Dreams of Human-Powered Flight: The Myth of Daedalus
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 Fall of Icarus," 17th century relief. (Public Doman)
The way that the myth merges optimism and despair made it a popular allegorical subject for artists in the Middle Ages. The story of Daedalus and Icarus has become a cliché today but 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.
Magnificent Man and Their Flying Machines
Nevertheless, 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.
A 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. Alexander harnesses the power of birds to allow him to fly high above Earth. The story 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. The vultures or Griffins were encouraged to fly higher and higher as they tried to reach hunks of meat that Alexander in his cockpit dangled on poles above them. The fantasy idea plays on the old folklore theme 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 intensify as Icarus rises in the sky.
Sascha Schneider, "Icarus" (1906) (Public Domain)
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.
Lessons of Morality
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.
Icarus and Daedalus modern sculpture, Aghia Galini, Crete. (Public Domain)
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.
Icarus and Daedalus, by Charles Paul Landon, 1799. (Public Domain)
In the Daedalus myth, the "impossible" human-powered flight involved 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.