Stephen Dedalus may seem an “absurd name” from the perspective of normal Irish experience, but from a literary perspective it is easily one of the most meaningful, over-determined signifiers ever attached to a fictive person. Mulligan is probably referring to his unheard-of family name; but both Stephen and Dedalus are “ancient Greek,” and both reflect the ancient Greek practice of using names to indicate functions or attributes.
Daidalos (Latin Daedalus) means “cunning workman,” “fine craftsman,” or “fabulous artificer” (this last phrase comes from A Portrait of the Artist, and Joyce repeats it Scylla and Charybdis). Stephanos means crown or wreath, and carries associations with the garlands that were draped over the necks of bulls marked for sacrifice. The first Christian martyr was named St. Stephen, probably because of this association with sacrifice.
Dedalus was a legendary artisan whose exploits were narrated by ancient poets from Homer to Ovid. A Portrait opens with an epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: et ignotas animum dimittit in artes, “and he applies his mind to unknown arts." It concludes with a secular prayer: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Both are references to Daedalus. Between these bookends, the autobiographical persona who has inherited the craftsman’s name discovers his vocation as a literary artist and begins to prepare himself for writing a great work of Irish art. He hopes one day “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The Portrait, then, presents Stephen as potentially an artificer comparable to the legendary Greek craftsman, his spiritual father. Whether he will actually become such an artist is a question that Ulysses raises but does not definitively answer. It is a possibility that has not yet become actual.
Daedalus was famed for three particular creations, one of which comments upon Stephen’s son-like combination of potential and immaturity. Ovid tells the story of how the craftsman, trapped on Crete by King Minos, fashioned two pairs of artificial wings to escape his island prison—one for himself and one for his son Icarus. He warned Icarus not to fly too high, lest the heat of the sun melt the wax attaching the feathers to the artificial wings. Carried away with the joy of flight, Icarus forgot his father’s warning, flew too close to the sun, and fell to his death in the sea. If Stephen is more like the son than the father, then his efforts to fly will be marked by disastrous failure more than triumph.
Both A Portrait and Ulysses confirm this expectation. The earlier novel establishes a recurring pattern of triumph followed by failure, flight followed by descent. It ends on a high note, with Stephen resolving to “fly by” the nets thrown at the soul in Ireland “to hold it back from flight.” He looks at birds in flight and thinks “of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of captivity on osierwoven wings.” He prepares to go “Away! Away!” (to Paris), thinking of kindred souls “shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth.” But Ulysses finds him back in Dublin, picking seaweed off his broken wings. He is unachieved and unrecognized as an artist, unloved and unwed in a book whose subject is sexual love, and soon to be unhoused and unemployed.
In Proteus Stephen imagines his father Simon learning that he has been hanging out in the run-down house of his Aunt Sally and responding with contemptuous derision: "Couldn't he fly a bit higher than that, eh?" In Scylla and Charybdis he thinks, “Fabulous artificer. The hawklike man. You flew. Whereto? Newhaven-Dieppe, steerage passenger. Paris and back. Lapwing. Icarus. Pater, ait. Seabedabbled, fallen, weltering. Lapwing you are. Lapwing be.” The cry of Pater (“Father”) identifies him with Daedalus’ much-loved son. “Lapwing” identifies him with a low-flying, non-soaring bird that also figures in the mythology of Daedalus. In Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, edited by Charles Martindale (Cambridge UP, 1988), Niall Rudd notes that "in spring the bird gives an odd aerobatic display, climbing upwards and then plunging down, rolling and twisting, apparently out of control" (50).
The myth of Dedalus and Icarus, then, becomes one more ancient Greek template in Ulysses for Stephen’s halting growth into manhood, paralleling the stories of Hamlet and Telemachus. As in those stories, there are as many grounds for hope as for despair. In Scylla and Charybdis, Stephen recalls a dream he had the night before: “Last night I flew. Easily flew. Men wondered.” Circe literalizes this hopeful fantasy, having Stephen assert, “No, I flew. My foes beneath me. . . . Pater! Free!” while Simon Dedalus, playing the artistic father, “swoops uncertainly through the air, wheeling, uttering cries of heartening, on strong ponderous buzzard wings.”
