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 3: Labyrinth
King Minos had talked to me about building the labyrinth on several occasions, long before the ox-like child was born. He imagined it as a great palatial building, or perhaps a fortress, with endless corridors, rooms and passageways so numerous, intricate and irregular in layout that no mortal could find a way through it and out again. The reason he gave was that he wanted to be known as a ruler in possession of a magical place, a building surpassing all human imagination and comprehension.
I did not want to contradict the King, but I pointed out to him that such an edifice would be difficult to maintain and that I did not see how it could be put to any good use. It would be utterly useless, I thought to myself: people would be lost and die inside, and those who went in to repair it, clean it and take out the dead, would become lost and die themselves.
Within a lifetime, it would become a feared and neglected ruin, bringing no glory to its maker. But still, Minos would bring up the labyrinth from time to time, even pointing at hillsides or some level plains in Crete where it could be built. I understood from his words that the building he had in mind was enormous.
I did not believe that the King’s reason for desiring the labyrinth was simply to impress the world. There was something deeper and darker about it. Did he want to build a cruel prison for some enemy, or enemies? Minos could be harsh, but I did not know him as a man who delighted in meting out cruelties to the defenseless. No, he would much sooner kill his conquered foes outright than go to any great length to torment them.
The best explanation I could think of was that it had something to do with his vision of himself as a man and ruler. Perhaps he wanted a magical place into which he could disappear when he felt that his end was near. Perhaps he wanted to leave behind the memory of a great, otherworldly king who departed for the netherworld leaving no trace, disappearing into the impenetrable mystery into which no one could follow him and come back alive. I could not be sure.
Meanwhile, Pasiphae’s monstrous son was gaining in size and strength and was causing real misery to the luckless slave nurses and attendants who were given the thankless task of caring for him. Worse yet, he was becoming an obvious embarrassment for the royal court, what with ordinary Cretans gossiping about him, and even some foreign visitors asking about the strange boy at the court in Knossos.
Minos was at last ready to act. “Daedalus, we are going ahead with the labyrinth, and I want you to build it. That is the only place I can think of where I can keep this creature out of my sight. Within a year, he will have to be kept in heavy chains, and I do not want him near my palace.”
That he did not choose to simply kill the creature told me that he knew who its father was. He must have reasoned that he had already irked Poseidon by keeping the sacred white bull and did not want to anger the god further by killing the bull’s progeny. Strangely, the bull had quietly wandered away from the pastures and was never seen anywhere on the island of Crete again.
Presence of the ox-child — soon to be known as the Minotaur — gave Minos a good reason or, at least, a convincing excuse, to fulfill his dream of building the labyrinth. I accompanied him as he went on tour of his kingdom, in order to choose personally the site of the great edifice.
* * *
A few days into the travels, we came upon a patch of high plains some distance from Knossos: it was dry, like most of Crete, with barren rocky ground but flat and level enough to build a great palace upon it. There was good stone to be quarried from the hillsides nearby, and there were almost no inhabitants, so I gave my assent as the chief artisan, and the location was decided upon. I will add that the chosen place was spacious enough to fit an entire town. Minos was building on a grand scale.
The King told me at the outset that the labyrinth was to be an edifice beyond comprehension. As we began to talk about it in some detail, gradually giving a firmer shape to his early, vague imaginings, it became clear to me that he really meant it and that this aspect of the labyrinth was important to him. But how would I go about designing something that could not be understood?
Like any craftsman, I had always drawn numerous sketches of the things I was about to build. I often made small mock-ups in wax, wood or papyrus, in order to help me see how the thing would work; I would then turn it around in my mind and delay building anything until I was satisfied that I understood everything about it. At least one man — I, myself — would have to understand the building principle of Minos’ labyrinth and, if I understood it, my helpers and foremen, who observed how it was built, would also be able to comprehend some of it. In truth, anything one mind comprehends another can comprehend too, with some effort and with careful attention, and so if I understood the labyrinth, anybody else could also come to understand it.
