Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The ant and the shell: Daedalus and Minos in Sicily

After the curiously juxtaposed tales of Daedalus and Icarus and Daedalus and Perdix/Talus, Ovid gives very short shrift (8.260-62) to two tales that bring some closure to the careers of Daedalus and Minos. (We really should give further thought to the fact that Ovid differs from most storytellers in being exceedingly nonchalant about giving his stories what Frank Kermode would call The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (with a New Epilogue)).

Here's the story: This version comes from: Daedalus and Minos at the court of King Cocalus in Sicily:
After the loss of his son Icarus, Daedalus managed to reach Camicus or Cumae in Sicily, the kingdom of Cocalus, on his own. But King Minos of Crete did not stop hunting him. He knew that the wise Daedalus would find a way to cover his tracks, so he had to think up a way to flush him out of his hiding-place. 
Nautilus fossil: Golden Ratio
Minos sent word to all the kings of the known world, that whoever of their subjects was able to solve a puzzle would be richly rewarded. Minos believed that only Daedalus could solve the difficult puzzle: to string a thread through a conch shell.

King Cocalus, who had given Daedalus shelter in his court, had of course realised the abilities of the legendary craftsman and asked him to solve the puzzle. He hoped that if Daedalus solved it, his kingdom would gain prestige and perhaps even Minos’ favour. 
Daedalus pierced a hole in the tip of the conch shell, smeared it with honey, and tied the thread around an ant, which, attracted by the honey, wound its way through the spirals of the empty shell taking the thread with it. 
Cocalus joyfully announced to Minos that the puzzle had been solved, never suspecting that he was thus betraying Daedalus, the most-wanted fugitive in Minoan Crete.

Minos immediately understood that Daedalus was in Sicily, and sailed there in person to get him back from Cocalus. Cocalus did not want to oppose the powerful King of Crete, but neither did he want to lose Daedalus’ services. So, although he promised to deliver the craftsman to Minos, he decided to murder the latter. The great King of Crete met an inglorious end in a boiling bath. The murder was planned to look like an accident, ensuring that the crafty Cocalus would go unpunished. 
All of the above may be no more than a myth, but it conceals the historical truth that the Minoan Cretans founded colonies in Sicily, such as Minoa in Acragas (Agrigentum), Hyria in Messapia and Engyos in the interior of the island. (Links added. Another version of the story can be found in Apollodorus, E.1.13-15.)

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