Study Guide

Daedalus and Icarus Analysis

  • Context

    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!).

  • Setting

    Crete, the Labyrinth, the Sky, Sicily

    This myth is about a journey (a partially failed journey, yes, but a journey nonetheless), so it takes place in a few different locations.

    We start on the scenic island of Crete, where Daedalus arrives after being kicked out of Athens for the attempted murder of his nephew (not a great start). Crete is the biggest island in Greece—it was a crossroads between Asia, Europe, and Africa, giving it a cosmopolitan sensibility. Fancy, we know.

    Unfortunately, Daedalus' Cretan vacation comes to an end when the island's ruler, King Minos, imprisons him. Depending on which writer you ask, Daedalus and Icarus either get locked up in a tower, or confined to the famous Labyrinth, which Daedalus himself built. Karma can be pretty feisty.

    Either way, his surroundings are pretty dark and depressing, so Daedalus decides to escape. With their homemade wings, he and Icarus fly over the ocean—but they only make it north about 100 miles before Icarus crashes and burns (literally). Daedalus names the sea where his son fell the Icarian Sea, which is part of today's Aegean Sea. Yep, these are all real places.

    Speaking of real places—after Icarus's death, Daedalus flew about 600 miles west to the Italian island of Sicily where he made himself at home, befriending the island's ruler and becoming part of his court.

    The Middle Path

    We've got one more setting snack for you. Before the dynamic duo takes off, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to either the sun or the ocean. Getting too near the sun will cause his wings to melt, and swooping down to the water will make them damp. But by sticking to a middle height, Icarus and his wings will make it through the journey just fine.

    Moderation or "the middle path" is a key theme in this myth. If Icarus had resisted the urge to fly too high, he probably wouldn't have crashed and burned. Unfortunately, he gave into temptation, and left the middle path to soar into the sky. It seems like the myth is trying to teach us a lesson in practicing moderation in our own lives. According to the myth, by staying away from extremes (high or low), we'll be able to live happier, safer, and more productive lives. What do you think—are you on board?

  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of Daedalus and Icarus doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:

    Ordinary World

    Before their big adventure, Daedalus and Icarus are happily hanging out in King Minos's court. Sure, Daedalus is occasionally forced to do unsavory things (like build a maze so that King Minos could feed innocent people to the Minotaur), but overall, life is good.

    Call To Adventure

    Things change once King Minos becomes angry with Daedalus for helping Theseus slay the Minotaur. He imprisons the inventor and his son in the Labyrinth, which is gross and probably smells like a dead monster. Daedalus loses his freedom, and must use his inventing powers to escape! Go, go, gadget!

    Refusal Of The Call

    This stage doesn't really apply to the story. Right off the bat, Daedalus knows that he must escape the Labyrinth and the island of Crete. He never doubts the call of his own instincts to get the stink out of there.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Again, not applicable. Sorry, Shmoopers. Daedalus has no mentor, because he is Greece's greatest craftsman. In order to "meet the mentor," all he has to do is check-in with himself and brainstorm a great idea—which he does.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Strapping a pair of wings to his back, Daedalus is the first human to cross the threshold of the sky. He flies into the open air, and his wings successfully keep him aloft. Huzzah!

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Daedalus puts a pair of wings on Icarus, and the two take off. Daedalus keeps looking over his shoulder to make sure that his little guy is doing well: he's worried that Icarus will dampen his wings with seawater or melt them with the heat of the sun.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Enjoying his newfound powers of flight, Icarus starts to push the limits of his wings. He ignores his father's advice to remain at a sensible height, and flies higher and higher, towards the sun. This isn't going to end well.

    Ordeal

    Icarus's wings melt. He plummets to the sea, calling out to his dad as he falls. Daedalus can't make it in time, and Icarus drowns.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    If this were a myth with a happy ending, Daedalus would have caught Icarus, or at least rescued him from the sea. Unfortunately, this ain't no happy ending. The only "rewards" Daedalus gets are (a) a few of Icarus' feathers floating in the water and (b) the realization that great inventions can have terrible consequences, and that trying to overcome nature is sometimes a rotten idea.

    The Road Back

    Daedalus flies on, eventually landing in Sicily (an Italian island). When he gets there, he befriends King Cocalus, the ruler of the island. He rejoins court life, and begins to lead the kind of life he did as part of King Minos' court in Crete.

    Resurrection

    This is usually when the hero has to face one final struggle before settling into his new life. Here, the final struggle takes the form of King Minos, who travels to Sicily to find Daedalus. Fortunately, King Cocalus' daughters have taken a liking to Daedalus, so they kill King Minos with boiling water. Natch.

    Return With The Elixir

    At the end of this myth, Daedalus is a much humbler man. He has learned that trying to achieve feats best reserved for the gods (like flying) can lead to disastrous results. Daedalus even builds a temple to Apollo while living in Sicily, in order to prove his new respect for the gods.

    This new humility is Daedalus' "elixir." To find it, he had to make a great journey and pay a dreadful price—the loss of his son.

  • Jatayu and Sampati

    An old Indian epic poem called Ramayana contains a similar tale of what happens when you fly too close the sun. Jatayu and Sampati are two demigods in the shape of birds, who also happen to be brothers. One day, Jatayu and Sampati decide to try to fly to the home of the sun god, Suryalock. They fly higher and higher, until all of a sudden they are really hot, because duh, they were next to the sun.

