The Myth of Daedalus and Icarus: Fly Between the Extremes

Daedalus and Icarus flew using wings made of wax and feathers. Ignoring his father’s warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun and met a tragic end.

Sep 6, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
daedalus icarus myth paintings

 

In 1903 the Wright brothers invented the first successful airplane. Nothing would ever be the same as humanity had just learned to fly. This was a big deal. People had been obsessed with flying for centuries. Even before Leonardo da Vinci’s elaborate drawings of birds and flying machines, there were myths and stories of people flying in the sky. One of these stories was of Daedalus and Icarus, an ancient Greek myth famously recorded by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. According to the story, Daedalus, a mythical inventor, created wings made of feathers and wax to escape from Crete where he and his son, Icarus, were held captive by King Minos. Icarus, however, ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and he fell into the sea where he met his end.

 

But let’s take the story from the beginning.

 

Daedalus and Icarus: The Myth

sacchi daedalus and icarus painting
Daedalus and Icarus, Andrea Sacchi, c. 1645, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova

 

The story of Daedalus and Icarus begins way before the birth of Icarus. Daedalus, as the myth goes, was an unparalleled sculptor. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates mentions a legend that Daedalus’ sculptures had to be tied down, otherwise they would run away. Daedalus’ art was so lifelike that it ended up coming to life. It is no coincidence that many ancient wooden cult images in multiple Greek temples were said to be his works. Pausanias, the travel writer of the second CE century, saw quite a few of these images that were believed to belong to the legendary sculptor and wrote that they captured a sense of the divine.

 

But Daedalus was more than a skillful artist. He was also an inventor. The ancients attributed a series of inventions to him, the most important being carpentry. In a sense, Daedalus was the mythical equivalent of a Renaissance man.

 

Daedalus In Athens

perdix athena daedalus print
Perdix, thrown off a tower by Daedalus, William Walker, after Charles Eisen, 1774-1778, British Museum, London

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However, there was a darker side of Daedalus. The inventor was the greatest of his era, but there was a brief time when he faced serious competition. According to Ovid (Metamorphoses VIII.236-259), Daedalus was born in Athens (other sources claim he was Cretan) and had quickly become a respectable citizen due to his skill and intellect. His sister believed that her son, Talos (in other sources he can be also found as Calos or Perdix), could greatly benefit by studying next to his uncle in Athens. Little did she know.

 

Daedalus took Talos and taught him everything he knew. The boy was young and quite witty. He quickly took in all the knowledge and began applying it to the world around him. Daedalus soon realized that the boy was not simply smart. It was smarter than him. If Talos continued this way, Daedalus would be completely overshadowed by him. So, he threw Talos off the cliff of the Acropolis. The goddess Athena saved Talos by transforming him into a bird that received his mother’s name Perdix. Still, Daedalus was tried for this act and banished from Athens.

 

Daedalus In Crete

 

After his expulsion from Athens, Daedalus found refuge in the court of King Minos, the mythical king of Crete. Minos ruled the seas with a mighty fleet that had no equal. With Daedalus in his court, he became an unstoppable force.

 

During his time in the court of Minos, Daedalus had the chance to start over. It was there that he got a son of his own by a slave called Naukrate. The boy’s name was Icarus. There is absolutely no information about Icarus’ early life nor his relationship with his father.

 

Pasiphae, the Minotaur & the Labyrinth

pasiphae minotaur greek painting
Pasiphae and the Minotaur, 340-320 BCE, Settecamini Painter, National Library of France

 

Daedalus could have lived peacefully in Crete. However, one day he was suddenly asked to offer his assistance to Pasiphae, Minos’ wife. Pasiphae wanted to accomplish one of the most despicable acts imaginable; mate with an animal, and more specifically, a bull. Everything had began when Minos had asked Poseidon to send him a sign of divine favor in the form of a beautiful bull. The king promised that he would return the animal in the form of a sacrifice. The god granted Minos’ wish and a uniquely beautiful bull appeared from the sea.

 

Minos was glad to see that Poseidon favored him but was not keen on sacrificing the animal. Instead, he decided to keep the bull and sacrifice another one in his place. Poseidon had honored his side of the deal, but Minos had not. Punishment was imminent and arrived in the form of a divine madness that took over Pasiphae. Minos’ wife became unable to control an impulse to mate with the bull that Poseidon had sent. Unable to perform the act as the bull had also turned disobedient, she asked for Daedalus’ help.

 

To solve Pasiphae’s problem, Daedalus carved a wooden cow on wheels. He then took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze.” Pasiphae got inside the wooden effigy, which tricked the bull. The woman finally got what she wanted. From the union of human and animal, the Minotaur was born, half man and half bull.

 

When Minos saw the terrible creature, he asked Daedalus to construct the Labyrinth in order to hide it there. Minos later used the Minotaur to maintain a reign of terror over Athens by asking for seven young women and seven young men from the city to be fed to the beast as tribute. Eventually, Theseus, an Athenian hero, came to Crete and slew the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, Minos’ daughter. Some ancient writers even claim that Daedalus played a role and helped the couple in their quest for the Minotaur’s head.

 

Daedalus and Icarus in Prison

frederick leighton daedalus icarus painting
Daedalus and Icarus, Lord Frederick Leighton, c. 1869, private collection, via Art Renewal Center

 

According to Ovid, at some point, Daedalus grew to hate Crete and decided to return to his home. However, Minos was determined to keep the inventor near him, even if that meant imprisoning him. Other writers claim that Minos threw Daedalus in a cell after learning about his role in Pasiphae’s sin, Theseus’ escape, or simply to keep the mysteries of the Labyrinth a secret.

