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An Analysis: The Flight of Icarus

Updated on June 17, 2017

The Myth of 'The Flight of Icarus'

The myth begins when the king of Crete, King Minos, commissioned a famous inventor named Daedalus to create a vast, meticulous labyrinth. This was to imprison a Minotaur, in which Minos' wife had birthed after her infidelity with a bull. The Minotaur's appetite was not satisfied unless there were human sacrifices given to the beast. One day a hero named Theseus wanted to slay the beast. Daedalus disobeyed the king's wish for the labyrinth's layout to remain secret when Daedalus taught Theseus how to kill the beast.

When Minos had discovered this treason he had locked Daedalus and his son, Icarus, in a tower in Naples. Not amused by the situation, Daedalus looked for a way to break out of imprisonment. There was no escape at sea. The sea was dominated by seafarers who were loyal to Minos. The land crawled with Minos' soldiers. Daedalus only saw one option for escape: taking to the air.

Daedalus told Icarus to gather the feathers found on the rocky shore since flocks of gulls would soar past the island. Daedalus gathered the feathers and used hot wax to create a skeleton in the shape of bird wings. When one was a success and carried him into the air, he created a pair for his son, teaching him how to fly.

They were to keep at a moderate height, for if they flew too low the fog and spray will clog their wings, and if they fly too high the heat would melt their wax. Daedalus would look back every now and then to check on his son. When Icarus saw the sun he was mesmerised by the sight. Icarus began to soar towards the sun.

His father saw this and tried to follow him, but he was heavier and his wings would not carry him fast enough. Icarus was bewitched with a sense of freedom as he flew closer to the sun, unaware that the wax that held his wings together were melting. A few sources say that Apollo, the god of the Sun, saw Icarus' actions as hubris. This was since flying was seen as right only given to the gods, who wanted to keep a strict divide between mortals and gods. Seeing this, Apollo melted Icarus' wings.

The wax melted and he fell, drowning in the water below. Daedalus found him, gathered his corpse in his arms and flew to land. Weeping bitterly, he buried his small son and called the island Icaria in his memory. Daedalus took to the air, but the joy of his flight was gone and the victory over the air was bitter to him. He arrived in Sicily where he built a temple to Apollo and hung up his wings as an offering to Apollo.

Source

Daedalus and Icarus - Storyteller: Greek Myths - The Jim Henson Company

Small bronze sculpture of Daedalus

Small bronze sculpture of Daedalus, 3rd century BC; found on Plaoshnik, Republic of Macedonia.
Small bronze sculpture of Daedalus, 3rd century BC; found on Plaoshnik, Republic of Macedonia.

The Main Characters of the Myth

Daedalus (Greek: “Skillfully Wrought”)

Daedalus was a mythical Greek architect, artisan and sculptor who was famous for establishing a nonsensical Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. This was where in which Minos had trapped the Minotaur which was birthed from his wife’s infidelity with a bull.

Daedalus had lived in Athens where he pushed his nephew, Talus, off the Acropolis in response to momentary envy when the apprentice was inspired by the function of a snakes’ mouth to invent a saw.

It is arguable that he buried Talus’ body or that Athena transformed Talus into a partridge. Either way, he was exiled to Crete to serve under King Minos. Eventually had a son, Icarus to Naucrate, a mistress-slave of Minos. Daedalus and his son were imprisoned after assisting hero, Theseus, to kill the Minotaur.

In the 'Flight of Icarus,' Daedalus created wings out of wax and seagull feathers in order to escape captivity. His attempt resulted in the death of his son whose wings collapsed when he flew too close to the sun. Daedalus was then thrown into a state of pathos.

He buried his son the island which he named Icaria, and the sea that Icarus had fallen was called the Icarian Sea. In context to Homer, Daedalus was the first mention by the author as the creator of a wide dancing-ground for Ariadne.

Icaria, Greece

A markericaria -
Icaria, Ikaria, Greece
get directions

This is Icaria, the place that was named after Icarus

Icarus

Icarus was the son of Daedalus and Naucrate. He was thrown into captivity with his father given Theseus the secrets of the labyrinth. He was told to fly at a medium altitude when he was flying with Daedalus in their escape from captivity. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions, resulting in his death. After his death, he was buried on the island named Icaria, and the sea that Icarus had fallen was called the Icarian Sea, both named after him.

