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My Name Is Daedalus

A Memoir

by Danko Antolovic

Table of Contents

Daedalus: synopsis

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 4: Flight

Minos had gone mad. His was not the raving madness of someone who has lost his senses, but a cunning, shrewd madness of one who has lost his judgment and sees enemies, danger, and betrayal everywhere. I should have seen it already in his vision of the labyrinth: an impenetrable maze into which he could not be followed, a maze beyond mortal comprehension. I should have known that I was building a madman’s dream.

But I am not mad and, like all sane people, I think of others as not mad unless I am sure they are, and I was willing to think of my King as sane. Besides, I had also become charmed by the idea of the labyrinth. Building a great building without a plan — contrary to all I had known and done until then — became an irresistible challenge, a puzzle to be solved in its own right.

Like Ariadne, I, too, was delighted by the simple, overarching order we found in the mad maze, an order that was there despite all the chance decisions and pretended divinations with sacred stones. I remember the intense look on Ariadne’s fine-featured face as we pondered the drawings in the dust, discovering the hidden order which governed the apparent chaos of the labyrinth.

But now the madman’s dream was built, and I was in prison. “Why, my King?”

Minos said he knew, he knew there was a key to the labyrinth, a magical secret knowledge that allowed one to walk it freely, and I had that knowledge, he knew I did, I had betrayed him, the labyrinth was not beyond comprehension!

My chest tightened; my throat ran dry. If I tried to explain, would he see that he had asked for the impossible, that there is order in everything in the world, and where there is order there is also comprehension? Or would he simply take my words as proof of betrayal and have me killed? Would he spare even Ariadne if he knew?

“No, King,” I answered with an effort, “there is no key. The labyrinth is truly impenetrable, and I would be lost and perish in it like everyone else if I entered it. I have built what you wanted; let me go.”

But Minos was not to be reasoned with. “You are fortunate,” he said, “that I am willing to let you live.”

“But why my son, King? Icarus is a gentle boy of modest ability, he knows nothing about the labyrinth, why imprison him?”

The King simply did not want Icarus to grow up as his enemy, going around Crete and clamoring for his father’s release. And with that, he left, never to talk to me again in his life.

I felt truly wronged by Minos. Like all courtiers, I had been at the receiving end of an uncouth jab from time to time, a jab I could not answer as a man should, because the King was at the other end of it. I learned to live with that. But this was different: I had served my King faithfully, I had carried out his wishes no matter the effort, and now my innocent, harmless boy should end his life in prison as recompense?

I suspected that the wooden cow had a part in all this. If so, Minos had never mentioned it, never accused me of anything, and never asked me to explain or justify myself. He seemed to have decided to increase the pain of his revenge by being utterly arbitrary and unjust.

Icarus and I were imprisoned in a high tower, from which we could look over Knossos and the surrounding countryside, but the only way out of the tower would have been a fall to our death. When I was a child, I had observed birds, and I began to dream of flying at an early age. It must be an incomparable feeling to glide in the air, soar on the wind, and look down on the Earth and the myriad creatures laboriously milling around on it. I imagined, with childish joy, how wonderful it would be to just spread my wings and fly away, like a bird, from the little tragedies of childhood, such as annoying siblings or parental reprimands. And yes, flying away from this prison tower now would certainly be very welcome.

As a youngster in Athens, I made wings for myself from wood, cloth, papyrus, and such stuff. The first wings I made stretched from my shoulders to the ends of my arms, and no matter how vigorously I waved them up and down, I remained on the ground. I tried making larger, longer wings, to catch more wind under them, but then their wooden frames broke when I waved them; when I used heavier wood, the wings became too heavy to move with the strength of my arms.

As with most Athenian youths, gymnastics, exercise of the body, was part of my schooling and, while not a notable athlete, I was not weak. Still, in order to fly I would have to have enormous strength in my chest and arms, and the more strength I gained, the heavier my body would be, making flying more difficult. My legs and my loins would be mere dead weight in flight.