 

Life in prison was not easy, but at least Daedalus was not alone; his dear son Icarus was there with him. Still, Daedalus was desperate to escape from Crete.

 

“He [Minos] may thwart our escape by land or sea but the sky is surely open to us: we will go that way: Minos rules everything but he does not rule the heavens’.”
Ovid, VIII.183

 

And so, Daedalus did what he knew best; he thought out of the box. The result of his creative fever would be an invention that would haunt the imagination of the western world for millennia until humanity conquered the sky. Daedalus studied the movements of birds and built a device mimicking them. He then laid down multiple feathers in a row from shortest to longest and tied them together using beeswax and thread. All this time, Icarus was playing with the feathers, laughing without realizing that he was touching what would bring about his tragic end.

 

daedalus icarus wings wax painting
Daedalus forming the wings of Icarus out of wax, Franz Xaver Wagenschön, 18th century, Met Museum, New York

 

When Daedalus finished, he wore the wings. Daedalus and Icarus stared at each other as the father flew in front of his son. He looked at Icarus and explained to him how he should use the wings and what he should avoid:

 

“Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!”
Ovid, VIII.183-235

 

Daedalus’ warnings and instructions had a dramatic tone to them. He understood that this was no game but a trip that could end badly. The fear for his son’s life was overtaking him. Tears were leaving his eyes and his hands were shaking. Icarus’ reactions showed that he did not recognize the dangers of the flight. Yet, there was no other choice. Daedalus approached Icarus and gave him a kiss. Then he took to the sky again, leading the way, while teaching Icarus how to use his wings properly.

 

Ovid writes that a plowman, a shepherd, and an angler saw Daedalus and Icarus flying from the distance and believed them to be gods, a scene famously depicted in Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

 

rubens fall icarus painting
The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy, after Rubens, 1636-1638, Prado, Madrid

 

Daedalus and Icarus flew and left Crete behind them. Now they were out of Minos’ reach, but not safe. As they were approaching the island of Samos, Icarus turned arrogant. He felt an unconquerable urge to fly towards heaven, as close to the sun as he could. Ignoring his father’s warnings, he flew higher and higher, until the wax that held the wings together melted and he began falling at speed. Icarus tried to fly but his hands were now naked. The only thing left to him was to scream his father’s name.

 

“Father!”

 

“Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?”, screamed Daedalus, but Icarus had already drowned into the dark sea, which would become known as the Icarian Sea.

 

“Icarus!”, he screamed again, but received no reply.

 

draper lament icarus painting
The Lament for Icarus, H. J. Draper, 1898, Tate, London

 

Finally, Daedalus found the body of his son floating amidst feathers. Cursing his inventions, he took the body to the nearest island and buried it there. The island where Icarus was buried was named Icaria.

 

Daedalus had just buried his son when a little bird flew next to his head. It was his nephew Talos, now called Perdix, who had returned to enjoy the suffering of the man who had almost killed him out of spite. This is how Daedalus and Icarus’ myth comes to an end.

 

Icarus, Phaethon, Talos

gustave moreau phaethon fall painting
Fall of Phaethon, Gustave Moreau, 1899, Louvre, Paris

 

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is quite similar to another Greek myth, the fall of Phaethon. Phaethon was the son of Apollo. In the myth, Phaethon insists on driving the chariot of the sun. Even though Apollo warns him time and time again that this will bring about his end, Phaethon does not back down. Finally, Phaethon gets what he wants, only to realize that he does not have what it takes to control the chariot’s horses. He then falls and meets his end. Like Daedalus, Apollo grieves for his son but nothing can bring him back.

 

Interestingly, Ovid wrote about Icarus and Phaethon, as well as about Talos (or Perdix) in his Metamorphoses. In these three stories, the theme of a young, ambitious man falling in a tragic manner is common. In all three stories the fallen meet their ends after they attempt to surpass a certain limit that they were not supposed to. Icarus flies too close to the sun, Phaethon insists on driving the sun’s chariot, even if he is warned that he will die this way, and Talos surpasses Daedalus in inventiveness. The lesson of these stories appears to be that a son should not rush to surpass the father.

 

Daedalus and Icarus: Avoid the Extremes, Enjoy the Flight

pieter bruegel elder fall icarus painting
Landscape with the fall of Icarus, after Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1558, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

 

A unique element in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, however, is that Icarus is instructed to fly between the extremes; not too high but also not too low. We could interpret this as a warning to avoid being too ambitious while also not becoming completely unambitious. Icarus is instructed to find a golden ratio. If we think about this, it is actually pretty good life advice. How many young people haven’t burnt out due to excessive ambition? How many young people never managed to develop their talents due to an apathetic approach to life? We can all think of relevant examples; perhaps a friend, an old acquaintance, or even a family member.

 

In an age where our attention spans are growing shorter, while a toxic work culture is increasingly becoming the norm, it is getting less and less possible to fly between the extremes. In real life, a golden ratio is hard, often impossible to reach.

 

So, what should we do? In Brueghel’s painting above, we can see three men (a plowman, a shepherd, and an angler) going about their humble daily tasks. However, if we look at the bottom right of the image, we will notice that someone is drowning in the sea. That is Icarus, who has just fallen. In this simple composition which does not seem to make much sense at first lies a grim reminder. In the end, no matter what you have done, no matter how close to the sun you flew or not, life will continue. The plowman will continue to plow, the shepherd will continue to watch his flocks, and the angler will continue to wait for fish to take the bait. Perhaps, what we should do is learn from the story of Daedalus and Icarus and simply enjoy the flight.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.