As I scribbled down my tentative sketches, another difficulty hounded my mind: even if I devised a plan for the labyrinth, how would I actually design a building so intricate that nobody could find a way through it? As the rooms and corridors were added to the labyrinth, workers who built different parts of it or brought in the supplies would begin to lose their way, and I, the only one who understood the building, would have to attempt to rescue them. The work would be delayed by these mishaps, and I would either have to instruct others in the secret of the layout or accept a steady loss of lives as the work progressed. That was a dreadful price to pay.
Closest to incomprehensible is that which is meaningless, and this insight became my key to the labyrinth. There would be no sketches, no mock-ups, no great secret plan to be jealously guarded. Minos wanted an edifice beyond comprehension, and he would have one: no one would understand the principle on which it was built, not even I, because there would be no principle.
Driven by this new insight, I quickly gathered a work crew of modest size and took them to a place roughly in the middle of the labyrinth’s chosen location. I was at last ready to begin.
I told my workers to build a passageway in the open field, some ten paces long and framed by two high stone walls and a heavy roof. When the passage was completed, I produced a small jar with some pebbles in it; I drew two pebbles from the jar, one at a time, and inspected them carefully, declaring that one end of the passage would branch into two new passages, the other into three.
I marked the new walls on the ground, wrapping them as close as I could to the two already built walls, and ordered the workers to build and cover these new passages. Now the odd building had five openings. I consulted the pebbles at each opening again, in order to decide how many new branching passages would issue from it. The layout was beginning to be crowded, so I turned some passages into dead ends, seeking all the while to cover the ground with walled passages without leaving any unused space between them.
The edifice burgeoned in all directions, one winding passageway at a time, and the work crews increased in size. My task was to walk around the periphery and decide upon the number and layout of new corridors. By invoking blind chance in designing the layout, I sought to remove all human understanding from the building, including my own.
The pebbles in my jar were round and very similar to each other, but they had fine markings on them, ranging from one to four; in order to decide on the number of new corridors, I drew a pebble and looked at its marking. If a decision had to be made whether a corridor was to make a left or right turn, I had different pebbles for that.
On regular occasions, I consulted the pebbles and ordered the crews to connect a dead-end corridor with an adjacent passage, by demolishing a piece of already built wall. The workers quietly shook their heads, perhaps thinking that this was mad, or else part of the labyrinth’s deep mystery, but I never closed off already built passages with new walls.
Word quickly spread that the labyrinth was being built with the guidance of a new and unknown divination using oracular stones, and I did not discourage the rumors. I was, however, worried about the real danger to my workers, danger which grew more acute with the size of the building and the numbers of the crew.
The building had a high, heavy roof with small skylights here and there, and was very dark inside. Remembering any but a few turns on the way in, and recognizing them in the gloom on the way back, was impossible for any mortal; yet the greatest peril lay in the many looping paths which would easily thwart a search for the exit.
In time, I came to loathe this ever-present danger. I gave every single worker my strictest orders not to venture inside without reason, and never beyond a point at which he could still see the daylight coming from an entrance. At night, the building was cordoned off, its great shadowy shape garlanded with the torches of armed guards. We kept all onlookers at a good distance, and I can say with some pride that we did not lose a single life in the labyrinth during the build.
Many people came to see the labyrinth, the King’s strange undertaking. Minos himself came a few times, looked at the construction, and asked me some questions. He did not seem very interested in the details of the work. Instead, he told the charioteer to take him to the barren hills nearby, and then he went uphill on foot, on dusty paths strewn with stones, until he had reached an elevated rocky plateau from which he could look down at the labyrinth.
I accompanied him once on these outings, and I observed the strong features of his face take on a pensive, somber, and somewhat puzzling expression as he looked at his edifice. “Are you satisfied with the progress, my King?” I asked. Minos answered that he was, but said nothing more.
The labyrinth was not a handsome building; it did not even look much like a building from a distance. Growing roughly round in shape, flat and featureless, it looked more like a large white scab on the dry, shrub-covered Cretan landscape. To anyone frugal and sensible, this work must have appeared like an enormous waste, but Crete was prosperous, and the King could afford it. Minos may have wasted Crete’s fortunes, but at least he was not wasting the lives of her people in ill-conceived wars, nor blighting them with cruel and arbitrary rule. Not yet.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Danko Antolovic