Secretum secretorum - Aspects of Greek Mythology
Background for Ars Magica sagas

Craftsmen Figures

In ancient Greece the artisan class was not considered an autonomous category. There was no term exactly corresponding to what we understand by "artisan." The term demiourgos offers to broad a range and covers very diverse functions. In the Odyssey, for example, Eumaueus asks, "What guests are sent to fetch the stranger? Those who can serve as craftsmen, diviners and doctors and carpenters, or bard, who are beloved by heaven . . .! It is those who are sought from the ends of the earth!" (Od 17.382ff.). Later (Od 19.135), Homer includes in this group the heralds, whose functions are also very diverse; used as ambassadors, heralds direct assembles, fill the office of assistant during sacrifices and even serve at table during meals. The artisan is therefore only a particular aspect of the demiourgos. As elsewhere, the term techne covers the categories of art and craftsmanship, which are distinct in our eyes.


In Greek mythology, a certain number of gods and men can be considered artisans. Among the gods, the figure who primarily takes this role is, incontestably, Hephaestus. In the Iliad, Hephaestus first appears as a cupbearer for the gods (Il 1.596ff.); then as a master of metals and talismans (Il 2.101; 18.369ff., 410ff.); and finally as a master of fire, an element with which he is almost identified (Il 21.330ff.).

Certainly, Hephaestus is master of fire, but not just any fire. He is essentially the technical fire, the fire that is used to accomplish the tasks of artisans, not the heart fire, which is the domain of Hestia, nor the celestial fire, the lightning of Zeus. What is more, Hephaestus is not the master of just any technical fire, but essentially of the fire that is sued in metalwork. The fire that burns the earth is reserved mainly for Prometheus, probably because he is a Titan, a name deriving from the term titanos, the quicklime formed from an earthy element and from fire (Aristotle, Meteorologica 4.11.389a28).

Moreover, Hephaestus works only noble metals: gold, silver, bronze, brass, etc. The working of iron, which is used to fabricate the tools of daily life, belongs to the Dactyls (the fingers) who also have proper names: Acmon (Anvil), Damnameneus (the Subjugator, that is, the Hammer), and Celmis (perhaps the Casting). The Invention of the metallurgy of iron, too, is attributed to the Dactyls of Ida in Phrygia, where ironwork goes back to ancient times (Phoronis, frag. 2). And for the Dactyls (Schol. Apollonios, Argonautica 1.1129), as for Hephaestus, metallurgy proves to be inseparable from magic.

Hephaestus, in fact, appears as the preeminent binding god. Certainly, as metallurgist he can fashion and unfashion material bonds. But his action is especially magical, and it is with immaterial bonds that he usually binds his victims; notably Hera, whom he immobilizes on a throne (Plato, Republic, 2.378d: cf. Libanius, Narrationes 7); and especially Ares and Aphrodite: having caught these adulterers in flagrante delicto, he snares them in an invisible net (Od 8.266-366).

If he has the power of binding, Hephaestus also has the power of binding. It is Hephaestus himself who releases his mother, an act which permits her to return to Olympus. But Hephaestus is especially famous for mobilizing and therefore, in a sense, unchaining beings who are by nature immobile. Hephaestus has at his disposal two servants made of gold, who work in his workshops like living being; the bellows in his forge move without his having to work them, and he fashions automatic tripods (Il 18.369ff).

The science of metallurgy and magic appears inseparable, in the case of Hephaestus, from the crippling of his lower limbs, which have been represented in several ways. This infirmity, which was no longer represented in classical art, appears sometimes as a debility of his legs, sometimes as a deformity of his feet, so that they turn backwards. In the latter case, the god could move about not only forwards but also backwards. This lameness is explained in various ways. It can be seen as the price of his extraordinary knowledge. This crippling of the only god who devotes himself to technical craftsmanship can also be recognized as a sign of the public contempt with which work was regarded in ancient Greece. Plutarch essentially affirms this: "There is no young man of good birth who, having seen the Zeus of Pisa or the Hera of Argos, would wish, for all that, to become a Phidias or a Polycletus, or to become an Anacreon, a Philemon or an Archilochus when he has been pleased by their poems. For a work can seduce us with is charm without constraining us to take its worker as a model" (Pericles 2.1). In this double gait we can distinguish the ambiguity that characterizes Hephaestus and manifests itself not only in his actions but also in his adventures.