Understanding Values of Ancient Greece

Greek mythology periodically highlighted the metaphysical relationship the Greeks had in relations to the gods and interpreted the values of the world they lived in. Values of respecting the gods, humility, the human physique and intelligence and hope as well as the significance of respecting elders are frequently expressed through Greek mythology. 'The Flight of Icarus' accentuates this through Daedalus’ heuristic actions.

The Value of Respecting the Gods

In ancient Minoan Greek Societies, it was postulated that Gods despised mortals that believed they were on the same level of superiority as they were. The concept was regarded as ‘hubris’, in Greek culture, a fundamental principal that was accentuated within 'The Flight of Icarus.' The prospect of hubris gave the Greeks an explanation to why they faced hardships such as droughts that inflicted the land.

Daedalus challenges the limitations of man through defying aerodynamics and gravity through the creation of wings. Flying was strictly perceived as an activity of the gods, but despite this, he took his son on a flight to escape Minos’ captivity, in the process being mistaken for gods by onlookers.

As punishment, Daedalus lost his son who was compelled to soar towards the sun. This highlights the fear and paranoia that existed within ancient Greek mythology and societies in regards to angering the gods and emphasises the metaphysical connection Minoans had towards nature.

John William Waterhoues' 'Pandora'

John William Waterhouse: Pandora - 1896
John William Waterhouse: Pandora - 1896 | Source

The Value of Hope

The value of hope had been frequently debated within Greek society, specifically due to the mythical Pandora’s box. Since hope was found at the bottom of the box, hope could have been interpreted as a virtuous or a malevolent force that lured humans to function under the impression that they could manipulate their futures.

This was one of the aspects expressed in 'The Flight of Icarus' as Daedalus creates wings in the hope of evading captivity under Minos. He believed that he had control over nature which consequently led to his heuristic sin. As a result, Daedalus lost his son. Therefore, the myth provides insight into the negative perception the Greeks had developed in regards to the value of hope.

The Human Physique and Intelligence

The Greeks prided the human physique, preserving significant values for intelligence which is reflected through classical sculptures, the use of gymnasiums and symposiums. In gymnasiums (palaestra), the Greek men were to showcase their bodies and exercise excessively since older men would often marry and educate younger men while young girls were confined at home. Due to this their potential and social standing were heavily reliant on their physique.

Furthermore, within symposiums intellectual discussions would have taken place which would have tested how in which you were meant to conduct yourself through, for instance, knowing how to drink wine. In essence, this was one of the key reasons why Greek gods were illustrated in human form as they wouldn't have imagined their form to be short of perfection. The fact gods were depicted in human form also expressed the human desire to conquer the vulnerabilities of mortality .

Funerary relief (510–500 BC) depicting wrestlers

IMAGE: FUNERARY RELIEF (510–500 BC) DEPICTING WRESTLERS (FINGALO, LICENSED UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0 VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
IMAGE: FUNERARY RELIEF (510–500 BC) DEPICTING WRESTLERS (FINGALO, LICENSED UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0 VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

This correlates to Daedalus and Icarus through the way they were human, yet they mastered the aerodynamics of flight and were misinterpreted as gods by overseers. Since the myth’s creation Daedalus had been conceived as great within Greek mythology since he had inspired individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci with his flight machine.

Furthermore, he had influenced the Greek ideology of the limitation of humans and influenced art culture as Daedalic sculptures had been an early phase of Greek art named after him. This accentuates the fact that Ancient Greek society sustained a world of high expectations where they were made to publicly display their physique and intellect under the illusion of protecting their democracy.

This also accentuates the craving that the ancient Greeks had to overpower the boundaries of mortality, therefore highlighting the value of the human form and intelligence 'The Flight of Icarus' presents. As a result, this emphasises the significance of intelligence within Greek societies.

Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Glider'

Source

Humility

After Icarus’ passing, Daedalus constructs a temple in Sicily. He eventually sacrifices his wings to the God responsible for the sun that melted the wax on Icarus’ wings, Apollo. Consequently, this expressed Daedalus’ acceptance and how he takes responsibility for his hubris sin. This emphasises a significant message of humility and prudence as it demonstrates the importance of being content within your own limits and to respect what you already have. Thus this was the reason why he sacrificed his wings to Apollo, therefore values that Ancient Greek societies held in regards to humility are thoroughly expressed within 'The Flight of Icarus.'

