Daedalus, the legendary inventor of ancient Greek mythology, joined the court of Minos, the ruler of Crete, as the king’s star engineer. Within the stories of Ovid, Homer or even Pausanius, Daedalus was credited with creating myriad marvels, from carpenter’s tools to animated statues, as well as a pair of wings with which to escape King Minos in the famed story of Icarus .
“Once you have tasted flight,
you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,
for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
― Anonymous (often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci)
The Story of Icarus, Daedalus and the Evil King Minos
It was Daedalus who designed and built the bewildering Cretan labyrinth as a prison for Minos’ monstrous son, the Minotaur. According to legend the Athenians were compelled to send fourteen young men and women to be sacrificed to the cannibal with the bull’s head each year. But the Athenian hero Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur and escape from the twisting passages of the maze, thanks to a ball of string given to him by Princess Ariadne.
It was Daedalus who gave the string to Ariadne and explained how Theseus should unwind the string as he entered the labyrinth and then follow it back out. Enraged by the killing of his son and Theseus’s escape, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his young son Icarus in the Labyrinth.
Relief of Daedalus and the Story of Icarus. ( Public domain )
Necessity, Mother of Invention: The Creation of a Flying Machine
Gazing at the horizon from their prison window, Daedalus mused. If only they could simply fly away like birds! The brilliant inventor dreamed up a bold scheme to liberate himself and his son from Minos’s grasp.
One of the most beloved myths of classical antiquity , the story of Icarus and the ever-inventive Daedalus soaring aloft on wings made of feathers and wax has been recounted by storytellers and illustrated by artists over the centuries. It has also given wings to dreams of human-powered flight ever since the tale was first told.
According to the Greek myth, Daedalus and his son secretly collected heaps of bird feathers. Then Daedalus layered them according to size and shape. He used beeswax or glue — one of his inventions — to construct two pairs of wings for himself and his son.
Daedalus warned Icarus to be careful not to fly too high, because the sun’s heat might melt the wax. But the young boy was so enchanted by the amazing experience of flying, he soared into the sky. The sun’s rays melted the wax, the feathers fluttered down, and Icarus plummeted into the Aegean Sea. The island where he fell is still called Icaria.
Sascha Schneider, “Icarus” (1906). ( Public domain )
The Legendary Story of Icarus Lives on in Art
Daedalus sorrowfully buried his son and flew west, to Italy. According to some versions of the myth, Daedalus landed at Cumae and dedicated his wings in a temple to Apollo there. It was said that he painted his life story on the temple’s walls. This variant probably arose to explain ancient murals at Cumae depicting the myth of Daedalus and the story of Icarus.
Most versions of this tale stated that Daedalus landed in Sicily, where he was welcomed by King Cocalus, ruler of Camicus. Cocalus protected Daedalus from King Minos , who was pursuing the inventor across the Mediterranean. Settling in Sicily, Daedalus became the court engineer and builder and created another set of wondrous inventions for Cocalus.
Icarus and Daedalus, by Charles Paul Landon, 1799. ( Public domain )
It is interesting that the most ancient references we have to Daedalus’ escape from Crete via human-powered flight are not written, but artistic illustrations. Surprisingly, the first example, discovered in 1988, is Etruscan, not Greek. The image appears on an Etruscan engraved wine jug made in Etruria, Italy, in about 630 BC. On one side of the vase we see a winged man labeled Taitale, which is Daedalus’ name in the Etruscan language.
This provides important evidence that story of Icarus and Daedalus’ flight must have already reached Italy by word of mouth by the seventh century BC, long before the myth was ever preserved in writing. On the other side of the vase is the mythical sorceress Medea, identified by her Etruscan name Metaia. This pairing of Daedalus and Medea is unique in ancient art. It seems likely that the Etruscans connected these two mythical figures because of their wonderful bio-technical abilities.