There are several versions of the birth and infancy of Hephaestus. We will mention only those reported by Homer and Hesiod. According to Hesiod, Hera gave birth to Hephaestus "without union of love, through anger at her husband" (Theogony 928). According to Homer, at the moment of Hephaestus's birth, Hera threw him from the sky into the sea, because he was crippled and she was ashamed of him; but Hephaestus was taken in by Eurynome and Thetis, who raised him in an underwater grotto, where he learned the art of metallurgy (Il 18.394ff.). However, still according to Homer's Iliad, it was Zeus who threw Hephaestus from the sky into the sea one day when Hephaestus took his mother's side. Then Hephaestus fell onto the island of Lemnos, where the Sintians took him in (Il 1.586ff.).

The main interest of all these versions rests in the fact that they allow us to establish relations between Hephaestus, on the one hand, and Ouranos and various marine powers on the other.

Like Ouranos (Hesiod Theogony 123-32), Hephaestus (Th 928) is conceived without the intervention of love. Moreover, Hephaestus is the only god other than Ouranos who is not endowed with physical perfection. As an effect of the mutilation inflicted upon him by Kronos, Ouranos is castrated, while Hephaestus suffers a deformity of his lower limbs. In order to pursue this comparison, it is relevant to note that Hephaestus is thrown from the sky into the sea like the testicles of Ouranos, whose sperm makes possible to birth of Aphrodite -- often considered the wife of Hephaestus. In the Iliad, Homer describes the workshop of Hephaestus thus: "Silver-footed Thetis arrived in the dwelling of Hephaestus, the imperishable and starry dwelling, radiant among all in the eyes of the immortals, all in bronze and constructed by the bandy-legged one himself" (Il 18.369-71). Now, this description inevitably makes one think of the starry vault of the sky, which the early Greeks considered to be made of metal: the poets say that the sky is made of bronze (chalkeos or poluchalkeos) or of iron (sidereos). That is why, in an Orphic context, Proclus can write: "Let us add to our traditions the convictions that we have received from the very first from the (Orphic) theologians concerning Hephaestus. . . . They say that he is a smith, because he is a worker and also because, since the sky is made of bronze in its function as a symbol of the intelligible, he who made the sky is a smith" (Proclus, In Platonis Timaeum [23d-e], 1.142.18ff. Diehl). The comparison is reinforced by that fact that on certain illustrated documents Hephaestus's hair is arranged in a pilos, an egg-shaped cap, of dark blue, which Eusebius of Caesarea compares to the celestial vault (Praeparatio Evangelica 3.2.23).

Hephaestos also had clear connections with numerous marine powers. It was into the sea that Hephaestus fell when he was thrown from the celestial heights. According to Homer, he was taken in and raised by Eurynome, one of the daughters of Okeanos and Tethys, and by Thetis, one of the daughters of Nereus, the old man of the sea, and Doris. According to another version, also found in Homer, the Sintians took him in at Lemnos, According to a third version, Hera, having conceived Hephaestus as a result of premartial sexual relations with Zeus, delivered Hephaestus to the Naxian Cedalion, who taught the young man to work metal.

Whatever the case, Hephaestus spends a part of his life either in the sea or on an island in the middle of the sea. During this time he is initiated into the arts that he practices, metallurgy and magic. This is significant, as demonstrated by two types of mythical characters.

Of one type are the Telchines, daemons of Rhodes, associated with seals (Suetonius, On Terms of Abuse in Greek). Like seals, the Telchines are ambiguous characters, halfway between fish and men, towards whom they have mixed sentiments of neighborliness and hostility, and between the sea and the earth, that is, between wet and dry. The Telchines are both magicians an metallurgists. As magicians, they have the evil eye: their glance alters things. As metallurgists, they are credited with a number of works of art, notably the sickle of Kronos (Strabo 14.2.7) and the trident of Poeseidon (Callimachus, Hymn to Delos 31).

