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Teaching activities: Labyrinth

Labyrinth interweaves two stories, that of Daedalus the master-craftsman and that of Theseus the Athenian hero. It is much longer than any of the other stories in this collection and the summary has been broken down into six sections to provide possible stopping points when using the story in the classroom. Most you are likely to cover in a one-hour lesson.

Starting points

Find out what the students know about labyrinths and mazes. They could look at Mark Wallinger’s project to mark 150 years of the London Underground as part of which he created a different labyrinth design for all 270 Underground stations (for information on the project go to How do the students feel about travelling underground — is it enjoyable, exciting, frightening, oppressive, unnatural? In what ways is the Underground like a labyrinth?

It is also worth getting the students to think about inventors and inventions. What do they think are the greatest inventions of the last 150 years? The motor car? The airplane? The telephone? The internet? The splitting of the atom? Do all inventions, as well as finding solutions, bring problems?

Part 1: the death of Talos

What do we learn about Daedalus in Part 1? What does his treatment of Talos reveal about his character? [jealous, treacherous, heartless]

Ask students to assume the identity of Daedalus and try to justify his actions or express his remorse.

If pupils have already listened to Arachne they will be aware that cleverness in humans excites the jealousy—and punishment—of the gods. How might the gods punish Daedalus? Ask pupils to justify their answers using information from the story.

Part 2: at the court of King Minos

What gifts does Daedalus give to King Minos and his family? [The crown appears several times in the story]

Although Minos is fabulously rich, he feels that he is missing something. What is it?

What are the clues that the baby may turn out to be part-bull?

Where did Daedalus get the idea for a labyrinth from?

How do you think Pasiphae feels about her new-born baby being hidden away in the labyrinth? How might the sound of its crying affect her?

Who are the child’s companions? What is missing from his life? Why is this important?

When does Asterius acquire a taste for human flesh? Whose fault is it?

What secret does Daedalus have? [A son born to a slave woman] Why is it so important that he keeps the boy’s existence a secret? Do you think Icarus will be safe? Can you make a prediction as to what his fate might be? [Talos fell to his death]

Part 3: Theseus arrives in Crete

Why are the people of Athens so alarmed when Minos and his fleet arrive in Athens?

Theseus volunteers to go to Crete—is that arrogance, bravery or stupidity?

What promises does Theseus make before leaving Athens?

What does Theseus say to Ariadne that suggests that his promises are not necessarily to be trusted? [‘I could have taken you to Athens. I could have made you a queen.’] Why does he say this to Ariadne?

Part 4: Theseus kills the Minotaur

Madly in love with Theseus, Ariadne agrees to help him defeat the Minotaur. Who does she turn to for help? [Daedalus]. Why is he reluctant to help? How does Ariadne overcome his reluctance?

Which three things does Daedalus provide to help Theseus defeat the Minotaur? [Blazing crown, thread, sword] Which do you think was the most useful thing? Why?

Does Daedalus deserve to be shut up with his son in the labyrinth?

Part 5: Theseus returns to Athens

What is your opinion of the way Theseus treats Ariadne? Imagine you are Theseus: can you justify your treatment of the princess?

Enact the scene where Theseus leaves Ariadne on the island and Dionysus takes pity on her.

Does Ariadne deserve to become Dionysus’ consort? [she betrayed her own family and blackmailed Daedalus into helping Theseus defeat the Minotaur]

Does Theseus deserve to see his father drown?

Part 6: escape from Crete

What gave Daedalus the idea of escaping from Crete by air?

What advice does Daedalus give Icarus before they set off? Why does Icarus disobey his father?

In groups discuss: can we learn by listening to others or do we learn more from experience? Present your ideas to the whole class.

What do you think it would be like to fly?

Who is to blame for the death of Icarus? [link back to Talos]

What lessons can we learn from the death of Icarus?

Summative activities

Give your opinion on the way the story ended. Were all the threads tied up? Was it an effective ending?

Which character in Labyrinth do you find the most interesting/cruel/honourable? Which character do your feel most sorry for?

Extension activity

Read the translation of the fall of Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then look at Bruegel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus, (available on Wikipedia). What is the evidence in the picture that the painter was familiar with Ovid’s telling of the story?

What is the main focus of the painting? Why do you think the painter did not make the figure of Icarus more prominent (students often find it hard to find Icarus when they look at the painting for the first time!)?

There are suggestions that Bruegel’s painting of the fall of Icarus is a reflection on the insignificance of man (‘Life goes on’). Poems by W H Auden (Musée des Beaux Artsyou will find the poem and discussion here) and William Carlos Williams (Landscape with Fall of Icarus) pick up on this interpretation of the painting. Which poem do you prefer and why?

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