Another unusual ancient Etruscan artifact, a beautiful golden locket for carrying tokens or perfume, was made in about 475 BC. The artist engraved images of Daedalus and Icarus on each side of the vessel, labeled with their Etruscan names, Taitle and Vikare. They are wearing wings and each figure carries two tools, saw, adze, axe, and square.
The story of the fall of Icarus depicted in a 17th century relief. ( Public domain )
Ancient Artwork Depicting the Story of Icarus
More than a hundred ancient artistic images of Icarus and Daedalus are known. Many of the artists showed Daedalus at work surrounded by his tools, or making the wings. Others show him fastening the wings to Icarus and Icarus falling from the sky. The earliest Greek artistic representation of Icarus appears on a fragment of black-figure Athenian pottery painted in about 560 BC. It shows the lower half of a human figure with winged footgear, clearly labeled as being Icarus.
A fragment of a red-figure vase painted in about 420 BC depicts Daedalus attaching the wings to his son. Icarus is shown plummeting into the sea on another fifth century BC vase attributed to the Icarus painter. Meanwhile, a poignant image of Daedalus carrying his dead son Icarus appears on a fragment of a fine red-figure vase painted by the Black Fury Group, in about 390 BC.
Bronze figure of Icarus, circa 430 BC. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
In ancient Roman times, the story was a favorite subject for artists. They illustrated the tragic myth on carved precious gems, reliefs on molded clay lamps, in bronze figurines, and painted frescoes. A large group of Roman cameos and glass gems contain scenes from the myth. Several beautiful murals preserved in the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum capture the moment of Icarus’s death, with a sorrowful Daedalus hovering high above Icarus’s broken body on a beach.
The way that the myth merges optimism and despair made it a popular allegorical subject for artists in the Middle Ages. While the story of Icarus has become a cliché today, it is easy to appreciate how it once expressed hopes for man-made technology to augment mere human capabilities. The myth warns that the risks of exceeding human bounds can exact a high price. Icarus did not survive the experiment, so his hopes were dashed by hubris, and unanticipated consequences.
Detail from mural unearthed at Villa Imperiale in ancient Pompey, depicting the story of Icarus and Daedalus. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Magnificent Humans and Their Flying Machines
Nonetheless, the dream of somehow flying like birds high above Earth did not die with Icarus. After all, Daedalus and Icarus did take off and they were able to fly with their fabricated bird wings. And despite the high cost of his innovation, at least Daedalus survived the flight to Sicily and he continued to invent marvels.
In the second century AD, the writer Lucian of Samosata, sometimes called the first science fiction novelist, wrote a story titled Icaro-Menippus or The Sky Man . In his popular tale, a philosopher named Menippus emulates Daedalus and makes himself a pair of wings to fly up to the Moon. Peering down on Earth, Menippus sees that human beings appear to be tiny ants rushing about. In other ancient works, such as Aristophanes’ comic plays, in Aesop’s fables, and in ancient Persian legends, characters hitch rides on giant insects and cling to birds to experience flight.
Another memorable flying machine was described in the Alexander Romance legends, a collection of traditions that arose about Alexander the Great after his death (fourth century BC to sixth century AD). In one legend, Alexander is consumed by the desire to explore the great unknown — the Heavens — and manages to harness the power of birds to allow him to fly high above Earth.
Like the story of Icarus, this tale was wildly popular in the Middle Ages. Pictures of Alexander piloting his fabulous flying machine appear in literally hundreds of illustrations in manuscripts, mosaics, sculptures, and tapestries from about AD 1000 to 1600. In the legend, Alexander’s flying machine was powered by two huge vultures, or in some versions, four winged Griffins.
These mythological vultures or griffins were encouraged to fly higher and higher as they tried to reach hunks of meat that Alexander dangled on poles from his cockpit above them. The fantasy idea plays on the old folklore theme of goading a donkey onward using a carrot on a stick. As Alexander flies higher, the air becomes colder and colder. In this interesting detail about lower temperatures at high altitudes, this later legend differs from the archaic Greek myth in which the heat of the sun’s rays intensifies as Icarus rises in the sky.