The Cabiri, whose native land was Lemnos and whose principal sanctuary was in Samothrace are said to have had Hephaestus for a father, or at least for a divine ancestor (Strabo, Geo 10.3.21; Stephanus of Byzantium, s.v. Kabeiria). Marine powers, they are explicitly identified as crabs by Hesychius: "The Cabiri are crabs (karkinoi), animals particularly honored in Lemnos, where they are held to be gods. It is also said that they are the sons of Hephaestus" (Hesychius, s.v. Kabeiroi). This crustacean has several points in common with Hephaestus. The crab is an amphibious animal that lives in the sea and on the earth. But its extremities are what makes it particularly interesting. The crab's way of walking inevitably reminds us of the double gait of Hephaestus, and its two claws remind us of the pincers of the metallurgist (in ancient Greek, karkinoi). Like Hephaestus, whose descendants they are, the Cabiri are metallurgists.

As a metallurgist and smith, Hephaestus participates above all in that metis with which Athena is endowed. Hephaestus is said to be Klutometis (Homeric Hymn to Hephaestus 1) and polumetis (Il 21.355). We can thus understand why it was he who, with a one-two punch, delivered Athena when she was trapped in the head of Zeus. Zeus had swallowed Metis upon the advice of Ouranos and Gaea, who had revealed that, if Metis had a daughter by him, she would then give him a son who would dethrone him, as Zeus himself had dethroned Kronos.

These close mythical relations uniting Hephaestus to Athena find their material manifestations at Athens in their common temples and cults. Thus, the small cult of Erectheum could be the oldest Athenian cult of Hephaestus, guest of Athena of the Polis. This sanctuary sheltered Erichthonius, the Phidian hero, who was thought to be their child. It is related that Hephaestus received Athena in his workshop when she came to ask him for weapons. He was overwhelmed by a strong desire for the goddess; she fled, but Hephaestus caught her. Athena defended herself, and in the fray the god's sperm spilled on her leg. The goddess dried herself with some wool and threw the sperm onto the earth. Thus impregnated, Gaea produced a child, Erichthonius, who was one of the first kings of Athens (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.6ff.) -- a type of conception comparable to that which follows the castration of Ouranos by Kronos (Th 178-206).

The personal temple of Hephaestus, the Hephaesteum, which he shared with Athena, is located beyond the Ceramicus, the potters' area, near the temple of Aphrodite. During the peace of Nicias (421 B.C.), an artist was commissioned to erect bronze statues of Athena and Hephaestus on the same pedestal. Nearby, at Colonus of the Agora, Hephaestus is found in proximity of Prometheus and Athena.

Two festivals on unequal importance were celebrated in honor of Hephaestus. The Chalcheia, which took place in the beginning of November, became a festival of artisans who worked with metal; this festival was also called the Athenaea, indicating that the goddess also played a role in it (Sophocles, frag 844). On the other hand, the Hephaesteia, from which Athena was absent, was a more important event than the Chalcheia, though less well known.

Be that as it may, it is Plato, notably in the Critias, who relates the myth of Atlantis, where Athena and Hephaestus are found most closely united: "Hephaestus and Athena have the same nature, first, because, as brother and sister, they have the same father, and second, because their double love for knowledge and art leads them to the same end. The two of them received this region (Athens) in a common and unique lot. It should properly belong to them, being naturally suited for virtue and thought. Having placed respectable people there as autochthons, they organized the city according to their taste" (Plato, Critias 109c-d). In this same dialogue, Plato situates the common temple of Athena and Hephaestus at the top of the Acropolis, near the dwellings of the kings. On the slopes, warriors live, charged with protecting the kings. Finally, on the plain that extends from the foot of the Acropolis the craftsmen and farmers are settled. In this perspective, the temple of Athena and Hephaestus on the Acropolis is reminiscent primarily of the linked presence of Athena of the Polis and Hephaestus in the Erechtheum; secondly, of Athena Parthenos, the warrior; and thirdly, of Athena Ergana (the Worker) of the plain, who shared a temple with Hephaestus at Colonus, an outlying part of Athens inhabited by artisans and shopkeepers.

