The famous ancestor of Socrates

Socrates claimed descent from Daedalus. That's the same Daedalus who built the Labyrinth for King Minos, in which was kept the bull called the Minotaur. It's also the Daedalus who invented wings, and whose son Icarus experienced the world's first aviation accident due to pilot error.

The claim comes via Plato in his book Euthyphro. Plato often put his own words in the mouth of Socrates, but this sort of detail reads like it came from the real man. The odds are good that the real Socrates did claim to his friends to be descended of the great inventor.

This might sound weird, but it is typically Greek. Important Greeks regularly claimed descent from a great figure out of myth. Who you picked for your ancestor said something about you. The family of Alexander the Great for example claimed descent from Heracles. Alexander himself went one better and decided Zeus was his own father. So when Socrates claims the clever Daedalus, he is actually saying that the attribute he wants most to emphasize about himself is his own intelligence. It might even have been a family tradition.

As is well known, Daedalus decided to skip town when things went pear-shaped for his boss King Minos. Daedalus flew off into the sunset, to land in Athens, where he remarried and had kids. Daedalus therefore died an Athenian. In Athens, Daedalus is credited with having invented sculpture.

Now the father of Socrates (and Nicolaos) was Sophroniscus. By popular tradition Sophroniscus was a “polisher of stone”, which is code for a sculptor in marble. In the books I’ve accepted the tradition as true in the absence of anything better, though there’s a fair chance it’s apocryphal; the family trade isn’t mentioned anywhere until the following century. Since it was normal for a man to claim as his ancestor someone related to his own trade, it would be very reasonable for Sophroniscus to have told Socrates (and Nicolaos) that Daedalus was their forbear.

This isn't a spoiler, I haven't used this little factoid anywhere in the books, but since I never knowingly break history, it must by definition be part of the Nicoverse.


14 comments:

Stephanie Thornton said...

Daedalus has always reminded me of the Greek version of Leonardo da Vinci. Either way, they're both pretty cool- Socrates picked a pretty good god to be related to.

Myself? I'd pick Athena. Goddess of war and wisdom? Sign me up.

Gary Corby said...

Interesting idea, Stephanie. I'm not sure who I'd pick for an ancestor.

I've always been rather fond of Eris, the Goddess of Chaos. Hermes in addition to being the messenger god was also the patron god of thieves, so appropriate to a crime writer. Diotima is a priestess of Artemis the Huntress, so I know her well. Hekate is very cool in a goth sort of way. Odysseus was a tricky fellow and a great hero. Tough choice.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I've always been fascinated by the penchant the ancients had for ascribing their talents to a divine ancestor. And yet it makes sense to some degree doesn't it? Take an athlete who so far exceeds others in talent, he takes people's breath away (here in the US, I'm thinking of someone like Michael Jordan). How else to explain the seemingly huge gap between an athlete of that caliber and the moderately talented, let alone the ordinary person? Same thing with beauty. Most of the Hollywood stars of today would have, in the ancient world, likely claimed themselves descendants of Aphrodite or Helen. And why not? How else can their extraordinary appearances be explained? We moderns try to explain things away with genetics but we still treat the super-talented and super-beautiful people as if they were somehow semi-divine. An echo of this ancient habit?

Amalia T. said...

I love what Vicky is saying above, and I love this post.

I think Alexander the Great went a little bit too far in claiming Zeus as his father, seeing as how the Trojan War from the perspective of the gods was all about ending the age of heroes and stopping the demigod half-breed habit in its tracks, thusly explaining why these incredible half-god heroes were no longer walking around Greece fighting monsters in the "modern" day, but I guess if anyone was going to break the rule, it would have been Zeus himself.

I really don't know which god or goddess I'd claim as an ancestor in the Classical tradition... I guess Athena would make the most sense, but I'd have to think about it!

I think claiming descent from the gods is the precursor to the principle of Divine Right of kings in the western world. It's a very small step from "child of the gods" to "authority from god" and everyone who was anyone in the ancient world already claimed divine ancestry legitimize their authority in every facet of the culture.

Trisha Leigh said...

Interesting, Gary, as usual. There's still something about us, as humans, that wants to know where we come from, to hear stories about ancestors we'll never meet - it's engrained I suppose.

Since you brought up King Minos, two questions.

1. Did you see the film Inception?
2. What do you make of the female character being named Ariadne?

Your release date is creeping ever closer. So excited!

Meghan said...

Daedalus has always reminded me of the Greek version of Leonardo da Vinci.