Belvedere Apollo Pio-Clementino

Apollo was the Greek God of the Sun
Apollo was the Greek God of the Sun

'Icarus' by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1887

Icarus  by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1887
Icarus by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1887

Theme of Obeying Elders

The 'Flight of Icarus' emphasises the magnitude of the respect of elders and self-control. Daedalus instructs Icarus to persist at a medium altitude to evade the ocean spray clogging his wings or for the sun to deliquesce the wax that held his wings together. During their flight, however, Icarus becomes transfixed with the sun and begins to soar towards which ultimately transpired in his death.

Idealistically they myth embodies the significance of obedience and self-control within Ancient Greek societies as fathers were essentially in charge of the household. Furthermore, this indicates the consequences of disobedience as afterwards Icarus had died and Daedalus was left in a state of pathos.

The flight would not have resulted in Icarus’ death if he hadn't have given into heuristic temptation, expressing the value of family within Ancient Greece as well as the prospect of obedience and wisdom.

'Icarus with Burning Wings' by Lucianne Lassalle

 Icarus with Burning Wings, a Bronze on Bronze by Lucianne Lassalle
Icarus with Burning Wings, a Bronze on Bronze by Lucianne Lassalle

Theme of Technology in 'The Flight of Icarus'

'The Flight of Icarus' evidently confronts the precariousness of technology. This is reflected through Daedalus’ poor sense of forethought of his inventions. For instance, in spite of the way he cautioned Icarus of the consequences that would befall him if he was to fly near the sea or towards the sun, he still allowed Icarus to use his contraption. In distinction to the accomplishment of creating the wings, he heuristically lauded himself as superior in contrast to the gods and nature, hence his pride was what inveigled him into allowing Icarus to use the wings. Despite his intentions, his creation was what ultimately made him the primary cause of Icarus’ death. The myth provides a sinister insight into technology and human curiosity which is significant today due to the growth in potential ways in which humans could die now due to new technology.

The Fall of Icarus (1700)

17th-century relief with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel)
17th-century relief with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel) | Source

A Description of the Relief, 'The Fall of Icarus, 1700'

Icarus' wings aren't present when he is shown falling to his death into the Mediterranean sea within the relief. The sun appears to have a face which stares down at Icarus whilst the ray’s length exceeds to a third of the sky. Furthermore the ocean vastly covers a third of the entire relief. Natural elements in the relief, such as the ocean exceeds Daedalus and Icarus in size, which in contrast makes them appear inferior, which consequently accentuates the power nature and gods such as Apollo had over mortals. This corresponds with the myth’s overall moral against heuristic actions and furthermore provides insight to the artistic methods used to encompass the myth.

Is 'The Fall of Icarus' (1700) Useful to Historians?

  • The relief, The fall of Icarus (1700) is beneficial to historians due to the way in which it explores the characteristics of the myth, in the process authenticating the claims stated throughout the myth.
  • The drawing gives an overall depiction of the myth’s setting as a tower and the Labyrinth that Daedalus established was illustrated in the background. This essentially could be perceived as the tower that Daedalus and Icarus were allegedly imprisoned in under King Minos’ decree. Consequently, this provides sustenance to the myth’s proclamation that they were detained in captivity and provides evidence to the myth of the Minotaur.
  • This reveals, that the myth was positioned in Naples in Crete.
  • Evidently, this supports the myth’s claim of Daedalus and Icarus using man-made wings in order to escape imprisonment from the island and indicates that the wings were destroyed by the sun.
  • Additionally, ships are shown within the image. This highlights the advancement in technology was expected to exist within the time of the myth, supporting sources that state the Greeks had used ships as a mode of transportation.

Theseus: Theseus killing the Minotaur

Theseus killing the Minotaur, detail of a vase painting by the Kleophrades Painter, 6th century bc; in the British Museum.
Theseus killing the Minotaur, detail of a vase painting by the Kleophrades Painter, 6th century bc; in the British Museum.

Close Up of the Labyrinth

The Fall of Icarus, 1700
The Fall of Icarus, 1700

Is 'The Fall of Icarus' (1700) Reliable?