Hephaestus performs two of the most important functions of a magician: he binds his enemies with unbreakable and often invisible bonds, and he protects his friends with a wide variety of prophylactic devices, such as the dogs of Alcinous mentioned in the Odyssey 7.91-94.

A gloss on the name of Pandareus gives the story of a golden dog built by Hephaestus: "He [Pandareus] stole from Zeus's temple on Crete the animated [empsychon] dog of gold, which Hephaestus had made and he gave it to Tantalus." A scholiast to Pindar notes that this dog served as a guardian (phyla) of Zeus' temple on Crete. The Hellenistic poet Nicander of Colophon refers to yet another manufactured dog when he explains the excellence of Chaonian and Molossian dogs: "They say that these dogs are descendants of a dog, which Hephaestus, after casting it from Demonesian bronze and setting a soul [psyche] in it, gave as a gift to Zeus and he have it as a gift to Europa." Nicander then describes how the dog passed as a gift from Europa to Minos to Procris to Cephalus until Zeus finally turned it into stone as it pursued the Teumasian fox.

Minos and the island of Crete were the recipients of still another of Hephaestus' animated statues: Talos, the bronze man. It was the statue's custom to walk along the periphery of the island thrice daily and pelt with rocks anyone who approached the island. He is supposed to have died as a result of Medea's magic spells when he attempted to stop the Argonauts from landing on the shore of Crete.

According to Alcaeus, Hephaestus made a bronze lion and into this put pharmaka [powerful or magical herbs] beneficial to mankind. This was later hidden on Lesbos to hide the island.

There are four steps to Hephaestus' creation: (1) Hephaestus forges a metal statue, usually of an animal; (2) the statue is animated; (3) he gives the statue as a gift to a god or mortal kind; and, (4) the statue is used as a phylactery for a building or kingdom.

These statues are animated as a result of specific techniques and they are used to guard limited geographical areas. All the statues are said to be alive: both Talos and the golden dog are described as "animated" [empsychos]; Hephaestus gives a soul (psychen entitheriai) to the bronze dog. All of the statues are explicitly said to be phylacteries, and wherever the location of the prophylactic statue is specified, it seems to be along the perimeter of the place to be protected: the erection of the hold and silver dogs at the threshold of Alcinous' palace; Talos' thrice daily circuambulation of the island of Crete; and the burial of the Lesbian Lions "hard by the border of the Methymians."

The practice of putting pharmaka into hollow statues in order to animate them is attested among the theurgists and magicians of the Roman period, where it was often traditionally linked with "Chaldaean" lore. Medea practiced this when she built a hollow image of Artemis.


Whether alone or associated with Hephaestus, Athena occupies, like him, a fundamental place among divinities of the crafts. Throughout the multiplicity of her aspects -- warrior goddess armed with the lance and the aegis, protectress of carpenters, mistress of harnesses and pilot of ships, patroness of weavers and potters, inventor of the swing plow -- whatever the domain into which she enters, Athena sets in motion the same qualities of manual skill and practical intelligence. The intelligence she gets directly from her mother Metis, the wife swallowed by Zeus when he wanted to incorporate her substance into himself.

The warrior Athena, who sprang from the head of her father, has remained a virgin; by renouncing femininity and its fulfillment within marriage, the virgin rejoins the male camp and by this inversion incarnates the warrior values with their maximum intensity. She bears Metis's nickname, the Spartan name of Chalkioikos, "she of the bronze dwelling," the goddess as dazzling as the armor with which she is girded. In the battle against the giants as in the battles of the Iliad, she carries out or inspires the ruses of war, surprise attacks, ambushes, and other tactical maneuvers which constitute the technique of war. But her action calls on more mysterious means. Like the art of Hephaestus, the warrior techne of the bronze Athena is greatly influenced by magic. Concealed by the aegis -- a large shawl of finely woven metal, with long fringes, decorated with the masks of Confusion, Quarrel, and the terrifying head of the Gorgon -- she paralyzes her adversaries or renders invincible the heroes she protects. In the fray, she raises her voice, as piercing as a trumpet, and her flashing eyes make even the most courageous lose their heads. Conceived by her mother, Metis, at the same time as her armor, like a metallurgical product, she came into the world uttering a war cry. Athena possesses and deploys in battle the magical courage that looks and sounds like bronze, the warrior metal that is worked and animated by the craftsman's fire.

