• Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to make something more complicated; to perform a complex task

Here’s a word that’s cropped up a couple times on HH over the years: to daedalize something is to make it more complicated or intricate.

This is just one of a clutch of similar words in English, all derived from the same root. In botany, for instance, a daedalous plant is one that grows sinewy, intricately folded edges on its leaves. A logodaedalus is someone who is especially cunning or skilled in their use of words (cough, cough). And something that is pandaedelian is full of pandas. No, of course it isn’t. It means “ingeniously made in every way.” Like a panda.

At the root of all of these words is Daedalus, the name of a master craftsman and puzzle-solver from Greek mythology who was employed in the court of the legendary Cretan king Minos. Daedalus is usually remembered for two things: (1) being the father of doomed bird-man Icarus, and (2) designing the Cretan Labyrinth. But he also (3) tried to kill his nephew in a fit of jealousy, and (4) made a life-size model of a cow to enable the queen of Crete to achieve sexual congress with a farm animal. And if you don’t want to know that part of the story, I’d jump ahead a few paragraphs.

So. King Minos of Crete had a few brothers, with whom he was in a longstanding argument over who was viewed most favourably by the gods. In an attempt to end the argument once and for all, Minos pleaded to the sea god Poseidon for a gift that he could show off to his brothers. Poseidon acquiesced, and gave the king a beautiful white steer.

But this being Ancient Greece, Poseidon didn’t want the king to keep the steer, no matter how nice its moo was or how pretty its eyelashes were. Instead, he wanted it sacrificed as a sign of the king’s gratitude and his unending devotion to the gods. Having just received a lovely new present, however, Minos wasn’t all too keen on promptly hacking it to bloody pieces, so he decided to try to outsmart Poseidon by sacrificing a different bull that kinda-but-not-quite looked like the one he’d just been given. Poseidon, to put it bluntly, was pissed.

Imagine then that you’re an all-powerful sea deity, with the ability to control all the world’s oceans. How would you wreak revenge on a duplicitous king? Conjure up a waterspout to destroy his kingdom? Send a tsunami to obliterate his people? Get his wife to fall in love with a magic bull? Obvs it’s the last one, because remember: this is Ancient Greece.

So long story short, Poseiden used his powers to have Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, fall head over heels in love with his new bull as soon as she set eyes on it. For her part, the queen was not too keen to have her husband find out about her infidelious thoughts about a divine bovine. So she arranged to have the king’s craftsman, Daedalus, construct a hollow wooden heifer for her, that she could then climb inside and (probably quite literally) enjoy a roll in the hay with her new favourite pet. Nine months later, Queen Pasiphaë gave birth to a hideous bull-headed part-human monster—the Minotaur.

And now it was Minos’ turn to be pissed.

The king, it’s fair to say, wasn’t particularly pleased with any/all of this. But not wanting to risk the wrath of Poseidon any more than he already had, he reasoned he couldn’t just kill the Minotaur, so instead arranged for Daedalus to construct an immense maze in which to secrete it. Daedalus set to work, built the king the Cretan Labyrinth, and the Minotaur was gone from the king’s life forever. (Or at least until Perseus and Ariadne turned up, but that’s another story for another day. For the time being, though, that’s the end of Chapter One.)

NB: A quick interlude before Chapter Two, and before you click across to the Contact page and send us an angry email about mazes and labyrinths. Yes, a maze isn’t a labyrinth. And no, a labyrinth isn’t a maze. Strictly speaking, a labyrinth comprises a single convoluted path to a central point, while a maze has several branching paths, and numerous dead ends. Daedalus built a labyrinth, NOT a maze. So for all his skilfulness, he basically just built a really long corridor, and the Minotaur was basically hidden inside a Brutalist single-storey office building from the 1960s. But anyway, back to the royal bestiality.

So. King Minos was happy with the Labyrinth. But to make doubly sure that nobody ever found out about the Minotaur, he reasoned that he had to have Daedalus imprisoned in a tower in his palace. And, just to make trebly sure no one ever found out about it, he had Daedalus’ son Icarus thrown in prison too. Hey, this was Ancient Greece.

But imprisoning a master craftsman is difficult because of all their, y’know, Masterful Craftsmanship. And all the locks and keys in the world are useless when your prisoners have access to a huge pile of feathers and some wax. So Daedalus spent his time in prison constructing two huge pairs of wings—one for himself, and one for Icarus—and together they flew from the top of Minos’ tower and escaped. Well, Daedalus did, at least. Icarus, kinda less so.

So while Icarus flew too high, melted his wings in the Greek sunshine, tumbled into the sea and drowned, Daedalus somehow managed to fly from Crete to Sicily. That’s a distance of around 500 miles, as the man-dressed-as-a-crow flies, so if the queen-having-sex-with-a-bull part of this story wasn’t unbelievable enough for you, then maybe the flying-man-traversing-the-Ionian-Sea part will do it for you?

Anyway, once he was in Sicily, Daedalus was welcomed by the king, Cocalus, who had him build a temple to Apollo on the island, and then employed him in all kinds of odd jobs around the palace. But back home in Crete, King Minos was still pissed.

Minos knew that in order to keep his wife’s bestial infidelity a secret he still needed to find Daedalus. So he set off across Europe, going from town to town and city to city, attempting to track him down. Knowing that he was looking for an expert craftsman and puzzler-solver, Minos came up with a test that he reasoned only someone like that could solve: threading a single length of twine through a spiral-shaped seashell.

Eventually, Minos’ endless search took him to Sicily, where he explained his puzzle to king Cocalus. The king knew that of everybody in his court, Daedalus would be the one to solve Minos’ challenge, and solve it he did—by tying the length of twine to an ant, using honey to tempt the ant into the seashell, and then waiting for it to emerge out the other end, towing the twine behind it.

The puzzle was solved, and Minos had his man. But Daedalus had the backing of King Cocalus. And this being Ancient Greece, King Cocalus had an ornate bathtub, and some homicidal daughters.

Before Minos had the chance to capture Daedalus and take him back to Crete, Cocalus convinced him to have a bath in his palace to wind down after his long journey touring the Balkan states. Minos gratefully accepted, and was led to the king’s most impressive bathroom. There, he was scalded to death by the king’s daughters, who poured pitcherfuls of boiling water all over him. (This being Ancient Greece, that wasn’t the end of the story, either: Minos was now damned, and spent the rest of eternity serving as one of the infernal judges in the court of Hades. Talk about having to work through your retirement.)

As for Daedalus, some versions of his story have him remaining in Sicily, offering the wings that secured his escape from Crete to the god Apollo, and seeing out his days in peace and security. Another version has him returning to Greece and becoming so envious of his even more talented nephew Perdix that he threw him from the roof of the Acropolis. (Don’t worry about Perdix though, because he was turned into a partridge before he hit the ground and flew away. BECAUSE ANCIENT GREECE.)

Etymologically, of everything in this tale—from the human-bovine impregnation to the child transforming into a partridge—it is of course Daedalus’ reputation as an endlessly skilful craftsman and expert problem-solver that concerns us here. When English writers began raiding the classics for impressively figurative words in the sixteenth century, it was Daedalus’ name that they used in words like daedalize and logodaedalus, that all bear some sense of intricacy, complexity, or expert craftsmanship.

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