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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 5: Camicus

The storm that took Icarus had left me in the middle of the sea with little more than the clothes I had worn in Minos’ prison. I estimated that I was some distance north of Crete, and I went on sailing north in hope of reaching the southern coast of the mainland or one of the Hellenic islands.

When at last I made landfall a few days later, I was starving and lost. I survived on the kindness of strangers and on some payments for odd help that I could provide. I fed myself by fishing with a stolen net and by occasionally scavenging foodstuffs that had no owner nearby. It was a time of hardship greater than any I had ever suffered before. I was destitute, and I was wary both of Minos’ pursuers and of local Hellenes whose hard faces and suspicious gazes offered a cold welcome to strangers.

I sailed from one coastal settlement to the next, staying nowhere long. When, in some provincial harbor, I came upon a trading ship sailing west, I offered my labor as a deckhand by way of fare, left Pasiphae’s good little boat to its fate, and some days later landed in Camicus.

Camicus is a small kingdom on the far western edge of the Hellenic world, nestled on a hilly coast and adjacent to Sican neighbors who are friendly at times and not so at other times. Its fortunes have never garnered much attention in the course of the world’s events. The ruler of Camicus was one King Cocalus. Shrewd and cautious by nature, Cocalus governed with one paramount goal in mind: the survival of his kingdom and himself.

I asked to see the king shortly after my arrival, and he received me without undue delays or officiousness. I was forthright: I explained how and why I had arrived there. I told him of my escape from Crete, and I respectfully asked that he extend his protection to a fugitive and castaway.

Cocalus was equally forthright with me. He said that yes, he had heard something about the events in Crete; he has always found it best to stay out of other people’s quarrels but, all the same, the builder of the Labyrinth was welcome in Camicus. The kingdom already had all the temples it needed, but its fortified defenses were somewhat weaker than he liked. If I thought myself up to the task of reviewing their condition and coming up with improvements, he would gladly offer me the hospitality of the royal court.

There was something else, however, that King Cocalus valued more than temples and fortresses: his three daughters. Would I be willing to be their tutor and guide their education? They were already receiving the upbringing customary for young women, but he intended to give them the same education as if they were his sons. He said he had not yet found a suitable instructor to teach them natural philosophy and the related arts of measurement and reckoning, and my knowledge and long experience with these things should make me a good tutor.

This was an unusual request. Cocalus had no male heir, so perhaps he sought to protect himself from claimants to his throne and ensure an orderly passing of the title to a worthy successor. Having his daughters in positions of influence, maybe as priestesses or even court officials, would greatly strengthen his hand, and he was preparing them for this role. If so, that was an uncommon strategy but, then again, King Cocalus was not an altogether commonplace king.

The King’s three girls were inseparable, close in years and at that age when the young mind begins to outgrow the simplicity of childhood but is not yet greatly burdened with the stirrings of adult life. They were lively and curious about everything.

I made sure they attended all the instruction that they already had, and I taught them the more abstract subjects which the King was eager for them to learn and which were not usually taught to girls. But the girls soon decided that surely I must know the answer to every question, and so, in addition to my work on the defenses of Camicus, I acquired a small following that went wherever I went, peppering me with inquiries. They gave me the nickname “Uncle Del.”

“What kind of seashell is this, Uncle Del?” “How do ships catch wind in their sails?” “What is Athens like, Uncle Del?” “Uncle Del, do fish breathe under water?” “Why is the sky blue, Uncle Del?” There was no end to it. We went for walks along the shore, looking at birds and sea creatures; I took them to the shipyard to show them how ships were made; they followed me to see the new fortified walls being built; they looked at everything and asked about everything.

I am not a pedagogue, far from it. I am an artisan, used to working alone or at most, supervising workers and apprentices. But this onrush of curiosity from free and quick young minds was something new and wonderful. I gave them as much attention as I could, and I never denied them an answer, even if only to explain that I really did not know. Perhaps this work of educating the young would wash away everything painful, sordid, and ugly that had engulfed my life back in Crete!