The Athena who protects and instructs artisans appears in general with the characteristics of a more serene and familiar divinity. Her modes of action seem more accessible, except when they involve a technique that uses fire. This applies to little but pottery, since the domain of metallurgy belongs entirely to Hephaestus. During the firing, the potter addresses his prayers to Athena, asking her to "spread her hand over the kiln." The goddess will indicate to him the right moment when the vessels are properly baked, when the varnish will be shiny enough. She also intervenes by ridding the kiln of a troop of demons with evocative names: the Breaker, the Cracker, the Inextinguishable, the Burster. A Corinthian tablet represents her in the form of a large owl perched on top of a potter's kiln, facing a phallic dwarf, the bearer of the evil eye. The protectress of potters is a divinity who is the mistress of fire, of its alarming powers, its benefits, and its evil spells.

Athena presides especially over woodworking. Woodcutters, carpenters, chariot builders and shipbuilders benefit from her attentive protection. She cherishes in particular the carpenter Tekton, son of Harmon, the Adjuster, who knew how to make masterpieces of all sorts and constructed for Paris the ship which brought Helen to Troy (Il 5.59-60). She assists Danaus, the inventor of the first shop with her advice and her aid (Apollodorus, Mythographus 2.1.4; Hyginus, Fabulae 272). According to one tradition, it was she and not Demeter who invented the swing plow. The Works and Days of Hesiod attributes to the "servant of Athena" alone the capacity of attaching a piece of curved wood to the stock and fitting it to the shaft of the plow to make the plowman's tool. In the construction of these various works, Athena intervenes at all stages of woodworking, beginning with the felling, because "it is metis and not force that makes a good woodcutter" (Il 15.412). When Athena directs the construction of the ship of the Argonauts, she herself goes to Mount Pelion to select the trees, which she fells with a hatchet (Ap. Rhod., Argon. 2.1187-89). She teaches the carpenter, Argos, the art of measuring lengths of wood with a ruler (ibid. 1.724). She watches over the assembling and adjusting of different pieces with the help of dowels. She is seen planing and polishing the wood of Pelias's lance herself (Cypria frag. 3), and her protege Odysseus, the polumetis, is an expert in all these operations when he has to build a ship to leave Calypso's island (Od 5.234-257).

In the domain of chariots and ships, Athena's competence does not stop at building. The art of driving chariots and piloting ships also belongs to her. In both cases, her functions are clearly distinct from those of Poseidon, master of the horse and of the sea.

A Corinithian tradition attributes to Athena Chalinitis the invention of the bridle. According to Pausanias and Pindar, it is she who procures for Bellerophon the instrument necessary to tame Pegasus. But the episode occurs in a different context. It implies that technical intelligence doubled by magic that we have seen at work on the battlefield and at the potter's kiln. On the one hand, the bit is a metallic object, produced by the metis of the blacksmith and endowed with the mysterious values of the metal that comes out of the fire. On the other hand, it has an effect like a magic hold on the wild horse, a restless animal driven by a demonic and savage force, which is subdued for the uses of war.

Concerning mastery of the chariot, the qualities and expertise that the charioteer demonstrates when inspired by Athena Hippia come from a more humane techne, from a metis quite close to that of the carpenter. The goddess teaches the charioteer to plot his course, to exploit the weakness of his adversary by a questionable maneuver, in short, to make a slower and less vigorous team win by means of trickery (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 37).

Another group of artisans who depend upon the patronage of Athena are those who work in wool and fabrics. The goddess presides over and excels in spinning, in weaving, in making sumptuously decorated cloths by the methods of tapestry (embroidery is unknown in the Homeric world). Athena makes her own beautiful cloak and that of Hera. Although she teaches her art to Pandora, and bestows upon the women of Phaeacia the skills to become the finest of all weavers (Od 7.110), Athena does not tolerate being surpassed by a rival. The imprudent Arachne sees her all too perfect work torn apart by the goddess, and she herself is transformed into a spider (Ovid, Met 6).

