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An Analysis of "the Flight of Icarus" and What It Reveals About Ancient Greek Society

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, and mythology, and analyses of texts.

An Analysis of "the Flight of Icarus" and What It Reveals About Ancient Greek Society

An Analysis of "the Flight of Icarus" and What It Reveals About Ancient Greek Society

The Myth of the Flight of Icarus

The story begins when the ruler of Crete (King Minos) commissioned a famous inventor (Daedalus) to create a vast, meticulous, underground labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, to which Minos' wife gave birth after an infidelity with a bull. The Minotaur's appetite was not satisfied with anything other than human sacrifices. One day, a hero named Theseus came to slay the beast. Daedalus disobeyed the king's wish for the labyrinth's layout to remain secret when he taught Theseus how to kill the beast.

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

Daedalus told Icarus to gather the feathers from the rocky shore since flocks of gulls visited the island. Daedalus took those feathers and used hot wax to create a structure in the shape of wings. When one pair successfully carried him into the air, he created another pair for his son and taught him how to fly.

Daedalus warned: If they flew too low, the fog and spray would clog their wings, and if they flew too high, the heat would melt the wax. As they flew, Daedalus looked back every now and then to check on his son. When Icarus saw the sun, he became mesmerised by the light and began to soar closer.

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 newfound freedom as he flew closer to the sun, unaware that the wax that held his wings together was melting. Some sources say that Apollo, the god of the Sun, saw Icarus' actions as hubris, since flying was seen as right only given to the gods, who wanted to keep a strict divide between mortality and divinity. Seeing Icarus' daring, Apollo melted his wings.

The wax melted and he fell and drowned 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. Again Daedalus took flight, but the joy was gone and his victory over the air was bitter to him. When he arrived in Sicily, he built a temple to Apollo and hung up his wings as an offering.

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, meaning “Skillfully Wrought”)

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

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

It is said that he buried Talus’ body; also that Athena transformed Talus into a partridge. Either way, he was exiled to Crete to serve under King Minos. Eventually he had a son, Icarus, by Naucrate, a mistress-slave of Minos. Daedalus and his son were imprisoned after assisting the 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 into was called the Icarian Sea. Homer is the first to mention Daedalus as the creator of a wide dancing ground for Ariadne.

Icarus

Icarus was the son of Daedalus and Naucrate. He was thrown into captivity with his father after Daedelus gave Theseus the secrets of the labyrinth. Icarus was told to fly at a medium altitude in their escape from captivity in Crete. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions, resulting in his death. The island he was buried on was named Icaria, and the sea that he fell into was then called the Icarian Sea.

Icaria, Greece on the Map

The Themes and Values of Ancient Greece

Greek mythology detailed the metaphysical relationship the Greeks had with the gods and conveyed their values and the world they lived in. These values—

  • respecting the gods,
  • humility,
  • hope,
  • the adoration of the human physique and intelligence,
  • the respect of elders, and
  • the value of technology

—are frequently expressed in Greek mythology. The Flight of Icarus illustrates many of these values—literally, heuristically, and metaphorically.

The Value of Respecting the Gods

In ancient Minoan Greek Societies, it was postulated that the gods despised those mortals who dared to believe they were on the same level of superiority as the immortals. The idea was called ‘hubris,’ a fundamental principal that was illustrated by "The Flight of Icarus." The concept of hubris gave the Greeks an explanation for why they faced hardships such as droughts that inflicted the land.

Daedalus' Hubris

Daedalus challenges his mortal limitations by defying aerodynamics and gravity by building his own wings. Flying was an activity of the gods, but despite this, he took his son on a flight to escape Minos’ captivity. Anyone who saw them might have mistaken them for gods.

As punishment, Daedalus lost his son who was compelled to soar towards the sun. This story highlights the ancient Greek fear of angering the gods and emphasizes the metaphysical connection Minoans had towards nature.

The Value of Hope

The value of hope was important for Greek society, illustrated by the myth of Pandora’s box. Since hope was found at the bottom of the box, hope could have been interpreted as either a virtuous or a malevolent force that lured humans to believe that they could manipulate their futures.

Daedalus's Hope

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 could control nature, which consequently led to his hubristic 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.

John William Waterhouse: Pandora - 1896

John William Waterhouse: Pandora - 1896

The Human Physique and Intelligence

The Greeks adored the human physique and valued human intelligence, and these ideals can be seen in classical sculptures, gymnasiums, and symposiums.

In gymnasiums (palaestra), the Greek men showcased their bodies and exercised excessively. Older men would often marry and educate younger men while young girls were confined at home. Due to this, men's potential and social standing were heavily reliant on their physique. This was one of the reasons why Greek gods were illustrated in human form, as the Greeks 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 their vulnerabilities and mortality.

Furthermore, within symposiums, rigorous and extended intellectual discussions took place. Long debates were held about how a person was meant to conduct himself— for example, how he should handle his wine.

In ancient Greek society, men publicly displayed their physique and intellect, which was thought to display their ability to protect their democracy.

The ancient Greeks often told stories of men who sought to overpower the boundaries of mortality, therefore highlighting the value of the human form and intelligence.

Daedalus' Intelligence

Daedalus and Icarus were human, yet they mastered the aerodynamics of flight and witnesses might have misinterpreted them as gods.

