This week I’m going to focus on the father/son combination of Daedalus and Icarus. The myth is well known in the modern day, even outside of classics and if you don’t know the story behind the two, hopefully the names are in some way familiar. Happily, I’m also going to squeeze in some background to the Minotaur which should help in understanding these myths.
Daedalus was a skilled craftsman, artist and inventor and features in two prominent myths (I’m going to ignore the one involving Theseus and Ariadne in this post). The first is that of the Labyrinth. At the command of King Minos, Daedalus built a near inescapable maze on Crete to house the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature. Minos then trapped Daedalus on Crete and refused to let him go.
The reason behind this was that Minos made an altar to Poseidon and requested a bull for sacrifice. However, when he saw the bull he kept it instead of sacrificing it (piece of advice, don’t go against the gods!). Poseidon responded by causing Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, to fall in love with the bull. She enlisted the help of Daedalus, the court inventor, who in turn created a hollowed out wooden cow for her to interact with the bull. In the end she became pregnant and that’s the origin story of the Minotaur. Minos became angry at Daedalus and thus kept him on Crete.
Daedalus, however, was not alone on Crete as he had with him his son Icarus whom he loved very much. Being a great inventor, he fashioned wings out of wax. He gave Icarus the warning not to fly too low or too close to the sun. Icarus promised however when he started flying he forgot all about the promise and started enjoying himself as is to be expected of a young boy who learned to fly.
This ties into something I mentioned last week in my post about Zeus, the gods aren’t fair. They aren’t fair. I guess we see that with Pasiphae also. She was just an innocent bystander and is punished for her husband’s wrongdoings. The same can be said of Icarus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, dated 8 A.D., Ovid writes that it was because Icarus “Began to enjoy his thrilling flight and left his guide to roam the ranges of the heavens” that he was punished. This makes it sound like he was challenging the gods and suffered consequences as a result. This isn’t an isolated incident though.
Throughout the Metamorphoses there are instances where the gods act unjustly or are overzealous in punishing humans. Tales like those of Diana and Actaeon, Arachne and Minerva and the fate of Daphne due to a petty argument between Apollo and Cupid are all examples of instances where the gods either act out of turn or are a little too severe.
Back to Icarus. The boy flew too close to the sun and his wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. Despite having an unhappy ending and being quite short, the myth of Icarus escaping with his father is one that endures today. But while Icarus met his end here, his father did not.
He managed to escape to Sicily and was taken under the care of King Cocalus. Minos, angry with his escaping, pursued him. He was caught in a trap though as King Cocalus daughters’ boiled him alive in a steam bath. Nasty way to go!
Daedalus continued to invent and created many marvels but I think I’ll conclude this piece here rather than finish with a big long list.
Fun Fact: In University College Dublin, the college I study at, there’s a Daedalus Building. Unfortunately, it’s not used by Classics. Grr!
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post. I’ve mentioned Ovid’s Metamorphoses here and will hopefully getting around to doing a post about the work in due course. For next week I’m not certain what I’ll write on yet, but I think someone like the great Greek hero Achilles would be interesting.
Until next time,