There is no hiatus in Greek thought between this branch of Athena's craftsmanlike activities and the preceding branch. Between the two domains there are numerous analogies in vocabulary. The work of the weaver seems to be apprehended according to the same mental scheme as that of the carpenter. Both artisans in wood and workers in textiles proceed in two successive operations: cutting and assembling. The spinner who fashions into a thread the lock of wool she has isolated from the mass of shearings works in the same way as the carpenter who shapes and planes the boards and the beams cut by the woodcutter from the tree trunk. The carpenter and the weaver then construct a new whole by associating separate elements, by the juxtaposition of beams or the interlacing of threads. The protection the goddess gives Penelope is exactly symmetrical to the concern she has for Odysseus.

The same technical intelligence is expressed, therefore, in different categories of artisans. The technique is of the same substance as Athena's intelligence, such that the vocabulary of techne furnishes images to express that technique even when it is concerned only with mental operations. The verbs "to spin" and "to construct" often accompany the noun metis: thus Athena and her proteges sometimes spin their tricks and weave their plans, sometimes arrange their projects and construct their subtle traps.


Besides the two great technical divinities of its pantheon, Greek mythology knew a series of heroes remarkable for their dexterity, like Odysseus, and sometimes endowed with the title of "first inventor," such as Epeus, Palamedes, Daedalus, etc. All of these mortals are celebrated at least as much for their intellectual qualities as for their practical skill. This is certainly true of Daedalus, the prototype of the artist and of the artisan; his genealogy illuminates both sides of the paradigmatic personality of the artisan.

Among his direct ancestors are Eupalamus, "skillful hand," and Palamaon, "manual," two names which denote the dexterity and creative skill of the hand. But Daedalus's father is most often said to be Metion, "the man of metis," and his mother is sometimes Metiadousa, "she who delights in metis," sometimes Iphinoe, "she of the vigorous spirit," and even Phrasimede, "she who conceives of a plan."

The series of fabulous adventures which are spun into the thread of his legend give his character a marvelous dimension. Daedalus was famous throughout the whole world for his talent, but also for his wanderings and his misfortunes," Pausanias reports (7.4.5). This hero is an Athenian. He belongs to the line of Metionidae, the younger branch of the royal family of Athens, and is descended, through Erichthonius, from Hephaestus and -- almost -- from Athena. He begins by creating statuary or, according to another tradition, inspires great progress in this art. The statues which come from his hands are almost alive. He also invents several implements indispensable for the work of the carpenter and the architect: the hatchet, the plumb line, the gimlet, and glue. But he has a nephew, his sister's son, who, while still a young apprentice, threatens to surpass his uncle's genius: the lad devises the lathe, the carpenter's compass, and by imitating the snake's jaw, the first saw made of metal. Such ingenuity provokes Daedalus's jealousy, and he throws the child down from the top of the Acropolis. Pursued, or condemned to exile, the artisan seeks refuge in Crete, at the court of King Minos. There he fashions statues, a place for Ariadne to dance, and an ingenious machine for Pasiphae: a cow of leather-covered wood which permits the queen, hidden inside, to unite with a bull. She gives birth to the Minotaur. At the request of Minos, Daedalus constructs the labyrinth in which the monster is imprisoned. Young Athenians are regularly handed over to him as fodder. Theseus -- a cousin of Daedalus -- arrives, and to please Ariadne, who is in love with the hero, the artisan gives her the ball of string which will help Theseus to emerge victoriously from the trial. But Minos finds out, and, as a punishment, shuts Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. The artisan then fashions wings and the two fly away. Icarus imprudently climbs too high in the sky, the heat of the sun melts the wax which holds the feathers together, and the young man plunges to his death before his father's eyes. Daedalus reaches Sicily and places himself at the service of King Cocalus. He builds a dam, fortifies a citadel to shelter the king's treasure, lays the foundation of a temple to Aphrodite on the peak of a crag, installs a heating system. Minos pursues him in hatred, seeking him with tenacity and cunning: he offers a reward to anyone who knows how to thread a snail's shell. King Cocalus assigns the task to Daedalus, who has taken refuge with him. Daedalus attaches the thread to an ant's body and puts it into the shell through a hole pierced in the top. When the ant comes out again, the problem is solved. Minos thus detects Daedalus's presence and demands to have him back. But in order to keep Daedalus, the king of Sicily's daughters help him to scald Minos in his bath. In this way the artisan triumphs over the sovereign.