Alexander gazes down at the Earth, which now resembles a small ball resting in the blue bowl of the oceans, seemingly insignificant compared to the vastness of the Heavens. This story expresses Alexander’s many different wishes to surpass the limits of human capacities, seeking knowledge beyond the world. At last, satisfied with his bird’s-eye perspective from the stratosphere, Alexander returns to Earth.
Icarus and Daedalus modern sculpture, Aghia Galini, Crete. (Sanpi / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Lessons of Morality in the Story of Icarus and Other Tales of Flight
As with the fall of Icarus , a moral was often attached to the medieval romance traditions. This tale of Alexander’s flying machine supposedly cautions men against the hubris or arrogance of seeking to overreach human limits. But in fact, the excitement and sheer audacity of Alexander’s space adventure — to go where no human had gone before — overpowers such a message. And again, despite the great risks, this bold explorer lives to tell the tale, much like Daedalus in the Greek myth.
The experiments by Daedalus and Alexander reflect the age-old fascination with technology’s potentials, envisioned in early myth, legend, and folklore, to surpass human boundaries with audacious inventions and optimistic derring-do.
In the Daedalus myth , the “impossible” human-powered flight was achieved by simply imitating birds. Daedalus and Icarus flew by flapping feathered wings that were attached to their backs and arms. Notably, in about 1500 the great thinker and inventor Leonardo da Vinci created designs for human-powered ornithopters, mechanical wing-flapping devices modeled on feathered bird and membraned bat wings. The drawings exist but there is no evidence of any test flights.
Model of one of Leonardo’s flying machine designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, 2006. (Public domain )
How the Story of Icarus Inspired Generations of Inventors
The glorious notion of flying by human power alone has inspired numerous intrepid modern inventors to find ways to overcome the problems of aerodynamics and power-to-weight ratio. One clever suggestion was to find a way to use foot-pedaling energy. The notion was long considered to be impossible. Aeronautical engineers believed that no aircraft could be light enough to fly on such a limited source of power and yet be robust enough to carry a pilot, who of course would have to possess extraordinary strength and endurance.
One of the first attempts was a cycleplane built in 1923, but it only managed to achieve 20-foot (six meter) hops. In 1977, advances in fashioning strong, lightweight materials allowed the US aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready to build a human-powered plane , flown by an amateur cyclist and hang-glider pilot. He reached the modest altitude of 10 feet (3.05 m) and flew just over a mile.
What if Daedalus had invented a lightweight sail-wing apparatus, something like a modern hang glider? Early modern versions had low lift-to-drag ratios, but now thanks to aluminum alloy and composite frames covered with ultra-light laminated polyester film, hang glider pilots can soar for hours on thermal updrafts at altitudes of thousands of feet, simply shifting their body weight, with little exertion, much like the dynamic soaring ability of albatrosses.
It’s interesting that ancient Chinese experimented with human soaring with large, streamlined kites, a primitive type of uncontrolled hang gliding. With a modern hang glider, Daedalus could have island hopped from Crete to Sicily.
The Daedalus 88 on its last flight for the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. (Public domain )
In 1988, inspired to replicate Daedalus’s flight pattern in the Aegean, the Greek Olympic cycling champion Kanellos Kanellopoulos skimmed over the Aegean Sea from the island of Crete to the island of Santorini in an ultra-light craft, Daedalus 88 , propelled by pedals. The record-setting flight of 72 miles (116 km), at an altitude of 15 to 30 feet (4.5 to 9 meters), took four hours of intense pedaling.
The experiment was sponsored by the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 2012, the Icarus Cup was established by the Royal Aeronautical Society in England, to promote the sport of human-powered flight . How amazed Daedalus would be if only he could witness the continuing legacies of his epic flight to freedom inspired by the story of Icarus.
Top image: The story of Icarus as depicted by Torre de la Parada in the 1630s. Source: Public domain
By Adrienne Mayor