Moreover, even if I did lift myself from the ground, I could only fly as if suspended at the shoulders. My arms were too high up on my body, and the body would simply hang below the wings: it would be impossible to fly prone in the air, to swim gracefully in the wind as birds do. Gradually, I came to understand why birds look the way they do, and that Man, who does not look like a bird, is destined to walk on the earth.

Around the same time, I made toys that could fly, pieces of cloth or papyrus stretched on a light wooden frame, which would soar in the wind at the end of a string. Perhaps I could make a wind glider that would carry a man?

I hung stones from my gliders to find out how much weight they could carry, and the outcome was meager: they could, at best, carry a pebble or two. A human body would need a glider so large it would be too heavy for the wind to lift it, so it would have to be made larger to gain enough lift, which would make it even heavier... It was hopeless.

All my flying ended up failing, but I learned something worthwhile from these failures; I understood that one cannot put together parts of two different creatures and hope to gain the abilities of both. For a body to work well, several things must come together just right: the wings must be large enough and light enough and strong enough all at once; the flyer’s body must be strong enough and light enough and shaped the right way, also all at once.

Sometimes these conditions are met in small things, like my toy gliders, but not in large ones. That is perhaps why birds, which are held aloft only by the wind, never grow as large as creatures whose feet walk on land, while the legless fishes and sea monsters, buoyed by water along their entire body, are said to grow to enormous size.

I had the time to think about all this in prison, looking at the sun-scorched hills of Crete, a short flight and an unreachable distance away. Birds flew by... Icarus turned and looked straight at me with his simple child’s face. “Father, must we stay here? Can you not make something that would let us fly away like those birds?”

I shook my head slowly. “Child,” I said, “I tried many years ago, and such a thing cannot be made, no matter how much I would want to do it right now.”

Even if I decided to try once more, I thought, there was nothing to work with here, on the top of our tower. The guards knew enough about me to grow suspicious, had I asked for cloth or wood or other such things under some pretext. No, I knew that that way to freedom was simply out of the question, which is why I was all the more astonished when I later heard stories about Icarus and myself flying away on feathered wings, soaring in the air and negotiating the winds like gods.

It was all much simpler than that and, indeed, we did not remain imprisoned for long. I was studying the heavy door that led down from the tower, looking for weaknesses, and observing the habits of the guards when they came in, hoping to find a way to overpower them. It did not look good: the door was strong, and the guards came almost always in pairs, apparently ordered not to stay long or say much.

Then one night, very late already, the heavy door opened and someone appeared, holding a small covered light. Pasiphae stood there, of all people, and said, “Get up quickly and come with me.” Icarus and I followed her out, and she carefully bolted the door behind us; a single guard was sleeping the blissful sleep of those who either have a clean conscience or have drunk a sleeping potion. Once down in the street, she said, “A boat is waiting for you in the harbor, my maid will take you there. Flee Crete at once, and may the gods protect you.” With that, she was gone.

We followed the maidservant. It was a long, tense walk in a darkness broken only by starlight and the little lantern, but there was indeed a boat waiting among the fishing boats in a remote corner of the harbor. It was a skiff with oars and sail, small, but looking fast and seaworthy, as well as I could discern in the dark night.

We pushed off quietly and, with Icarus at the stern, I rowed the boat slowly and silently out of the harbor, past the looming shadows of trading vessels and Cretan battleships. It took a long time to leave the harbor in the moonless night, but once we were far enough not to be noticed by night sentries or sleepless sailors, we unfurled the sail. A gentle westerly wind was blowing, and I set course northeast, navigating by the stars as best as I knew how.

Looking back at the events of that night, I am not sure why Queen Pasiphae had let us escape. Perhaps she had more justice in her heart than the King; she certainly had more kindness. Perhaps she could not bear to see an innocent child suffer for something she had done, for surely she had a greater role in bringing the Minotaur into the world than anyone. Or maybe she was simply grateful for those few days of bliss long ago, bliss which I had made possible for her.

Whatever the case, I had underestimated Pasiphae. She had carried out the deed flawlessly, from the choice of a moonless night to the drugged guard, to the fine little boat that carried us out to sea. And to have the courage to appear at the prison herself, perhaps to prove who was behind the rescue! Daughter of Helios and sister of Circe, forgive me my poor judgment.