This romantic story displays a certain number of themes -- or mythemes -- which are also found in mythologies of the artisan in other cultures: living statues, headlong flights, flying men, labyrinths, murders, etc. But their organization in the Greek context takes on specific qualities and depends on a coherent group of representations and a system of special values -- values that structure the characters of the technician divinities, Hephaestus and Athena.

This legendary narrative is packed with traditions about a series of precious objects produced by a group of artisans of luxury, objects called daidala (Daedalian). Analysis of this narrative allows us to distinguish the framework of thought that governed the way the Greeks perceived art and technique.

The artisan-artist is defined as an ambiguous and disconcerting person. The ambivalence of techne is expressed in a series of oppositions, also characteristic of mythical logic.

There is an opposition between the notions of "to show" and "to hide." The inventor of the statue is a creator of a spectacle, of an object meant to be seen. Daedalus was the first to "reveal the appearance of the gods." In showing the divinity, the sculptor renders the invisible visible. When tradition makes Daedalus the author of decisive progress in Greek plastic arts, and not their inventor, he is given credit for "having opened the eyes of statues." In the one case he creates an image to be seen; in the other, he gives this image sight. The two traditions are complementary. Their duality expresses the reversibility of the Greek conception of vision: "to see" and "to be seen" are equivalent. Sight is both the organ and the faculty of vision and its object. When applied to the divine image, this principle of reciprocity is applied to a background of religious representations: it is just as dangerous to see the face of the god as it is to fall under his gaze. Blindness and madness are the punishments inflicted on rash humans. The inventor of art seems to make a game of this danger.

But Daedalus is also the one who hides, who renders the visible invisible -- hiding Pasiphae in the wooden cow, shutting up the Minotaur in the meanderings of the labyrinth (only to reveal him to Theseus later), fortifying the hiding place of the royal treasure of Cocalus -- and Daedalus himself hides to escape the vengeance of Minos.

The giver of sight is also the creator of life. Certainly art imitates life; and the works of Daedalus have a striking realism: "they seem to look and walk" because "he unglued the arms from the bodies of statues" and "separated their legs." But the life of Daedalus's statues is not simply a metaphor. He breathes real life into them. Their mobility is so great that they have to be tied up to prevent them from running away (Plato, Meno 97d). They escape, and are endowed with sight and even with speech. This mysterious life is of the same order as that of the magical works the secret of which Athena taught the inhabitants of Rhodes, whose "streets bear figures that resemble walking, living beings" (Pindar, Ol 7.52); to this same order belongs Hephaestus's automatons, self-moving tripods, and golden servants, and the gold and silver guard dogs from the palace of Alcinous. By creating objects that mirror life, the ingenuity of the artisan can also produce a monster against nature: by permitting an impossible union, Pasiphae's machine caused the birth of the Minotaur.

Though he us the master of animation and of life, the craftsman is also the one who kills, helps kill, or makes others kill: he is the passionate killer of his pupil and disciple; the murderer (through his imprudence) of his son Icarus; the accomplice un Theseus's killing of the Minotaur, his creature"; and the instigator, finally, of the assassination of Minos, his sovereign.

This second opposition, "to create" versus "to kill," is closely linked to the first, for to produce is to bring to light, and to kill is to make disappear, to send to Hades (a-vides, the Invisible).