Daedalus was greatly admired by the ancient Greeks and later inspired individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci with his flight machine.

He expanded the Greek ideology of human limitations and influenced art culture (seen in Daedalic sculptures, an early form of Greek art named after him).

The Value of Humility

So the story of "The Flight of Icarus" ends with a message of humility and prudence as it demonstrates the importance of being content within your own limits and respecting what you already have. He sacrificed his wings to Apollo, thereby emphasizing the ancient Greek value of humility.

Daedalus's Humility

After Icarus died, Daedalus constructed a temple in Sicily. He eventually sacrificed his wings to Apollo, the god responsible for the sun that melted the wax on Icarus’ wings. This act expressed Daedalus’ acknowledgement of his hubris and shows how he took responsibility for his sin.

Icarus  by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1887

Icarus by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1887

The Theme of Obeying Elders

"The Flight of Icarus" emphasizes the magnitude of the ancient Greek's respect of elders. This myth embodies the significance of obedience and self-control and the consequences of disobedience. Within ancient Greek societies, fathers were in charge of households.

Icarus's Failure to Obey

Daedalus instructs Icarus to fly at a medium altitude to prevent the ocean spray from clogging his wings and the sun from melting the wax that held his wings together. But Icarus becomes transfixed with the sun and begins to soar upwards, ultimately causing his own death. Icarus dies as a result of not minding his elders, leaving Daedalus in a state of pathos. The flight would not have resulted in death if Icarus hadn't given into heuristic temptation.

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

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

The Theme of Technology

The myth provides insight into the ancient Greek's views about human curiosity and invention. Despite the fact Daedalus knew of and cautioned Icarus of the consequences that would befall if he were to fly too high or too low, he still allowed Icarus to use his wings. This shows Daedalus’s poor understanding of his own inventions. His pride in himself and his own inventions was what inveigled him into allowing Icarus to use the wings. His invention was what ultimately made him the primary cause of Icarus’ death.

The Fall of Icarus (1700): 17th-century relief with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel)

The Fall of Icarus (1700): 17th-century relief with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel)

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 has a face which stares down at Icarus whilst the ray’s length exceeds across a third of the sky.
  • The ocean covers a third of the entire relief.
  • The natural elements in the relief (the sun's rays, the ocean) dwarf Daedalus and Icarus and make them appear inferior, accentuating the relative power of nature and the gods.
  • A tower and a maze are shown in the background. This is the tower that Daedalus and Icarus were allegedly imprisoned in under King Minos’ decree, and the labyrinth Daedalus designed to hold the Minotaur.
  • The design of this maze is Cretan, so this relief implies that the events were set in Naples in Crete.
Close Up of the Labyrinth in "The Fall of Icarus," 1700

Close Up of the Labyrinth in "The Fall of Icarus," 1700

"The Fall of Icarus" (1606) by Antonio Tempesta Italian (Florence, Italy 1555 - 1630 Rome, Italy) from Illustrations to Ovid's "Metamorphoses" Print Italian ,  17th century Etching 10.5 x 12 cm (4 1/8 x 4 3/4 in

"The Fall of Icarus" (1606) by Antonio Tempesta Italian (Florence, Italy 1555 - 1630 Rome, Italy) from Illustrations to Ovid's "Metamorphoses" Print Italian , 17th century Etching 10.5 x 12 cm (4 1/8 x 4 3/4 in

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 extend 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, exceed Daedalus and Icarus in size, which in contrast makes them appear inferior.

Pindar's Nemean Odes

  • The Nemean Odes by Pindar make reference to the myth of the Flight of Icarus, specifically referring to Daedalus' function within the myth.
  • Pindar refers to Daedalus's success in crafting weapons such as swords with his metal-smithing ability, which he is described as having in other sources. This implies that he created tools for military action.
  • Ironically, the wings he created were also an invention that took a life. This provides insight to Daedalus' impulse to sacrifice the wings to Apollo.
  • This citation establishes a knowledge of Daedalus' story in the Archaic era, giving a general idea of when "The Flight of Icarus" story took place. According to Pindar, he existed during the Trojan War.
  • The Trojan War allegedly took place in the 11th or 12th century, and implies that "The Flight of Icarus" took place before the war.

The Aeneid by Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.)

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

The Aeneid by Virgil: Aeneas Meeting Daedalus

The Aeneid by Virgil: Aeneas Meeting Daedalus

Daedalus Mentioned in The Aeneid

  • Virgil describes Daedalus as an astute inventor, sculptor, and architect who, despite his intelligence, lost his most significant creation, Icarus.
  • Virgil perceives post-flight Daedalus as a mourning father as he depicts Aeneas and his Trojan men's arrival to the sybil at Cumae.
  • On their journey to the sybil, Virgil states that the men witnessed Daedalus carving images of his story on the golden doors of Apollo, but 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 an insurmountable agony of grief.
  • The Aeneid was produced in 29 BC. Under Roman rule, Virgil produced a sympathetic depiction of Daedalus in order to appeal to the Greeks.
  • Virgil's poem was heavily influenced by Roman values, which could have led to biased elements within the poem, as it was also written from the perspective of a Trojan wanderer and was furthermore intended for Roman audiences.

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