Icarus is one of Greek mythology’s best-known characters, the son of the highly skilled sculptor Daedalus. After being given wax and feather wings from his father to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete, Icarus flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, thus plummeting to his death in the sea below. Icarus’s story has been told by countless artists, from Lord Frederick Leighton to Henri Matisse, each one embracing the timeless, moralizing allegory which outlines the reckless arrogance and hubris of youth from a young man who ignored his father’s warnings. The story also captured humanity’s desire to conquer the sky in the days before aviation was possible. We take a closer look at the life story of this fascinating Greek anti-hero, as told by Ovid in his classic Metamorphoses.
Icarus Was the Son of a Sculptor
Icarus was the son of the remarkable mythological sculptor and inventor Daedalus, who was gifted with such extraordinary skills that his sculptures could actually come to life. After being expelled from Athens for the murder of Talos, Daedalus sought refuge in Crete, where he found work in the court of King Minos. While living in Minos’s court Daedalus had an affair with a slave woman named Naukrate, and they had a son together, who they named Icarus. Life could have rolled along peacefully for Daedalus in Crete, if it weren’t for his involvement with King Minos’s wife Pasiphae.
Driven to madness by one of her husband’s hair-brained schemes with the gods, Pasiphae was overcome with a desire to mate with a bull. Daedalus made this heinous act possible by creating a wooden sculpture of a cow and hiding Pasiphae inside. The result of their scheming was the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull beast.
He Was Imprisoned with His Father
King Minos was furious when he saw the Minotaur, and demanded Daedalus to build a complex Labyrinth within which to hide the monster. He kept Daedalus and Icarus imprisoned on Crete, lest they give away the secrets of the Labyrinth, and pursued a reign of terror against Athens, using public fear of the Minotaur to his advantage. Desperate to escape, Icarus’s father made two pairs of beautiful wings using bird feathers bound together with wax and string, for he and his son to fly to freedom.
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Once the wings were complete, father and son tried them out, and Daedalus issued Icarus a stark warning, tears staining his eyes and hands trembling with fear: “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… take the course I show you!”
Icarus Made an Ill-Fated Trip to the Sky
Father and son set off into the sky together, leaving Crete behind and making their way towards Athens. As Icarus became increasingly confident with his newfound flying ability, he felt an overwhelming urge to fly higher towards the heavens. As he came closer to the sun, exactly as his father had predicted, the wax holding Icarus’s feathers in place melted and his wings fell apart. Icarus called out to his father for help as he plummeted at great speed towards the sea, but it was too late – by the time Daedalus had turned to find him, Icarus was already drowned.
The sea into which Icarus fell became known as the Icarian Sea. Meanwhile, Daedalus hunted frantically for his son’s body, eventually finding him drowned, surrounded by bird feathers. Daedalus buried Icarus on a nearby island, which became known as Icaria.