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Useful weblinks: Daedalus and Icarus

The Labyrinth

Since Daedalus ,the motif of the labyrinth has been used and reused many times over. We cannot know the first exact design of the labyrinth but now labyrinths and mazes come in many different forms.

  • For instance, Mark Wallinger created a different labyrinthine design for every stop on the tube map! “The tactile quality of the artwork’s surface invites the viewer to trace the route with a finger, and to understand the labyrinth as a single meandering path into the centre and back out again – a route reminiscent of the Tube traveller’s journey.”
  • Pilgrims used to walk the labyrinth design on the floor of Chartres Cathedral.
  • Hever Castle, Kent, has a maze/labyrinth made out of high-grown hedges in its extensive gardens.  This was a fashion at one point and often rich houses or castles had ‘labyrinths’/mazes.
  • In the half-acted, half-animated film Labyrinth (starring David Bowie), the teenage girl protagonist Sarah has to find her way through a large and confusing labyrinth that has the ability to change its own paths!

Daedalus and Icarus

  • The most famous painting of Icarus’ fall is by Bruegel. Icarus himself is just a small splash in the water and a pair of flailing legs – ask students why they think Bruegel chooses to depict him like this?
    It is such a well-known painting for this myth that poems have been written about the painting! These are Musée des Beaux Arts by W H Auden and Landscape with Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams. They both pick up on the suggestion suggestions that Bruegel’s painting of the Fall of Icarus is a reflection on the insignificance of man (‘Life goes on’). Do your students agree with them that this was the message Bruegel desired to tell his viewers?
  • Joos de Momper’s The Fall of Icarus 1564-1635 is close to the text in Ovid since the Roman poet writes that the fisherman and ploughman looked at the flying figures and were amazed! Icarus here is paler – an attempt to show that he is further away, that the blinding light of the sun is obscuring him, or a technique that foreshadows his imminent death?
  • Herbert Draper painted Lament of Icarus c. 1898. The wings are intact here! (So how did he fall?)
    You could discuss with students why the artist might have chosen to deviate from the narrative of the story in this way.
  • In this more recent representation of Icarus his wings seem to melt into the sun and become sun-rays. The figure of Icarus occupies most of the space, in contrast to Momper’s and Breugel’s paintings above, but his back is turned to us.
  • This podcast of Radio 4's History of Ideas contains excerpts from the tale and discusses Francis Bacon's writing on Daedalus and the position and responsibilities of creators in society.

The Myth in Antiquity

  • Ovid retells the myth in book VIII of his Metamorphoses. He also mentions it in his Tristia – letters written during his exile – for instance Tristia 1.1.89-90:

dum petit infirmis nimium sublima pennis | Icarus, aequoris nomina fecit aquis.
As Icarus sought to rise too high on unsafe wings, he gave his name to the watery waves.

  • The lines in Ovid’s Metamorphoses regarding the ploughman being amazed at men flying are clearly based on an earlier passage from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria where he writes about how Amor cannot be pinned down. Compare the two:

Met. 8.218-223: hos aliquis tremula dum captat harundine pisces | aut pastor baculo stivaque innixus arator | vidit et obstipuit, quique aethere carpere possent | credidit esse deos. et iam Iunonia laeva | parte Samos (fuerant Delosque Parosque relictae) | dextra Lebinthos erat fecundaque melle Calymne.

A fisherman catching fish with a trembling rod or a shepherd leaning on his staff or the ploughman on his plough-handle, saw [Daedalus and Icarus] and was amazed – and he believed that those who were able to master the sky must be gods. And now already (with Delos and Paros passed by) Samos, a land sacred to Juno, was on their left hand side and on their right was Lebinthos and Calymne, rich in honey.

Ars Amatoria 2.77-82: hos aliquis, tremula dum captat harundine pisces, | vidit et inceptum dextra reliquit opus. | iam Samos a laeva (fuerant Naxosque relictae | et Paros et clario Delos amata deo). | dextra Lebinthos erat silvisque umbrosa Calymne…

Someone, whilst catching fish with a trembling rod, saw [Amor] and put aside the work he’d begun. And not already (with Naxos and Paros and Delos, beloved of the sun-god, having been left behind) Samos was on the left hand side and on the right was Lebinthos and Calymne, shady with trees.

Questions for students: Why do you think Ovid made a connection between these two works? Does the connection work well? What, if anything, does it add to our understanding of Daedalus and Icarus’ flight?

  • Horace in his Odes (2.20) writes that he himself will be transformed into a swan (album mutor in alitem) and will be more famous than Icarus (iam Daedaleo notior Icaro)!
  • Virgil tells a brief version of the myth in his Aeneid (6.14-33) when he describes the scene that Daedalus wrought on the doors of a temple he built to Apollo as thanks for his safe return to Italy. Here’s a translation of the lines:

Daedalus, the story goes, fled the kingdom of Minos, rashly entrusted himself to the sky on fleet wings and directed his novel journey towards the chilly Bears [i.e. the North]. He came to earth at the colony of Chalcis. To celebrate his return to Italy, he dedicated the oarage of his wings to you, Phoebus, and built an enormous temple. On the doors: the death of Androgeos. Next: the Athenians ordered to pay the pitiable penalty of seven of their children’s lives each year. The urn is set up to draw the lots. The Cretan isle faces them across the sea. Here, Pasiphae’s cruel love for a bull and substitution of her body and the hybrid offspring and biform child, the Minotaur, are contained, reminder of a forbidden copulation. Here is the labour, there the house and the undecipherable maze. But Daedalus, pitying the great love of the poor queen, himself explained the treacherous puzzle and solved it, guiding footsteps in the dark with a thread. You too, would have a large part in this work, Icarus, had grief allowed. Twice the father tried to depict his son’s fall in gold, twice his hands fell away.

This Mythic Warriors episode tells the story of Daedalus and Icarus from when Daedalus was a youth to the end of his life. It has a particularly moral overtone: pride comes before a fall. 

See also an audio and visual storyboard retelling of the myth.