  • The source does not provide the adequate amount of information to support the entire myth.
  • The relief evidently does not provide an artist
  • The relief was created in 1700’s this would have been thousands of years past the age of Ancient Greece and by far well past the moment the myth was created
  • This could have meant that the myth could have been created by a foreigner such as a Roman as the intentions of creating the archaeological source is relatively unknown.
  • The source could be conceived as reliable due to the familiar aspects it has in regards to sources about the myth.
  • The source corresponds with Ancient Greek customary clothing as men had typically worn knee height chitons.
  • Other artists have also portrayed Greek myths through the technique of creating reliefs
  • The relief also incorporates other elements of the myth such as the Labyrinth.
  • Therefore, the source could be perceived as reliable for reasons such as the similarities that correspond with Ancient Greek societies but could be identified as unreliable since the origin of the artwork is questionable.

'The Fall of Icarus' (1606)

Antonio Tempesta Italian (Florence, Italy 1555 - 1630 Rome, Italy) The Fall of Icarus, 1606 Series/Book Title: Illustrations to Ovid's "Metamorphoses" Print Italian ,  17th century Etching 10.5 x 12 cm (4 1/8 x 4 3/4 in.) B. 712
Antonio Tempesta Italian (Florence, Italy 1555 - 1630 Rome, Italy) The Fall of Icarus, 1606 Series/Book Title: Illustrations to Ovid's "Metamorphoses" Print Italian , 17th century Etching 10.5 x 12 cm (4 1/8 x 4 3/4 in.) B. 712 | Source

Description of 'The Fall of Icarus,' 1606

Icarus' wings are illustrated falling apart as he’s presented falling to his death. The sun appears empty whilst the ray’s length abrasively extends to half of the sky. Furthermore, the ocean vastly covers a half of the entire drawing. Natural elements in the relief, such as the ocean exceeds Daedalus and Icarus in size, which in contrast makes them appear inferior.

Is 'The Fall of Icarus' (1906) Useful?

  • The drawing, 'The Fall of Icarus' (1906) is beneficial to historians due to the way in which it expresses the characteristics of the myth, in the process corroborating the claims specified throughout the myth.
  • The drawing distinctly gives a general illustration of the myth’s location through the inclusion of a tower was drawn in the background. This essentially could be perceived as the tower that Daedalus and Icarus were allegedly imprisoned in under King Minos’ command.
  • This provides sustenance to the myth’s proclamation that they were detained in captivity, revealing that the myth was positioned in Naples, Crete.
  • The large scale of natural elements accentuates the power nature and gods such as Apollo had over mortals and projects the relentless wrath of the gods in response to curiosity. This furthermore provides insight to the artistic methods used to encompass the myth.
  • Evidently, this supports the myth’s claim of Daedalus and Icarus using man-made wings in order to escape imprisonment from the island and indicates that the wings were destroyed by the sun.

Naples, Crete

A markerNaples, crete -
Crete, Greece
get directions

Is 'The Fall of Icarus' (1606) Reliable?

  • The source does not provide the adequate amount of information to support the entire myth.
  • The drawing was created in the 5th century b.c.e which meant that it was written after the Trojan war and after 'The Fall of Icarus.'
  • A Roman had created the source leading to a lack of experience in relation to the myth. For instance, the tower’s isolation conflicts with other archaeological sources that depict the tower standing on Crete.
  • Due to most bias Roman interpretation of Greece, the intentions of creating the artwork is relatively unknown.
  • Despite this, the source could be conceived as reliable due to the familiar aspects it has in regards to sources about the myth. This also could be perceived as reliable due to the clothing is worn by the men in the image as within Greek society men wore a knee height chiton.

"...with the sword of Daedalus, the son of Pelias sowed the seeds of death for Peleus from an ambush" (Pindar, Nemean, 59-60).

— Pindar

The Nemean by Pindar

Source

Is the 'Nemean' by Pindar Useful?

  • Evidently, the 'Nemean' by Pindar makes reference to the myth of 'The Flight of Icarus' through specifically referring to Daedalus' function within the myth.

