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Daedalus in Sicily
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Daedalus and Icarus by Frederic Leighton, 1869.A descendant of Greek royalty, Daedalus (Daedalos), whose Greek name means "cunning worker," was born in Athens. Accounts vary as to his parentage, but Metion and Alcippe are often mentioned. As a great craftsman, he was trained by Athena, but Talus, his nephew and apprentice, proved to be more talented, inventing the compass and other tools, and this provoked rabid jealousy in Daedalus. Myths tell us that this was not the only reason Daedalus attempted to murder the young man by pushing him off the Acropolis. Athena intervened by turning Talus into a partridge during his fall. For his crime, the master was exiled to the court of King Minos on Crete, but Daedalus eventually angered his new patron. In a typically bizarre incident, he constructed a wooden bull for the Queen, who Poseidon had enamored of one of the real bulls in the King's stables. Despite this, the queen continued to practice bestiality with the live bull, and bore the minotaur, its infamous semi-bovine offspring. An angry Minos ordered Daedalus to construct a labyrinth to contain the half-human beast. He later imprisoned Daedalus there for aiding the hero Theseus in outwitting the minotaur and escaping the labyrinth. Daedalus was accompanied by a son, Icarus, whose mother was a court slave. Minos' queen, Pasiphae, freed them from the labyrinth, but the embittered king imprisoned the two in a tower.

At this point Daedalus decided to flee. To do so, he constructed two pairs of wings out of feathers and wax. His idea, obviously, was that he and his son would simply fly away. Before embarking on their voyage, the master gave his son the now famous advice: "My son, do not fly too high lest the sun melt the wax, nor too low lest the sea's spray weigh down the feathers." Sadly, the excited Icarus flew too high, far beyond the sound of his father's calls to descend. The sun's rays melted the wax holding the wings together and the boy fell into the sea. It is a tragic story. By some accounts, a partridge watched as the boy drowned. This clearly alludes to the murdered Talus being reborn as a partridge.

The boy's body washed ashore on Doliche, renamed Icaria. Daedalus flew to Sicily and dedicated his wings to Apollo, constructing a magnificent temple here bearing a gold roof. He met King Cocalus (Kokalos) of the Sicans and lived among the Sicanians at Inycus. Diodorus Siculus (90-21 BC), the Sicilian writer who recounts this part of the myth, is not considered a very reliable historian or storyteller, and the historical existence of Kokalos has never been proven. In fact, the Sicanians, a "native" Sicilian people, may have been amalgamated with the colonizing Greeks by the time the mythological Daedalus would have landed in Sicily.

Camicus (Kamicos), the mountainous region around Agrigento, is usually identified as the place where Daedalus met Kokalos and the other Sicans. Camicum was also the name of the old Sican district of Akragas, the ancient city of Agrigento founded by Greeks around 582 BC on the slopes of what has been called Mount Camicos. Several places in Sicily are linked to Daedalus (more about that below).

In Greece and Sicily a number of works are attributed to Daedalus, including (in Sicily) the thermal baths at Selinus (Selinunte), the aqueduct at Camicos (Agrigento), the temple of Apollo (Cumae), the reservoir at Hybla (Ragusa), a wall and fortifications at Camicos, and a retaining wall near the Temple of Aphrodite (Agrigento).

King Minos sought Daedalus, sailing around the Mediterranean hoping to prompt the master out of hiding with a puzzle. He offered a reward to the first person who could string a thread through a conch shell, believing that Daedalus was the only mortal who could do so. The inventive Athenian achieved this by boring a tiny hole at the point of the shell and placing a drop of honey there, then tying a fine thread to an ant which wound its way through the inside of the shell until he reached the opening. Kokalos claimed the reward, meeting with Minos, who was then in Sicily, but the Cretan king demanded Daedalus.

Daedalus enjoyed the complete loyalty of the Sicanians, and with the aid of one of Kokalos' daughters he devised a pipe that he inserted into the roof of Minos' bath, through which the girl poured boiling oil upon the Cretan king as he was bathing. The Sicanians told the Cretans that Minos' death was accidental. The Sicanian connection may have been a narrative device to avoid associating the eventual death of the Greek Minos with the Siceliots (Sicilian Greeks).

Daedalus spent the rest of his days in Sardinia as a guest of Iolaos, nephew of Heracles (Hercules). One doubts whether minotaurs ever walked the Earth, but the figures of Daedalus and Kokalos may indeed have been based on historical personages. It has even been theorized that an ancient figure identified with Daedalus could indeed have created an apparatus, similar to a hang glider, for achieving flight. More generally, Daedalus is the epitome and patron of ancient craftsmen, inventors and architects. Archimedes comes to mind.

Several places in Sicily have long been associated with Kokalos or Daedalus. The River Platani (Halykos), which winds its way through the Sicanian "Kamicos" Mountains to a mouth midway between Agrigento and Sciacca, was part of his realm. Ancient Eraclea Minoa, near Montallegro and the mouth of this river, bears a name that implies a foundation by Minos, who the imaginative Diodorus claimed was buried here. This idea at least has the virtue of being a very old one, though in fact this town was probably founded by Selinians (i.e. from Selinunte) and named for the Greek island Minoa near Megara Nisea. At Mount Kronio, near Sciacca, archeological finds linked to Sicanian civilization have been discovered. Evidence of Sicanian culture abounds across Sicily. It has been suggested that Kokalos spent some time outside Naro, to the east of Agrigento, in the so-called "Palace of Kokalos." Far less credible is the late twentieth-century theory that Kokalos, the legendary Sicanian king, ruled from a town near what is now either Sant'Angelo Muxaro or Caltabellotta (depending on who one believes), a scheme hatched to increase tourism in these areas.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2003 Vincenzo Salerno