Dreams of Human-Powered Flight: The Myth of Daedalus
“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)
Daedalus, the legendary inventor of ancient Greek myth, joined the court of Minos, the ruler of Crete, as the king's star engineer. Daedalus was credited with creating myriad marvels, from carpenter's tools to animated statues. It was Daedalus who designed and built the bewildering Cretan Labyrinth as a prison for Minos' monstrous son, the Minotaur. Every year, the Athenians were compelled to send fourteen young men and women to be sacrificed to the cannibal with the bull's head. 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.
Necessity, Mother of Invention
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 tale of Daedalus and Icarus 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.
Daedalus making wings for himself and his son Icarus. Relief, Villa Albani, Rome, 1912. (Public Domain)
According to the 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.
Bronze Icarus fitted with wings. (Public Domain)
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 too high. 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.
Legend 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. Most versions say 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.
It is interesting that the most ancient references we have to Daedalus' escape from Crete by his 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 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. She is 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).
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 "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. 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.