In legendary times, Daedalus the Athenian was known as the foremost craftsman in the whole of Hellas. After attempting to murder his nephew Talos, in jealousy for his invention of the saw, he was exiled to Crete where king Minos ruled. As a guest of Minos he was held in high regards for his skill and craftsmanship.



After a series of unfortunate events on Crete, Daedalus was tasked with building the great Labyrinth in Knossos, a complex structure that was built to keep anyone inside from getting out due to its devious mazes. Moreover the Labyrinth was created for the sole purpose of confining the terrible Minotaur, a creature which was half-man and half beast, who was later slain by Theseus from Athens.

After the completion of the labyrinth, king Minos made sure that Daedalus couldn’t leave Crete, as he found him to be an important asset to his kingdom. Daedalus realized quickly that he was in fact a prisoner of Minos, and as the years passed, his troubles would grow as he found himself forlorn in a foreign land while his longing for his home of Athens was getting more intense, then he said:

Tho’ Earth and water in subjection laid,
O cruel Minos, thy dominion be,
We’ll go thro’ air; for sure the air is free.
Then to new arts his cunning thought applies.[1]

Looking to the sky as his way to freedom, he started doing what he did best as his son Icarus stood beside him and intently followed his every move. So then he began by attaching feathers in long rows binding them together with thread and wax. He constructed four wings, two for himself and two for his son.

Daedalus and Icarus by Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov

Daedalus and Icarus by Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov (1776)

When he had created them, he tried them on and swung back and forth, up and down to see if they were working, and they were. Then he proceeded to teach Icarus the basic mechanics of how to fly, and when Daedalus had taught him how use the wings he warned his son:

My boy, take care
To wing your course along the middle air;
If low, the surges wet your flagging plumes;
If high, the sun the melting wax consumes:
Steer between both: nor to the northern skies,
Nor south Orion turn your giddy eyes;
But follow me: let me before you lay
Rules for the flight, and mark the pathless way.[2]

The father and son embraced each other and Daedalus took the lead by swinging his wings back and forth as he ascended, Icarus was behind him and his father was incessantly looking back to see if he did what he was told. As they flew the people below them, the farmers, fishermen, herdsmen on the ground watched in amazement as two humanoids with wings were flying above their heads, they thought they were witnessing gods.

Daedalus and Icarus had by now flown great distances above and across the sea, and Icarus having forgotten his fathers admonitions started swinging his wings more intensely and frequently as he tried to fly higher and higher. So Icarus soared higher and got closer to the sun, which softened and subsequently melted the wax that held the feathers together. The wings fell off, and the boy desperately swung his arms back and forth in the air, but to no avail. Screaming in terror Icarus fell to the waves beneath him as his cries was then heard by his father.

The father, now no more a father, cries,
Ho Icarus! where are you? as he flies;
Where shall I seek my boy? he cries again,
And saw his feathers scatter’d on the main.
Then curs’d his art; and fun’ral rites confer’d,
Naming the country from the youth interr’d.[3]

Upon seeing the feathers float upon the waves of the sea, he immediately understood what had happened. Overwhelmed by sadness, Daedalus cursed his own invention and descended to the nearest island, where he wandered back and forth along the coast until the waves had washed the body of his son ashore.

Daedalus prepared the funerary rites and buried his son on the island, which would from then on be known as Icaria, and the sea which Icarus fell into was henceforth known as the Icarian Sea.

Morals in the Myth

  1. Stay on course and listen to the advise given by the wise. While it may be tempting, at times, to give in to passion and fervour, it’s not always the best thing to do. I’m not saying don’t take any risks or never try something different, rather what I’m saying is that sometimes, perhaps most times, it’s better to listen to the wise words of others. But that begs the question, how do I know what’s wise and what’s not? Well that’s a topic for a different time.
  2. Freedom is sweet and we humans are willing to go to great lengths to secure our freedom, especially from oppressive tyrants.
  3. Its safe to say that the ancient Greeks had no idea that the higher in altitude you get the colder it gets. But hey you can’t know everything can you, especially in ancient times.

References

  • [1], [2], [3] Ovid in the Metamorphoses bk. VIII (Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al)

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