That is exactly what I think of Daedalus as. The guy was ahead of the game by hundreds of years! If you consider yourself inventive, naturally you're going to think of this legendary figure. My Themistocles wants to be an Odysseus, but alas his lineage doesn't really connect. :(

Gary Corby said...

Interesting idea, Vicky. I like the idea of bringing the system forward, but I think I I might detect some tricky problems. For example, which goddess would be assigned as the ancestor of, say, Paris Hilton?

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, like Vicky says, the Greeks used divine ancestry to explain unusual attributes, but I'm not sure they ever used it in the "divine right" sense? Can you think of an example? Quite often having a god for a parent was more bad news than good news.

Alexander's claim to Zeus seems to be as much a determination not be related to his dad, which is fine fodder for psychologists.

The guy who did make heavy use of divine ancestry was, of course, Julius Caesar. After him, it became very trendy.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Trisha, Nope I haven't seen Inception. Sorry! I rarely watch films, very much less than most people, and the moment I heard it involved a lot of dream sequences, that was a big minus for me right there. It's almost impossible to get dreams right. A dream sequence that I thought was very good was the opening of Serenity. Whedon had an almost impossible mission to open that film, and I thought he got away with it very well indeed.

Deliberate use of classical names for modern characters: hmmm. Great question, and I'm not sure. Sometime works, and IMHO, sometimes doesn't. In the case of The Matrix for example, it didn't. The Matrix character names were like, "Here's a big hammer. Now let me donk you on the head with it."

If you're going to do it, you have to really know why it's necessary. Because, when you get down to it, almost all stories are re-tellings of something or other from the past, so to use the original ancient name shouldn't be necessary, in theory. Audiences are extremely smart and spot these things without having to be hammered. Of course, if the character actually is the original Ariadne, then that would be way cool. There are quite a few stories in which ancient characters survived to modern day, or even into the future. For a good example, try This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (a.k.a. And Call Me Conrad...)

Gary Corby said...

Meghan, Stephaine agrees with you, and I think that's a near-perfect analogy.

Given that da Vinci certainly did exist, it'd be fascinating to know if there was a for-real Daedalus.

Loretta Ross said...

Another great post and a great discussion that's sprung up from it! This is not exactly what you're talking about, but I kind of have a story about identifying with ancient gods.

I tend to be a bit skiffy about religion. I'm not really anything and everyone expects you to be something so they know how to classify you. So one day I half-facetiously told a guy I know that, as a writer, I'd decided to worship Apollo, since he was a patron of the arts. This guy looks at me and says, very seriously, "are you sure that's a good idea? You know, he expected Cassandra to sleep with him and cursed her when she didn't!"

So I'm thinking about this. First, he'd given Cassandra the gift of prophecy, so don't you think she'd have seen that curse coming? Second, we're talking about the god of medicine, so he knows about the human body, and arts, so he's creative, plus, he's a GOD.

What was Cassandra thinking???

Anyway, I told my friend later that I'd considered it, and that, if Apollo shows up and wants sex, I'm okay with that. He just looked kind of shocked and went away. :-/

Trisha Leigh said...

Gary -

Naming her Ariadne was definitely intentional and had a purpose. The film is all about layers, and each piece of the puzzle means something. It's a real brain teaser. You might enjoy it, if you like that sort of thing.

Basically, the character of Ariadne builds a maze and leads men inside. If I remember the mythology correctly, she provided one man, a ball of...string? Twine? So that he could find his way back out.

The question is, does she leave the main character a way to get out of her maze?

Very interesting :)

Trisha Leigh said...

Gary -

Naming her Ariadne was definitely intentional and had a purpose. The film is all about layers, and each piece of the puzzle means something. It's a real brain teaser. You might enjoy it, if you like that sort of thing.

Basically, the character of Ariadne builds a maze and leads men inside. If I remember the mythology correctly, she provided one man, a ball of...string? Twine? So that he could find his way back out.

The question is, does she leave the main character a way to get out of her maze?

Very interesting :)

Gary Corby said...

I do love a layered puzzle.

The film doesn't sound like a reflection of the original myth though. In the original, the maze is built by our friend Daedalus. Ariadne is the daughter of Minos and does the usual princess-falls-for-hero thing. Theseus promises to love her forever and she gives Theseus a ball of string to find his way out again (so much more effective than bread crumbs). But there was never any question there was a way in and out of the maze.

Theseus destroys the Minotaur, gets out using the string, and takes Ariadne to Naxos, where he promptly does the dump-the-princess thing. Heroes are such commitmentphobes.

It all ends happily for Ariadne when she marries a God, which even for a princess is a step up on the social ladder. Her wedding crown was the constellation Corona.