* * *

The Fates, however, were still spinning and measuring the thread of my destiny. About four years after my arrival, the new fortifications finished, the kingdom of Camicus received an unexpected visit: a good many Cretan ships appeared in the sea off of its coast. They cast anchor just outside the harbor and, after a little while Minos, King of Crete, stepped ashore. He was on his way westward on some business, he said, and decided to pay a visit to this friendly kingdom, about which he had heard only good things.

King Cocalus received him with dignified hospitality, although, if I knew my host, he was already informed just how many Cretan ships were bobbing in the waves outside his harbor, and of what kind. He was undoubtedly wondering where Minos was going and what the real purpose of his visit was. Naturally, I remained well out of sight.

In the course of the pleasantries that followed, Minos brought up a curious puzzle. Oh, it was a bet that he had struck with the ruler of Egypt, he said, for a trifling sum, but the thing caught his curiosity and he was willing to pay a handsome reward, considerably larger than the bet itself, to any king in whose realm someone was to solve the puzzle. He had wagered that it was possible to thread an ordinary twine all the way through this here triton shell. Would anyone in Camicus be able to accomplish that? And he produced a large, beautiful triton shell with some ten or more coils.

Cocalus sent for me later that day; he quietly related the story and asked whether I could solve the triton shell puzzle. He knew I was hiding from Minos, and he had no intention of exposing me, but he would not be averse to collecting the reward and showing off a bit to the mighty king of Crete. Could I do it?

We are so easily seduced by the habits of our mind, perhaps because, in the end, we are alone within ourselves and there is no one else there to watch over us. My thoughts followed a familiar path without my even noticing: I was grateful to Cocalus for having given me refuge, and was glad to be able to express my gratitude. I also relished the opportunity to show him some of my cleverness, and the task itself was amusing and unusual. I took the triton shell and sat down to think.

The difficulty was of course that a twine, or any other thread, was too limp to push through the windings of the shell; a stick was too rigid, a stalk of grass too short and brittle. There just wasn’t anything long, thin, resilient, and pliant enough to push all the way through the ever tighter and narrower coils. But perhaps a living courier? There were many things small enough to crawl through the shell, and I asked some children to bring me some live ants.

I found a very fine silky thread, which I carefully tied around the waist of a large, vigorous ant. The shell had a small opening at the tip, as they often do; I widened it just enough and baited the outer edges of the hole with honey. Then I dropped my leashed ant into the wide opening of the shell and waited. These creatures can sense food from quite a distance and, before long, I saw the thread being pulled into the shell as the ant followed the coils toward the honey. It emerged at the tip, dragging the thread with it, and I had the puzzle solved. I now tied a twine to the fine thread, pulled it carefully through the shell and presented it to Cocalus. That was how I committed the greatest and most foolish mistake of my life.

The next morning, I listened surreptitiously to the exchange between the two kings. As soon as he saw the threaded shell, Minos’ manners became imperious. “Only Daedalus could have done this!” he exclaimed. “Show me the man who solved the puzzle. Hand him over!” Tracking me down was the entire purpose of the puzzle, and of the Cretans’ visit!

Whether Minos had been looking for me elsewhere already, or had come straight to Camicus with foreknowledge, he had assumed, correctly, that the ruler of the realm might not know me or might not be inclined to relinquish me. He wagered, again correctly, that I would be drawn to the challenge if I heard of it, and that I would take the bait. He would then know for certain that I was there; he could demand that I be surrendered to him, and he had warships to back up his demand. Minos, the mad Minos, had outwitted me, and I had followed the scent of honey with no more foresight than that ant in the sea-snail’s shell!

I withdrew quietly and walked out to a distant corner high up on the palace walls. For the first time ever, I really feared for my life. What was there to do? I could hide somewhere and wait for Minos to depart, but I could not know what Cocalus had promised him. He could very well send me to Crete in chains as soon as I reappeared. Perhaps I could escape from Camicus and disappear into the hinterlands, but where would I go? I was an exile from an exile; I knew nobody in these parts, and I was not so young that I would venture to live in hiding indefinitely.