  • The quote above essentially refers to the overall success that Daedalus had in regards to crafting weapons such as, 'swords', through his metal-smithing ability which he is described to have in other sources.
  • This indicates that he had created tools for military action and destruction which could be ironically applied to the creation of the wings that also resulted in being a creation that took a life. This provides insight to Daedalus' impulse to sacrifice the wings to Apollo without making the world known for his invention.
  • This establishes Daedalus' presence in the Archaic era, giving a general idea of when 'The Flight of Icarus' has taken place since according to the source he existed during the Trojan War.
  • The Trojan War allegedly took place in the 11th- 12th century, and due to Daedalus' external participation in the war, it was clear that 'The Flight of Icarus' took place before the war.
  • On the other hand, the source could be regarded as unusable since it vaguely addressed Daedalus

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy, 1773 by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

The Trojan War was a Bronze Age conflict between the kingdoms of Troy and Mycenaean Greece
The Trojan War was a Bronze Age conflict between the kingdoms of Troy and Mycenaean Greece | Source

Is the 'Nemean' Reliable?

  • This source vaguely addressed Daedalus.
  • Within the text, Daedalus’ name was referenced once, furthermore indirectly to his weapon.
  • The source gives no indication of Icarus existing nor the major accomplishments that Daedalus made such as establishing the Labyrinth.
  • However, the source could be reliable due to the fact Pindar was Greek, therefore it would have been unlikely he would have included any bias elements to his work.
  • Therefore, the source vaguely addresses the myth and leaves the source questionable when it comes to its reliability for historians.

Bust of Pindar

Pindar, Roman copy of Greek 5th century BC bust (Museo Archeologica Nazionale, Naples.) Pindar (c. 522 – c. 443 BC) was an Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes.
Pindar, Roman copy of Greek 5th century BC bust (Museo Archeologica Nazionale, Naples.) Pindar (c. 522 – c. 443 BC) was an Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes.

The Aeneid by Virgil

In that high sculpture you, too, would have had

Your great part, Icarus, had grief allowed.

Twice your father had tried to shape your fall

In gold, but twice his hands dropped.

(Virgil, Aeneid, 6.47-50, translated by Fitzgerald)

— The Aeneid by Virgil

A bust of Virgil in Naples

Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), usually called Virgil or Vergil /ˈvɜːrdʒᵻl/ in English, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works  the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aneid
Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), usually called Virgil or Vergil /ˈvɜːrdʒᵻl/ in English, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aneid

Is the Aeneid Useful?

  • The Aeneid is regarded as useful through the way it’s perceived Daedalus and directly addressed Icarus. Evidently, the book prescribes Daedalus as an astute inventor, sculptor and architect who despite his intelligence he had lost his most significant creation, Icarus.
  • Within the ekphrasis, Virgil perceives post-flight Daedalus as an emotionally inflicted father as he depicts Aeneas and his Trojan men's arrival to the Sybil at Cumae.
  • On their journey to Sybil, Virgil states that the men witnessed Daedalus carving images of his story on the golden doors of Apollo but however couldn't endure carving the image of his son’s death.
  • He attempted, ‘twice to shape his fall in gold, but twice his hands dropped’, in insurmountable agony.
  • Through Daedalus’ emphasised torment the source could be perceived as useful due to the fact it provides insight to Daedalus’ melancholy subsequent to the death of his son.
  • The source could be regarded as useful due to the fact it supports the existence of Daedalus through his interactions with other members mentioned in Greek mythology, emphasises the tragedy’s morals of hubris and the archaic significance of family .
  • On the other hand, the source could be regarded as not useful due to the way it doesn’t go into extensive detail about 'The Flight of Icarus' itself.

Aneas meeting Daedalus

The Aneid by Virgil
The Aneid by Virgil | Source

Is the 'Aeneid' Reliable?

  • The source was produced in 29 BC after the conjectured period Icarus and Daedalus’ myth took place, making the source questionable in terms of dependability.
  • Under the Roman rule conceivable that Virgil had produced sympathetic elements through incorporating Daedalus in order to appeal to the Greeks.
  • This makes it the probability of the poem had been heavily influenced by Roman values. This could have created biased elements within the poem as it was also written from the perspective of a Trojan wanderer and was furthermore intended for Roman audiences.
  • On the other hand, the source could be considered as reliable due to the way it corresponds with elements of the myth through signifying Daedalus’ loss and how he had constructed the temple of Apollo.

The Greeks saw hope as evil, do you agree?

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