the night drew near, we stood on the cliff edge of the massive rock that is Acropolis, looking down on Athens in the setting sun and pointing out places we knew well. I was breathing in the fragrant evening air, relishing this moment of quiet enjoyment at the end of a long, hot, sweaty, but well-used day.
Talos was chattering about this and that — I mostly ignored him — but then he went on to relate how he had met a notable member of the Athenian aristoi who happened to visit his father on some business. Polycaste had praised her son to the nobleman to no end, and the man was so impressed that he promised to keep Talos in his sights, for he was such a smart and endearing boy.
Talos was childishly pleased with himself, telling me how easy it was to sway the nobleman with a few clever words, words that made him appear wiser than his years. A knot tightened in my throat. I felt a pinch in the chest as if my heart had skipped a beat; the placid, fragrant beauty of the evening vanished. I had suddenly learned something that I did not yet know I did not know.
This partridge clucking next to me, this boy who never fully left his mother’s womb, will soon enter the halls of Athenian power with the help of his father’s influential friends. He will find other partridges there; he will cluck as they cluck and preen as they preen; they will approve of him and he will become one of them. Before many years have passed, he will count as my better, and from a seat of power he will cluck down at me and order me around. He will pronounce upon my worth as a man and artisan, and I will have to hold my tongue and do as I am told; those long days and nights of dedicated work, my many skills, none of that will count for anything. A cold, black hatred welled up inside me: “Curse you, Partridge, no you won’t!”
The sun had already set, and we were the only people to be seen on the Acropolis. I took two quiet steps back and behind him. It took no more than one good push: light in the body and not yet very strong, he went over the precipice like a doll. It seems that he was too taken by surprise to even shriek on the way down, as I only heard a few dull thuds when his body struck the cliffs below.
I descended back to the plain in the falling night, alone. The body of the dead boy lay somewhere in the darkness, but my heart was empty. That cold, black thing was gone from it, and a single thought was turning around in my mind: “I will never be my own master.” However skilled I may become, however diligent, for the rest of my days I will sell my skills as a hetaira sells her caresses, and I will always take orders from those who practice the honeyed, lying mastery over the minds and souls of men. It will not be Talos; it will be someone else.
The next morning, I returned to the foot of the cliff with a large sack. I estimated by sight where we had stood on the rim the previous evening and went to look for the body in the thicket below. I found it soon enough and placed it in the sack, intending to find a place where I could bury it properly or at least cover it with stones well enough to satisfy the burial customs of the land. The ground around me was far too craggy and hard for a burial.
As I was trudging along the road, three workmen came from the other direction. We exchanged the morning greetings, but one of them looked at the load on my back with suspicion, said something to the others, and suddenly all three demanded to know what was in the sack.
Slowly, I lowered the sack onto the ground and mustered my best calm and friendly mien of a righteous citizen. “My dear fellows,” I said, “I found a large dead serpent by the road this morning, and I am taking it somewhere where I may inter it, as is the law and custom of Athens.”
For a moment their faces grew less tense. They had a long day of work ahead of them, and it would be easiest to believe the stranger’s reassuring words, set the suspicions aside, and go one’s way. But it did not work: there was a crack in my voice, and the look in my eyes must have been less reassuring than my words. I was not born with the sweet, poisonous gift of deception, and neither were they dumb men, these laborers. They seized me and my sack, and I found myself before the court of Athenian elders, accused of murder.
I had never done anything against the law until then, and being still quite young, I did not really think I was in serious peril. That was foolishly naive on my part, but perhaps the gray-eyed Athena, the goddess enamored of the clever and the skilled, did watch over me. It may have been because of my hitherto blameless life, or maybe because Talos had only been a child, or maybe they half-believed my protestations that his fall was an accident which I tried to hide out of fear; whatever the reason, the court only sentenced me to exile. I was to leave Athens immediately, never to return.
A convicted murderer, I was a shame to my family and suddenly an accursed stranger to all who had known me; I admit that the pain I had caused to my sister and parents remains on my conscience to this day. I was granted protection in a temple of Athena outside the city for a few days, as the custom allowed. One remaining friend helped me retrieve my modest savings, and I made my way onto a ship that was sailing for Crete.
I had met some Cretans earlier that year and had heard from them that the island kingdom was peaceful and prosperous, a good place to be. There wasn’t much to lose by trying my luck there, and it was certainly better than skulking around on the mainland, hoping not to be recognized.
As I stood on the ship’s deck and watched the coast of Hellas recede, I began to think that the judges had actually done me a favor. The exile was meant as a harsh punishment, but I had soured on Athens and her ways in the days that had passed since the death of Talos. “Even if they had decided to put me to death”, I thought, “I would have died a stranger to my city, not a repentant son.” This exile was the push I needed to spread my wings, go elsewhere, and try something new that would be my own. Crete would be just fine.
Copyright © 2018 by Danko Antolovic