DAEDALUS AND ICARUS

DAEDALUS of Athens, son of Metion and great-grandson of Erechtheus, also belonged to the family of the Erechthides. He was an architect and a sculptor—the greatest artist of his age. His works were admired in all quarters of the world, and those who beheld his statues said that they lived and moved and saw; that they were not mere likenesses, but animate beings. For while the masters of earlier times had made images with closed eyes and hands hanging slackly down and joined to the sides of the body, he was the first to give his marbles open eyes, hands that reached out, and feet that seemed to walk. But this perfect craftsman was as envious and conceited as he was gifted, and these flaws in his nature tempted him to wrongdoing and drove him into misery.

Talus, his sister’s son, whom he instructed in his art, was more talented than his teacher. When he was little more than a boy, he had contrived the potter’s wheel, and he became the much-acclaimed inventor of the saw by copying a tool which Nature herself put into his hands; for once, when he had killed a snake, he found he could use its jawbone to cut through a thin strip of wood. Immediately he set about notching a metal bar with a series of zigzag teeth and so made a sturdier replica of the serpent’s jaw. He also built the first turning lathe by joining two metal arms, one of which turned while the other stood still. He devised other ingenious implements, all without his uncle’s help, and acquired such fame that Daedalus began to fear that the name of his pupil would outshine his own. Overcome with envy he killed the boy in secret, hurling him down from the Acropolis in Athens. But someone saw him digging the grave for his victim and, although he pretended to have been burying a serpent, he was accused of murder and pronounced guilty by the court of the Areopagus.

He escaped and wandered through Attica as a fugitive. Later he fled to Crete, where King Minos afforded him shelter and honored him both as a distinguished artist and as his personal friend. He commissioned Daedalus to build an abode for the Minotaur, a monster of evil origin, whose head and shoulders were those of a bull while the lower part of his body resembled that of a man. The artist drew upon the rich resources of his mind and built the labyrinth, a structure full of intricate windings which bewildered the eyes and the feet of anyone who entered it. The countless corridors twined like the serpentine flow of the Phrygian river Maeander, which seems to turn back upon its course and meet its own waves. When the building was completed and Daedalus went over it, he, its builder, could scarcely find his way back to the threshold of the maze he had constructed. At its very center dwelt the Minotaur, who every ninth year devoured seven youths and seven girls, whom, according to an old agreement, Athens sent as a tribute to the king of Crete.

Notwithstanding the praise and friendship accorded him, Daedalus grew oppressed by his long exile from his beloved country, and the thought of spending the rest of his life on an island encircled by the sea and with a ruler who distrusted even his friends, became more and more tormenting. He pondered a way out. After long reflection he exclaimed exultantly: “Let Minos block my escape on land and sea, but I shall still have the air! Be he ever so great and powerful, there he is helpless, and through the air I shall depart!”

It was no sooner said than done. Daedalus yoked Nature by the vigor of his imagination. He began to arrange the feathers of birds in a certain order, putting the shortest first, and then the longer, so that it looked as if they had grown of themselves in increasing length. In the middle he bound them together with linen threads, and the ends he fastened with wax. Then he bent them to a curve so shallow and so gradual that they appeared to be wings.

Daedalus had a son by the name of Icarus. The boy watched his father’s labors, and his childish hands joined eagerly in the work. Now he reached out for the feathers whose down stirred at a breath of wind; now he kneaded the yellow wax between thumb and forefinger. And Daedalus let him be and smiled at the child’s awkward efforts. When all was made perfect, he fitted the wings to his body, balanced himself for an instant, and then floated up into the sky, light as any bird. After he had lowered himself to earth, he instructed his young son Icarus, for whom he had fashioned a smaller pair of wings. “Always fly the middle course, dear child,” he said. “If you sink too low, your wings will touch the sea, grow waterlogged, and pull you down into the waves. But if you rise too high into the upper regions of the air, your plumage will approach the sun and catch fire. So fly between sea and sun, and stay close behind me.” While he warned him, Daedalus bound the wings to his son’s shoulders, but the old man’s fingers trembled, and an anxious tear fell on his hand. Then he took the boy in his arms and kissed him—for the last time.

And now the two rose upon their wings. The father flew ahead like a bird who guides her tender brood on their first flight from the nest. He beat his wings artfully and with care, so that his son might do likewise, and from time to time glanced back to see how he was succeeding. At first all went well. They passed the island of Samos on their left, then skimmed by Delos and Faros. They saw still other coasts recede and fade, when Icarus, emboldened by the ease of the flight, darted out of his father’s track and steered to higher zones with boyish daring. But the threatened punishment came swift and sure. The powerful rays of the sun melted the wax which held the feathers in place, and before Icarus was even aware of it, his wings dissolved and fell from his shoulders. The unhappy boy tried to fly with his bare arms, but these could not hold the air, and suddenly he plunged headlong through the sky. He wanted to call to his father for help, but before he could open his lips, the blue sea had closed above him. It all happened very quickly. And now Daedalus, looking back, as he did from time to time, no longer saw his son. “Icarus, Icarus,” he called through the empty space. “Where shall I look for you in the regions of air?” At last his troubled, searching eyes glanced downward, and he saw feathers floating on the water. Descending, he laid aside his wings and paced the coast disconsolately, until the waves cast the boy’s body on the sand. And now murdered Talus was avenged. Frantic with sorrow, Daedalus journeyed on to Sicily. The ruler of this great island was King Cocalus, who received Daedalus just as hospitably as Minos of Crete had once done. The work of the artist astonished and delighted the people. For many years one of the sights of that country was an artificial lake he had made, from which a broad river poured into the nearby ocean. On a rocky plateau where there was space for only a few trees and which was so steep that it could never be stormed, he built a city and constructed so narrow and winding a path leading up to it that three or four men sufficed to defend the fortress. King Cocalus chose this invincible stronghold to house his treasures. The third work which Daedalus completed on the island of Sicily was a deep cave. Here he caught the steam of subterranean fires by skillful devices, so that the grotto, usually cold and dank, was as pleasant as a moderately heated room, and the body gradually broke into beneficent sweat without suffering unduly from excessive warmth. He also enlarged Aphrodite’s temple on the promontory of Eryx and dedicated to the goddess a golden honeycomb so artfully wrought that it looked as though the bees themselves had modelled the six-sided cells.

But now King Minos, from whom Daedalus had secretly fled, learned that he had taken refuge in Sicily and resolved to pursue him with a host of his men. He equipped a vast fleet and travelled from Crete to Agrigentum. Here he landed his troops and sent a messenger to King Cocalus, asking him to return the fugitive. But Cocalus was galled by the demand of this foreign tyrant and brooded how he might destroy him. He pretended to agree to his request, promised to do as he wished, and to this end invited him to a meeting. Minos came and was received with elaborate hospitality. A warm bath was prepared to rest him from the fatigue of his journey, but when he was in the tub, Cocalus had it heated until his guest died in the boiling water. The king of Sicily delivered the body to the Cretans, explaining that the king had slipped in the bath and fallen into the hot water. His men, thereupon, buried Minos near Agrigentum with great pomp and splendor and erected a temple to Aphrodite near his grave.

Daedalus remained in Sicily and enjoyed the unwavering favor of his host. He attracted many famous masters to him and became the founder of a school of sculptors there. But he himself had felt no happiness since the death of his son Icarus, and while he made the land which had given him refuge serene and radiant by the work of his hands, he passed into a troubled and mournful old age. He died in Sicily, and there he was buried.

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