Perhaps I could come forward openly, demand that Minos state what harm I had done to him, defend myself, and appeal to Cocalus’ judgment. I laughed at myself: two kings were sizing each other up for a fight, there were warships in the harbor, and the shores were full of Camican soldiers. Cocalus was not a fool: he could easily hand me over on a pretext, make some conciliatory offerings to the gods, and watch the Cretan fleet depart without a fight. No, this was no time to expect justice. I would not run, I would not plead; should the guards come looking for me, there would still be time for one last flight from the palace wall. It was better than dying at the hands of Minos.

I stood up there a long time, looking at the harbor and watching the two armies carefully jostle for field advantage, all the while trying not to appear hostile. Suddenly, the King’s oldest daughter appeared on the wall and ran up to me. She was out of breath: “Uncle Del, I was looking for you! Father is stalling for time, and he told me that Minos would be taking a bath this afternoon. Do what you can, do what you have to do.”

She repeated those last words: “Do what you have to do,” and I knew that they meant her father’s nod of approval. Gods, how she had grown since I first met her as a lively young child!

Doing my best to remain unnoticed, I walked quickly to the royal bath. It had a fine marble pool, and on the level above it, a heating room provided warm water, which was dispensed into the bath through an overhanging spout. I sent the slave attendant away and began to feverishly stoke the fire that was burning under the great vat of warm water. I did not know how much time I had.

The sun was still high when I heard voices in the bath below. Minos appeared, surrounded by Cocalus’ three daughters. The Cretan king was clearly very pleased to be escorted to the bath by fawning young women; he disrobed and entered the pool, and the three of them withdrew, giggling girlishly.

Minos was now luxuriating in the warm bath, and I assessed where things stood. He was just below the water spout. The fire had been blazing under the vat for some time, and steam was rising from it, accompanied by a hissing sound of water boiling inside. Telling myself once more that there was nothing to lose, I tipped the great vessel on its swivel, and a waterfall of boiling water poured into the bath.

There was a scream below. By the time I looked down from the heating room, naked Minos had staggered to his feet. He gasped for air audibly in the cloud of searing hot steam, tottered a step or two, and fell face forward. His head gave a loud bang against the rim of the pool, and then he was floating motionless, face-down in the pool. I could see some blood in the water through the steam.

Minos was dead. The king who was once my protector, who confided in me, who trusted me with his ships and weapons and for whom I had built the labyrinth; the man whose vindictive suspicion drove me from Crete and took my son’s life; the man who held me guilty of the loss of his daughter and of his wife’s shame, that man was no more.

The once great and good king of Crete was now dead, by my hand, and his fleet was anchored outside, poised for battle. There would be war and many more would die. My own life, my grievances, and my revenge would disappear in a much larger bloodshed. As I stood there, looking down into the bath, I felt a woman’s gentle hand squeeze my arm: “It will be all right, Uncle Del, it will all be all right.”

And in the end, it was all right. Cocalus made it known immediately that great Minos of Crete had died in an unfortunate accident: he had tripped on a rug in the bath and struck his head against the marble floor. Without withdrawing any of his soldiers from the hillsides, he gave a stirring eulogy for Minos, offered a great hecatomb to the gods, and proposed to the Cretans that we all honor Minos together by interring his body in the temple of Aphrodite at Camicus.

And so it was done. Cretan naval commanders were not eager to fight an uncertain battle for what was, in reality, Minos’ private quarrel, and he was now gone. After the last funeral rites were performed, the Cretan fleet sailed away, in some disarray. Crete would never be the same again.

My name was never mentioned in the course of these events, and things soon quieted down again. I was sure that Cocalus did not protect me entirely out of kindness and respect for the ancient customs of hospitality. Likely, he feared that if he yielded to Minos’ brazen imposition, the Cretan would be back for more, and the kingdom of Camicus could not afford a protracted conflict with Crete.

For a cautious man, Cocalus had played a hazardous gamble and won. He had refrained from taking the easy path of sacrificing the tutor and friend of his children to the perfidies of kingly affairs, and for that I was sincerely grateful. I remained at Camicus many more years, and I believe the King had no reason to be dissatisfied with my service. His daughters are all grown women now, able and worthy allies of their father. I hear from them from time to time, and I know I will always remain “Uncle Del” to them.

Proceed to Chapter 6...

Copyright © 2018 by Danko Antolovic

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