Everything did not go well with our escape. After a while, winds picked up and shifted; sea swells grew larger, and the stars began to disappear behind the clouds. A storm was coming, and soon the skiff was sailing dangerously fast on the rough sea. Icarus grew excited about the speed at which we were going and the loud, regular splashing of the waves against the boat’s hull. Over the din of the sea, I called out to him to shorten sail while I was steering the skiff into the waves, so as not to take in water or overturn.

Icarus was still fiddling with the ropes, trying to catch better wind into the sail, when a sudden gust caught the boat: the sail swung around and knocked him overboard. I screamed desperately and threw a rope into the waves as quickly as I could, but the skiff was moving too fast under full sail, and he disappeared in the darkness in a few moments. By the time I had furled the sail, turned the boat around and rowed back to where I thought I had lost Icarus, it was altogether too late. I called him at the top of my voice, against the wind and waves, as long as I could. By the time the morning came and the storm died down, I was alone and lost at sea in a small boat.

* * *

Mine was not the only escape from Crete that ended badly. The events I will now relate happened shortly after I had left the island, and I know of them only through the words of other people.

Due to an old dispute, the city of Athens was under obligation to pay a tribute to Crete every nine years, by sending seven youths and seven maidens to Crete as slaves. In the past, some of these slaves had come to a brutal end, but most lived on as servants and attendants in and around Knossos.

The tribute came due again that year, but this time a young warrior from the town of Troezen — Theseus by name — came forward and offered to go as one of the slaves to Crete. He intended to bring the Athenians back safely, bloody some Cretan heads if need be, and free Athens of the ignominious tribute.

Theseus was a warrior of some repute: dependable, strong, and fearless. He was a hero. He was also dashingly handsome, and stories are told that, on the way to Crete, he was graciously invited into the arms of not one, but two chaste but distraught Athenian maidens, which invitations he graciously accepted.

When they arrived, King Minos, whose temperament would have by then been wholly unrecognizable to me, decreed that the Athenians were to be summarily thrown into the labyrinth as fodder for the Minotaur. Theseus stepped forward and declared, not quite knowing what he was saying, that he would enter the labyrinth alone and fight the Minotaur.

Ariadne had noticed Theseus as soon as he arrived, and that saved his life. Furtively, the story is told, she offered him a magic ball of thread, which I had supposedly given her, that would lead him to the Minotaur, if he promised to take her back to Athens as his wife. That was an easy and pleasant promise to make, but there was no magic thread. Theseus surely entered the labyrinth with a thread tied to the door, but what Ariadne had really given him was the knowledge of how to search the labyrinth, the knowledge I had revealed to her back in the days when together we studied paths drawn in the dust.

Even so, it must not have been easy. Perhaps the young man was both persistent and lucky; perhaps the Minotaur came looking for him instead, but they met and fought, and Theseus emerged from the labyrinth alive, dragging behind him the dead monster.

That same evening, Theseus fought his way out of the harbor, with Ariadne and the Athenians on his ship. Behind them lay a shaken Crete; the deadly mystery of the labyrinth had been defied, the Minotaur slain. Athens’ tribute was broken, and instead of receiving slaves, Minos himself had lost the brightest and most beautiful among his children.

When the fugitives’ ship anchored at the island of Naxos, a day or two into the return voyage, hero Theseus abandoned Ariadne, who had fallen asleep on the shore, hoisted the sails, and went his heroic way. No one could tell me why, but some people believe that he was afraid of the uproar he would have caused in Athens, had he returned with the enemy’s daughter as his wife.

I had not seen much of Ariadne after the labyrinth was completed, and I saw her not at all after my imprisonment and flight from Crete. If she had anything to say regarding the way her father had acted toward me, I did not hear about it. Our ways parted forever, but I still wonder from time to time what course the events would have taken if Ariadne had been with me in the skiff fleeing Crete, instead of my hapless son.

Proceed to Chapter 5...

Copyright © 2018 by Danko Antolovic

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