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 6: Atropos
It is almost done. Years have gone by, my once thick hair has receded from my head, save for a garland of gray locks around the sides and back, and I do not practice my crafts very much anymore. I take an apprentice now and then, and I tutor young people who wish to learn the crafts. Sometimes they come in hope of learning the secret skills of the man who they believe flew in the skies with the birds and made magical weapons whose bearer could not be defeated. I don’t argue with them; they soon grow impatient and leave disappointed. The closest to me are those who, like my dear Camican princesses, imbibe the knowledge of the nature of things with curious open minds, and do it for its own delight, with no thought of profit or power.
Educating the young has been an unforeseen joy of my old age, bringing me more cheerful company than I could have imagined. Albeit an artisan, I can say that I am not a recluse by nature: I delighted in the love of women, I sought and found good friends in life, and neither was I averse to a night of revelry now and then. But I know that, in the quiet depths of my mind, I have always been at home in the world of things, not in the world of men.
The stone that is hard under the mason’s chisel neither spites the mason nor makes excuses. It speaks plainly to the artist’s mind: “I am willing to become the statue you want me to be, as much as my nature allows me. If I am too hard for you, that is how I am. You must try harder or work on another stone.”
Things are true to their nature; they present themselves as they are, and they can only be approached truthfully, by being acknowledged for what they are. Even animals never really lie; a beast of prey may conceal itself to ambush its victim, but it never conceals its purpose from anyone. It merely does what it must, in order to feed itself and its young. Only man burdens himself and others with lies, self-lies and deceptions in order to gain what he desires, and to walk his inner labyrinth of pain and pleasure, which is his lot.
As I look back, I ask myself whether I could have talked sense into Queen Pasiphae and prevented her union with Poseidon’s bull, that first step into the maze, the first link in the chain of troubles that had beset my life in Crete. It is unlikely. Pasiphae would have mated with the bull in any case, even at the risk to her life, but I had taken the easy path and convinced myself that there was nothing to do but help the Queen. And once so reassured, how cleverly did I go about it! Minos, who had desired the white bull only as a possession, knew what had happened but had no courage to deal with the union’s monstrous offspring, nor with his family’s shame. He told himself that all of it was my fault, but could not say so openly because he knew it wasn’t really true, and he resented me in silence.
I could have done more about the labyrinth, perhaps, since I was to be its builder and had misgivings about it from the beginning. When Minos asked me to build it, I could have feigned a lack of aptitude, could have pleaded that what he was asking for was impossible. At the time, however, I would have been ashamed to say that I could not do it, because I wanted to believe that I could. My demurral would have displeased the King somewhat, and perhaps I would have spared Crete the expense of building the absurd edifice, but I could not have prevented the mind of Minos from descending into its own maze of madness, into the suspicions and cunning spite that destroyed his good judgment. Who knows what other blights he would have inflicted upon Crete instead of the labyrinth?
But Minos is dead, and the labyrinth stands as monument to his madness. Travelers coming from Crete say that the present rulers of the island have no use for it and that people from far and near avoid it out of fear. It is of use only to hawks that nest on its roof and is slowly falling into ruin, as I expected it would.
And Ariadne, what labyrinthine steps did she trace? Did she really believe she could purchase the faithfulness of her boyish hero with the gift of esoteric knowledge? Or did the proud, clever Ariadne I knew — dancer, priestess, and initiate of the labyrinth — give way to an altogether different Ariadne, an infatuated woman willing to believe anything that carnal desire whispered to her? When Theseus promised to take her to Athens with him, did he lie to her or to himself? Probably both.
Only Naucrate, my good Naucrate, is a memory from Crete I still cherish. I never saw her again, her sincere gentle face crowned by black hair, possessed of a steadfast resolve that made so many things easier for me during our busy years at the court. She, too, was grievously wronged by Minos’ cruelty, and by my selfish inattention as well. She must have heard that Icarus and I had escaped from prison, but I do not think she ever learned the fate of our son. Perhaps it would be best if it remained so.
