Daedalus and Icarus

The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558

“The Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558

The myth of Daedalus and Icarus tells the story of Dædalus, a master craftsman, who escaped exile on the island of Crete by making wings for himself and his son Icarus. Disaster happens, when Icarus forgets the advice of his father, and flies too close to the sun. The story has been told by many, but two of the best-known retellings are found in the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, and Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable; you may read both of them farther down on this page.

Bruegel’s painting of the fall of Icarus (left) has been immortalized in at least two thought-provoking poems of the twentieth century—William Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams, and I strongly recommend you read these as well. You may listen to them in the video recitations below.

 “Daedalus and Icarus” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VIII:183-235), c. A.D. 8

In the meantime, Dædalus, abhorring Crete and his prolonged exile, and inflamed by the love of his native soil, was enclosed there by the sea. “Although Minos,” said he, “may beset the land and the sea, still the skies, at least, are open. By that way will we go: let Minos possess everything besides: he does not sway the air.”

Thus he spoke; and he turned his thoughts to arts unknown till then; and varied the course of nature. For he arranges feathers in order, beginning from the least, the shorter one succeeding the longer; so that you might suppose they grew on an incline. Thus does the rustic pipe sometimes rise by degrees, with unequal straws. Then he binds those in the middle with thread, and the lowermost ones with wax; and, thus ranged, with a gentle curvature, he bends them, so as to imitate real wings of birds. His son Icarus stands together with him; and, ignorant that he is handling the source of danger to himself, with a smiling countenance, he sometimes catches at the feathers which the shifting breeze is ruffling; and, at other times, he softens the yellow wax with his thumb; and, by his playfulness, he retards the wondrous work of his father.

After the finishing hand was put to the work, the workman himself poised his own body upon the two wings, and hung suspended in the beaten air. He provided his son with them as well; and said to him, “Icarus, I recommend thee to keep the middle tract; lest, if thou shouldst go too low, the water should clog thy wings; if too high, the fire of the sun should scorch them. Fly between both; and I bid thee neither to look at Boötes, nor Helice, nor the drawn sword of Orion. Under my guidance, take thy way.” At the same time, he delivered him rules for flying, and fitted the untried wings to his shoulders.

Amid his work and his admonitions, the cheeks of the old man were wet, and the hands of the father trembled. He gives kisses to his son, never again to be repeated; and, raised upon his wings, he flies before, and is concerned for his companion, just as the bird which has led forth her tender young from the lofty nest into the air. And he encourages him to follow, and instructs him in the fatal art, and both moves his own wings himself, and looks back on those of his son. A person while he is angling for fish with his quivering rod, or the shepherd leaning on his crook, or the ploughman on the plough tail, when he beholds them, is astonished, and believes them to be Divinities, who thus can cleave the air.

And now Samos, sacred to Juno, and Delos, and Paros, were left behind to the left hand. On the right were Lebynthus, and Calymne, fruitful in honey; when the boy began to be pleased with a bolder flight, and forsook his guide; and, touched with a desire of reaching heaven, pursued his course still higher. The vicinity of the scorching Sun softened the fragrant wax that fastened his wings. The wax was melted; he shook his naked arms, and, wanting his oar-like wings, he caught no more air. His face, too, as he called on the name of his father, was received in the azure water, which received its name from him.

But the unhappy father, now no more a father, said, “Icarus, where art thou? In what spot shall I seek thee, Icarus?” did he say; when he beheld his wings in the waters, and then he cursed his own arts; and he buried his body in a tomb, and the land was called from the name of him buried there.

The Fall of Icarus sculpture

The Fall of Icarus, a 17th-century relief sculpture.

Daedalus and Icarus from Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable

The labyrinth from which Theseus escaped by means of the clew of Ariadne, was built by Daedalus, a most skilful artificer. It was an edifice with numberless winding passages and turnings opening into one another, and seeming to have neither beginning nor end, like the river Maender, which returns on itself, and flows now onward, now backward, in its course to the sea. Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, but afterwards lost the favor of the king, and was shut up in a tower. He contrived to make his escape from his prison, but could not leave the island by sea, as the king kept strict watch on all the vessels, and permitted none to sail without being carefully searched. “Minos may control the land and sea,:” said Daedalus, “but not the regions of the air. I will try that way.”

So he set to work to fabricate wings for himself and his young son Icarus. He wrought feathers together beginning with the smallest and adding larger, so as to form an increasing surface. The larger ones he secured with thread and the smaller with wax, and gave the whole a gentle curvature like the wings of a bird. Icarus, the boy, stood and looked on, sometimes running to gather up the feathers which the wind had blown away, and then handling the wax and working it over with his fingers, by his play impeding his father in his labors.

When at last the work was done, the artist, waving his wings, found himself buoyed upward and hung suspended, poising himself on the beaten air. He next equipped his son in the same manner, and taught him how to fly, as a bird tempts her young ones from the lofty nest into the air. When all was prepared for flight, he said, “Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe.”

While he gave him these instructions and fitted the wings to his shoulders, the face of the father was wet with tears, and his hands trembled. He kissed the boy, not knowing that it was for the last time. Then rising on his wings he flew off, encouraging him to follow, and looked back from his own flight to see how his son managed his wings. As they flew the ploughman stopped his work to gaze, and the shepherd learned on his staff and watched them, astonished at the sight, and thinking they were gods who could thus cleave the air.

They passed Samos and Delos on the left and Lebynthos on the right, when the boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven. The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together, and they came off. He fluttered with his arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air. While his mouth uttered cries to his father, it was submerged in the blue waters of the sea, which thenceforth was called by his name.

His father cried, “Icarus, Icarus, where are you?” At last he saw the feathers floating on the water, and bitterly lamenting his own arts, he buried the body and called the land Icaria in memory of his child. Daedalus arrived safe in Sicily, where he built a temple to Apollo, and hung up his wings, an offering to the god.

The death of Icarus is told in the following lines by Darwin:

“—— with melting wax and loosened strings
Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings;
Headlong he rushed through the affrighted air,
With limbs distorted and dishevelled hair;
His scattered plumage danced upon the wave,
And sorrowing Nereids decked his watery grave;
O’er his pale corse their pearly sea-flowers shed,
And strewed with crimson moss his marble bed;
Struck in their coral towers the passing bell,
And wide in ocean tolled his echoing knell.”


More Bulfinch Mythology Tales

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