Context of the Daedalus and Icarus myth
Stories that survive the ages must matter. Find out why.
Depending on how you look at it, the story of Daedalus and Icarus is either completely depressing or completely inspirational. On the one hand, it's a cautionary tale about what can happen when you disobey your parents and overstep your bounds. But on the other hand, it's an examination of mankind's need to explore, invent, and be creative, especially when it comes to achieving flight.
Set in Stone
Like most Greek myths, long before this tale was written down it was passed around by word of mouth. But once it was committed to paper, there were surprisingly few differences between the versions. Overall, the story has actually remained pretty consistent over the years.
One of the first major accounts was written by a guy named Diodorus Siculus, who included the myth in The Library of History, a forty-book account of the history of Greece, Rome, India, and Egypt. Diodorus wrote between 60 and 30 B.C.E., and actually gives two versions of the myth. In his first account, he says that Daedalus and Icarus escaped from Crete by boat, not by wings. Um, that changes things! But Icarus still met a tragic death when he tried to disembark from the boat in a "reckless manner." In his second account (which he calls a "tale of marvel"), Diodorus tells the more classic story—this version was probably so well known by then that Diodorus couldn't help but include it.
Next up, the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid. Virgil mentions Daedalus briefly in the Aeneid (19 B.C.E.). When the story's main character, Aeneas, reaches Sicily, he stops to admire the beautiful temple that Daedalus built, scoping out all of the awesome sculptures that adorn its walls. Virgil adds a little flare to the story, saying that Daedalus tried twice to make a golden statue of Icarus, but was so overcome with grief that he dropped it each time. Wah wah.
Ovid's account of the story is much longer and, as usual, much more poetic. In The Metamorphoses (8 CE), Ovid takes great pains to describe Daedalus' fear before the flight, and his devastation afterward. Makes him look like a pretty good dad, right? And in a poetic twist, Ovid mentions that Daedalus' nephew (who Minerva had turned into a partridge when Daedalus tried to pushed him off the Acropolis), watches Daedalus perform the funeral rites for Icarus. It really drives home the point that a lot of young men fell to their doom under the supervision of Daedalus.
A couple centuries later, two other notable accounts of the story appear. In 160 C.E., the Greek geographer Pausanias included the myth in his Descriptions of Greece. Like Diodorus, Pausanias says that Daedalus and Icarus escaped by boat instead of wing. Pausanias' version is short and to the point, as is the account described in Epitome of the Library, a compilation of Greek history originally attributed to the writer Apollodorus. Whew—that's a lot of versions. But the take-away is always the same: don't be a crazy mad scientist and trust your parents.
Up in the Air
Now that we've digested all of that, let's just take a look at the two main disputes between the people who recorded the story:
(1) Did Daedalus and Icarus escaped by boat or by wing? We get it both ways.
(2) What caused their imprisonment in the first place? Some say that King Minos imprisoned Daedalus for helping his wife seduce a bull (Daedalus built a cow suit for her). Other writers argue that King Minos was mad because Daedalus helped Theseus escape from the Labyrinth and run off with his daughter, Ariadne.
Either way, this myth taps into the human need for exploration and freedom: these themes are everywhere today (even in our flying dreams!).