Yes, my true home is in the world of things. In that world, I have children who, unlike my son, live on: great and small, they bear the mark of my hand; they were made by me in long days and nights of dedicated work. It matters little whether they speak my name or not. Even after three or four thousand years, should the Earth and sky endure so long and all of today is forgotten, the stone will speak to a kindred mind, to one who is at home in my world: “I was a boulder, born mute and nameless of Mother Earth, until he freed me, he who saw what I could be, and who poured the effort of his mind and his hands into me to bring it about. Now I am a statue, a meld of thought and stone and a thing of beauty, and I sing to you my song of the days past.” I am proud of these children: they are enduring, beautiful, honest, and independent.
And all of that counts for nothing in the world of men, as I came to understand one fateful evening on the Acropolis of Athens. I was not born with the desire to prey upon the weak, to bend them to my will, crush their dignity, and delight in their tears. Neither do I have the gifts of deception and flattery, nor the urge to dominate and instill fear. I know well that there are men with such gifts, and I came to learn quickly that they are the true masters of the human world, not the wise, the learned, nor the skilled. I also understood that, not being one of them, I could only be their prey. Part wittingly and part by happenstance, I built my own defensive walls.
My artisan skills proved to be a natural armor, a carapace in which I could live close to power, protected from it by my very proximity; I kept myself too close for the lash and too useful to crush. From that proximity, I studied power, and I felt how seductively it clouds the minds of men around it: oh, it is so easy to worship devoutly at the feet of its greatness and avoid looking too closely into its face! I maintained my carapace of competent and useful work, refusing to be seduced by power’s honeyed whispers. The lies I told were defensive lies, lies of necessity rather than preying lies of ambition.
But still, the nearness of power rasped at me from inside, made me a different man than I had wanted to be. Perhaps I became too solicitous, more eager to please than I really liked. I desired to be in kings’ good standing, it mattered to me that important people thought me able and clever, and yet I knew that might feels no admiration; all that matters to it is that which brings more power and greater riches. I half-lied to myself about myself, and those self-deceptions gradually made me suspect everyone else, and I trusted no one.
When at last in Camicus I fell into Minos’ trap, baited with the honey of self-flattery, I expected only betrayal. I counted on that last defense which a man is almost always loath to resort to until it is too late — I would throw myself from the battlements I had myself built. The betrayal did not come. Perhaps it was the obligation of hospitality after all, or it was for the sake of his children; or perhaps Cocalus, a mind akin to mine, reasoned out his best choice of action, and in that choice I happened to live and Minos died, rather than the other way. The daughter breathlessly conveyed to me the father’s wish and, once again, I obliged. I ambushed Minos in the bath, naked and defenseless, and killed him in wretched fear for my own life, without glory and without regret. Cocalus returned the favor and covered it all up as an accident.
There is now but one unrequited shadow in my past. The death of Talos was not self-defense, nor was it an accident. It was murder, a killing committed by a young man who felt deadly hate come over him for the first time. I never lied to myself about that, even if I lied about it, ineptly, to others. That murder made me a stranger to my parents and kin and to my native Athens; in its shadow I gradually grew estranged from all mankind. While I regret the pain I caused, I cannot truthfully say that I am remorseful. Before the court of elders, distraught Polycaste accused me of killing her son because, she said, I was envious of his skill. I only wish it had been so simple, for many a man has killed a rival and remained at ease with himself and his world.
Standing, then, at the edge of the cliff in the fragrant sunset, I was sickened by a sudden insight, by the fissure I saw in the works of the world, a gaping flaw I knew I could not mend. I saw that the world exalts those who are born for mastery over others and that reason and justice have no say in it. Murderous hate that made me a killer and an exile was my truthful reply to the world I would have to live in; anything else would have been a lie.
Talos did not tear open the fissure; rather, he was born of it, and he became the bloody sacrifice that I offered to my anger. Taking his life had confirmed my own life’s course, had sent me down the path which led to the man that I am. I would be someone very different today had he and I quietly come down from the Acropolis together that evening.
And if a payment was required for his death, why take another twelve-year old child in recompense? Why Icarus and not me? Why did I not die for that killing, dismembered and devoured by the Minotaur in the labyrinth? If the gods meant for my life to be a penalty greater than early death, they failed, for I am grateful to the Fates for the fullness of years and experiences I have lived. Perhaps the immortal gods will reveal their divine justice to man someday, but I do not expect to see it. I merely hope Hades will be kind to my shadow once the third Fate, the implacable Atropos, cuts the thread and I, at last, descend into the Underworld.
Copyright © 2018 by Danko Antolovic