Daidalos – the first of Europe’s mobile researchers?

Michael Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology (UCL) and former Pro-Provost for Europe, considers Greek mythology’s Daidalos as an early example of research mobility. Michael’s book on the life and times of Daidalos, “Into the Labyrinth: In Search of Daidalos” was published in September 2020 by Austin Macauley.


The increased mobility of researchers has been one of the great achievements of the various Framework programmes financed by the European Commission. This has enabled young researchers to acquire new skills and has greatly encouraged collaborative research projects between institutions in different countries. The mobility of skilled individuals within Europe, and the benefits resulting from this, has a long history. In the following paragraphs I would like to draw attention to one of the earliest examples of this – the famed polymath Daidalos.

Daidalos was considered to be a great sculptor, inventor, engineer, architect and scientist. He was so renowned that Socrates proudly boasted of having been descended from him.  His major works were carried out in Athens, Crete, Sicily, Naples, Sardinia and Egypt and he also spent time in Libya and Turkey.  However, these travels were not encouraged and financed by the benevolence of some ancient forerunner of the European Commission. They were often driven by his need to escape from some tricky situation in which he had become embroiled or to find a new sponsor willing to support his work. Daidalos, like the vast majority of modern researchers, was not wealthy enough to support his own research and therefore had to rely on the munificence of rich patrons who, of course, could withdraw their patronage when they felt like it. How he would have loved to have had the stable support of a Framework grant to help him !     

His great works included the labyrinth at Knossos (Figure 1), a temple of Apollo at Cumae (Italy), a temple of Britomartis in Crete, the city of Akragas (Sicily), a flood control system for Megaris (Sicily), large cone-shaped towers in Sardinia and a gateway for the temple of Ptah in Memphis, Egypt (Figure 2).  He was the first sculptor to produce statues with open eyes, with arms freed from the sides of the body and legs that were separated from one another (Figure 3).

Figure 1. The Cretan labyrinth. Print by Hieronymus Cock (1551 AD)

A group of hunters view the labyrinth from a hill.  The labyrinth is located in a bay and is accessed through a drawbridge from the land. There is a town on the bay and a castle on the left.

Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Public domain
Figure 2. Artist’s impression of the gateway of the temple of Ptah (i.e. Hephaestus) at Memphis.

By Neithsabes [CC BY 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3. A marble statue of a young man (about 530 BCE)

Image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA

His numerous inventions included the saw, axe, plumb-line, gimlet, glue, isinglass, compass, adze, auger, hammer, masts and yards for ships, the drill and the potters wheel.  And, of course, it’s widely known that he was the first human being to fly.

While many of his works and inventions were of great benefit to humankind, some of his projects, though no doubt well-intentioned, had unfortunate consequences. He built a wooden cow device (Figure 4) to enable the first experiment in cross-species fertilisation (between a bull and a human), but this resulted in the birth of the minotaur (Figure 5) to Queen Pasiphae of Crete.

Figure 4. Daidalos presents the wooden cow to Pasiphae. Drawing of a marble Roman relief in the Palazzo Spada, Rome.

From: “Otto’s Educational Vocabulary: An Illustrated Encyclopædie of General Knowledge”. Publisher Jan Otto, Czechoslovakia (1893 AD)”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 5. The minotaur on a terracotta skyphos (drinking cup) ca. 470–460 BCE.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Art Museum, New York. Gift of L. P. di Cesnola, 1876. CC0 1.0

And it was to house this poor creature that Daidalos was ordered by King Minos to build the labyrinth at Knossos.  At the request of Princess Ariadne, he came up with the ingenious idea of using a ball of thread to guide Theseus out of the labyrinth (Figure 6) and this enabled the latter to kill the unfortunate minotaur (Figure 7). But, ultimately, this resulted in the abandonment of Ariadne on the island of Naxos (Figure 8) and the death of King Aegeus of Athens.  King Minos imprisoned him on Crete and in order to escape he built flying devices (possibly feathered wings but, more likely, hang gliders) for himself and his son, Ikaros.  As we all know, this ended badly for Ikaros (Figure 9).   

Figure 6. Ariadne and Theseus by Pietro da Cortona, Italian (1597-1669)

Ariadne is holding the ball of string, given to her by Daidalos, that will help Theseus to find his way back out of the labyrinth,

Pietro da Cortona: Ariadne and Theseus; Nationalmuseum (Foto: Erik Cornelius), public domain
Figure 7. Terracotta neck-amphora (jar) from Attica, Greece. ca. 500 BCE. Theseus and the minotaur fight while Ariadne looks on.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1909. CC0 1.0
Figure 8. Ariadne by Asher Brown Durand (ca. 1831–35 AD)

Ariadne lies abandoned on Naxos. In most depictions of this event, she is shown lying down and often asleep. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Samuel P. Avery, 1897. CC0 1.0
Figure 9. 
The fall of Icarus by Jan Luyken (1686 CE). Daidalos glances up and is shocked to see Ikaros tumbling out of the sky.

Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public domain.

          After an exciting and very productive life, though very fraught at times, Daidalos eventually retired to a beautiful part of the Turkish coast near present-day Fethiye (known as Telmessos in ancient times).  This region was a Cretan colony and at that time was ruled by one of King Minos’ brothers, Sarpedon, who had become a bitter enemy of Minos and was therefore sympathetic towards Daidalos. Sadly, Daidalos died there after being bitten by a snake. A town grew up around his burial place and was named Daidala (or Daedala) after him. The town became important on account of it being on the frontier between two significant and influential regions, Caria and Lycia, and is mentioned by a number of Roman authors.

          Daidalos is a very important figure in Western culture. His inventions are, of course, an important legacy. But, in addition, his life and works have been a constant inspiration to artists throughout history. Philosophers too, have drawn on his life to illustrate their beliefs, an important example being the famous debate on science between Russell and Haldane (Daedalus, or Science and the Future by JBS Haldane and Icarus, or the Future of Science by Bertrand Russell).  

          While obtaining funding to support our research is undoubtedly a difficult task nowadays, it could be worse.  While writing your next grant application, spare a thought for poor old Daidalos who had to cope with the whims of kings, queens and princesses in order to carry on with his projects.


Featured image: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-69). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s