The ambiguity of art also appears in the series of antitheses which oppose form to illusion, beauty to evil, truth to falsehood. The creator of form is the maker of illusion. There is a story that Heracles, finding himself face to face with a statue of himself made by Daedalus, believed he was facing an adversary and struck him. Beauty that fascinates can hide the worst of evils, like Pandora -- the creation of Hephaestus and Athena -- who was sent to earth, adorned with jewels made by Daedalus, to sow misfortune among men; like the Trojan Horse, which amazed the Trojans and brought them disaster. The techne that imitates the true is nothing but a lying artifice. The cow of wood and leather is unnatural and holds a real woman. It acts as a lure for the bull, which gets caught in the trap. It is a trap just like the labyrinth, from which one cannot extricate oneself. In one anecdote, Daedalus spreads nets to capture thieves who have stolen a treasure. The entire legend puts art and ruse in constant correlation. Techne both embellishes and falsifies. The artisan is the mastery of forgery and subterfuge.

In the specific domain of technique and invention, the dominating opposition is between the notions of straightness and circularity or sinuosity. Like every good carpenter, Daedalus guides his plane straight. When he begins the first flight, he adheres strictly to the rules of navigation: he flies with his eyes fixed on the constellations -- Bootes, Ursa Major, Orion's Sword -- which are the reference points of the sailor. The essential rule he sets down for Icarus is that of the straight route, halfway between the high and the low, The failure and drowning of Icarus, a bad pilot, comes from ignoring this rule.

But the carpenter-pilot who has mastery over straightness also knows how to weave undulating nets and draw curves. The Labyrinth at Knossos is, in fact, described only in terms of its sinuous form and its intertwinings. This figure, to which the artisan left his name, is notably redundant in legend. It is immediately taken up again in the sequence of the ball of string that Daedalus gives Ariadne so that Theseus can retrace his steps: the solution is a redoubling of the problem. The following episode, in certain versions, tells how, at Delos, Daedalus teaches Theseus and the surviving young Athenians a dance "of which the figures imitate the turns and detours of the labyrinth, with a rhythm marked by alternating and circular movements" (Plutarch, Theseus 21.1). And the anecdote of the thread that follows the spiral of a snail shell is, of course, a last redoubling of this theme. The polymorphous thread is a perfect symbol of the ambivalence of the artisan: Daedalus invents two antithetical aspects of it, the thread as a rigid plumb line and the soft, round ball of Ariadne.

Mastery and excess form the next paradox in the character of Daedalus. At times, as a vigilant technician he knows how to follow the middle path, respecting the equilibrium between the extreme dryness of the sun's heat and the humidity of the sea; he knows the precise dosage needed to temper the boiling vapor emerging from a grotto at Selinus, so that he can build a heating system there; but at other times he gives way to murderous transports of jealousy and kills his nephew, or uses his competence in hydraulic engineering to commit an assassination : by scalding Minos, he is in effect doing something that is an inversion of what he did at Selinus, where the vapor, once under control, was put to the service of those taking the cure. The valuable servant of kings is transformed into a formidable adversary. Techne always conjoins two sides, one beneficial, the other harmful.

The last antithesis is already present in Daedalus's genealogy: the one who has manual dexterity is characterized essentially by his intellectual qualities. The narration of the adventures of the artisan puts the accent on the form of mentality that he must prove: an inventive subtlety rich in ruses and stratagems. The most famous realization of his talent as an architect, the labyrinth, is not presented as an edifice. An enigmatic place, scarcely material, it is an inescapable course, the spatial representation of the notion of aporia, a problem that is unsolvable or that contains its solution within itself. The daedalian labyrinth is the very image of the mind that conceived it, tortuous, sinuous and infinite in its changes of direction, just as the genius of its author is inexhaustible in its resources. If the intelligence of Athena is technical, the techne of Daedalus is conceptual. Indeed, to make the artisan betray his own presence, Minos proposes not an ordeal of the manual kind, but a test of intellectual ingenuity.

This may be how Greek culture resolves one of its major contradictions. It is an artisan's culture, since most of its creations are the work of those Homer called "craftsmen" (demiourgoi), yet this culture assigns the artisan to a subordinate place in society, and it depreciates the manual laborer on the place of theoretical reflection. But by becoming a legendary hero, the artisan is rehabilitated by his metis.

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Last modified: Mon Mar 04, 2002 / Jeremiah Genest