Daedalus’ second famous creation (moving backward rather than forward through his life) was the Labyrinth that he constructed beneath the palace of Knossos to house the half-man half-bull Minotaur. (Scholars speculate that the myth of the Labyrinth may have been inspired by the elaborate floor plan of the actual palace, whose size and complexity were extraordinary.) If any work of twentieth century fiction, or indeed of world literature in any age, can be compared to a labyrinth, it is Ulysses—with the difference that, whereas Theseus had one thread to retrace his steps through the dangerous maze, Joyce’s reader encounters countless connections between widely separated parts of the book. Joyce seldom employed the image of the labyrinth, however. (In the Linati schema, it appears as the "technique" of Wandering Rocks.)
Daedalus’ first work involved cattle, in what Oxen of the Sun calls the fable "of the Minotaur which the genius of the elegant Latin poet has handed down to us in the pages of his Metamorphoses." The artificer helped Pasiphae, the queen of Crete, to satisfy her desire for a particularly good-looking bull by constructing a hollow artificial cow that allowed the bull’s penis to enter both it and her. The fruit of this copulation was the Minotaur. Bulls were central to Minoan civilization; it worshiped them, and young men and women performed a spectacular ritual of vaulting over them by gripping their horns. Minos himself sprang from the union of Europa with the white bull in which Zeus visited her, and Poseidon inflicted Pasiphae’s lust upon her as punishment for Minos’ refusal to sacrifice a particularly magnificent sea-born bull to the god.
Joyce alludes to the racy story of Pasiphae in Scylla and Charybdis, when Stephen’s list of sexual taboos includes “queens with prize bulls,” and in Circe, when he thinks again of the woman “for whose lust my grandoldgrossfather made the first confessionbox.” He may also be alluding to it obliquely in Oxen of the Sun, when bulls and sex again get mixed up with religion and confession: “maid, wife, abbess, and widow to this day affirm that they would rather any time of the month whisper in his ear in the dark of a cowhouse or get a lick on the nape from his long holy tongue than lie with the finest strapping young ravisher in the four fields of all Ireland . . . and as soon as his belly was full he would rear up on his hind quarters to show their ladyships a mystery and roar and bellow out of him in bulls’ language and they all after him.”
These particular passages may only characterize Stephen by contrast (as someone who rejected the priesthood), but he is repeatedly associated with cattle in general and bulls in particular, beginning with the first sentence of A Portrait of the Artist: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” Later in Portrait the cries of some swimming boys—“Come along, Dedalus! Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforos! . . . Stephanos Dedalos! Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforos!”—make him briefly a Greek bull, ox, or cow (Bous is gender-indeterminate). His agreement in Nestor to carry Mr Deasy’s letter to two newspaper editors makes him think, “Mulligan will dub me a new name: the bullockbefriending bard”—a phrase which floats through his mind in two later episodes. In Oxen, the two motifs come together: “I, Bous Stephanoumenos, bullockbefriending bard, am lord and giver of their life. He encircled his gadding hair with a coronal of vineleaves, smiling at Vincent. That answer and those leaves, Vincent said to him, will adorn you more fitly when something more, and greatly more than a capful of light odes can call your genius father.”
As Stuart Curran has observed in "'Bous Stephanoumenos': Joyce's Sacred Cow," JJQ 6:2 (Winter 1969): 163-70, Stephen's friends in Portrait seem to be ridiculing him as "something of a blockhead who refuses to join their fun," but the verb stephanon means "to encircle or wreathe," and the noun stephanos means "wreath or crown," so his very name identifies Stephen as "a hero, a youth singled out from the mass of his countrymen" (163). He and Vincent play upon the notion that great poets are crowned with laurel wreaths—with Vincent observing that he has not yet deserved such accolades, having written only a handful of short lyrics. But the root sense of his name also identifies him as a sacrificial victim, since the garlanded oxen of ancient Greece were marked for slaughter, and (as Curran also observes) the Greek passive verb stephanomai can mean “to be prepared for sacrifice” (167). Thus the “ancient Greek” significance of stephanos forms an intelligible link to the other figure who is usually regarded as a basis of the name Joyce chose for his autobiographical persona: St. Stephen Protomartyr, the first of the Christian martyrs.