    Realizing the danger of their situation, Sampati shields his younger brother Jatayu from the sun's heat. As a result, both of Sampati's wings are burned off, and he plummets to the ground. (Sound familiar?) Although Jatayu's wings are only partially burnt, he also falls. Eventually, lucky Jatayu is able to recover and have a few more adventures, like trying to save the princess Sita from the lecherous King Ravana. Sampati, unfortunately, never recovers from this incident, and lives a sad, flightless life in the forest.

    Just like the Daedalus and Icarus myth, the tale of Jatayu and Sampati warns readers not to be reckless or overstep their bounds. But unlike Sampati, Daedalus never tries to shield Icarus from the sun. Because of this, the Indian myth contains a stronger lesson about the importance of sacrificing yourself for others (especially your family). Maybe if Daedalus had managed to shield Icarus from the sun, the boy might have survived his journey. What do you think?

  • Phaeton

    Wait a second: another Greek myth? Yep. Same culture, similar story. Let's take a look. Phaeton is a young man living in Ethiopia who believes that his father was the sun god Apollo. Determined to prove this fact, Phaeton travels to Apollo's house near the end of the world. You know, where the sidewalk ends. Phaeton confronts Apollo, dramatically asking him if he really is his father. Apollo says yes (gasp!), and as a reward for having traveled so far, Apollo offers to grant Phaeton one wish.

    Immediately, Phaeton asks to drive Apollo's chariot, which contains the sun. Apollo tries to persuade Phaeton against this wish (would a nice big ice cream cone be better?), saying that the horses that draw the chariot are too strong for Phaeton. But the boy insists, and eventually, Apollo caves. The god lets Phaeton drive the chariot—and surprise, surprise, it's a complete disaster. Just like Apollo said, the horses are way too strong for Phaeton, and the boy zigzags all over the earth, terrorizing its inhabitants with the sun's heat.

    The creatures of the earth beg Zeus to do something about this catastrophe, so Zeus throws a lightning bolt at Phaeton, shattering the chariot and burning up the boy. Apollo is totally devastated by the loss of his son: he even refuses to drive the new chariot that the god Vulcan builds for him. But finally, Zeus convinces Apollo that he had to destroy Phaeton, because the boy had become a public menace. Fine, then.

    Like the Daedalus and Icarus myth, Phaeton's story is a lesson in listening to your parents' advice. If Phaeton had listened to dad's words of wisdom, he wouldn't have insisted on driving the dangerous chariot. And if Icarus had heeded his father's advice, he would have avoided the sun. In both myths, the sun becomes a metaphor for objects and life events that are just too dangerous for young people to handle.

  • Winged Man

    Humans who can fly? Awesome. The end.

    Actually, there's more. Humans aren't really meant to fly—because of this, Daedalus and Icarus are pretty unusual. And as you might expect, artistic representations of the myth usually either portray the father/son pair gliding on their wings through the sky, or the moment Icarus' wings fall apart, causing him to plummet downward. The whole flying thing is definitely the most important part of this story.

    We can see this image of the winged man in two ways. On the positive side, it represents man's triumph over his natural limits through science (we like to imagine Daedalus saying, "Take that, gravity!" as he launches into the sky). The image of Daedalus and Icarus soaring through the sky is a source of inspiration for inventors and explorers who look to the duo as pioneers and innovators. Oh, and we can't forget about the general sense of freedom that comes with this image. It should give hope to anyone who dreams of escaping their current circumstances and achieving something grander. Not bad.

    But then there's the negative side—you know, the whole Icarus falling to the ground thing. When we look at it this way, nature triumphs over man. Sorry, man. Portrayals of Icarus' descent also emphasize the cautionary part of the myth, which is basically this: if you try to achieve too much too soon, you might end up failing miserably. Better to accept average success than to risk everything by trying to attain glory. What do you think? Do you agree?

    The modern-day winged man imagery includes everything from the Wright brothers' first plane to James Bond wearing a jetpack. Anytime someone wears (or rides) a newfangled contraption into the heavens, you could safely pull a cultured-student move and remark: "That sure reminds me of Daedalus and Icarus…" We dare you.

  • Mad Scientist

    The Inventor

    You know the evil genius hard at work inside his laboratory, laughing manically to himself as he concocts his latest creation? That's Daedalus. With his amazing inventing skills, he created the famous wings, the Labyrinth, a cow suit, the folding chair, and countless beautiful statues and images. That's a pretty hefty résumé.

    Like the mad scientists who followed him, Daedalus doesn't pay too much attention to the consequences of his inventions. When King Minos' wife asks him to build her a cow suit so that she can strike up a relationship with a bull, Daedalus goes ahead and does it without stopping to wonder whether this would anger his buddy King Minos.

    And of course, when he's escaping Crete, Daedalus decides to build wax wings for himself and his son Icarus, not bothering to consider what would happen if Icarus disobeyed his father (like young boys do) and flew too close to the sun. Oops.

    The Invention

    The fact that Daddy Daedalus chose to build wings is particularly important, because, well, people are not designed to fly. Daedalus' wax wings were his ultimate attempt to overcome the laws of nature—to do something "unnatural." In fact, his feat is so incredible that people on the ground who see him fly overhead decide that he must be a god, because no human should ever be able to soar through the air. (The Wright Brothers would sure have something to say about that.)

    This scientific gamble doesn't work out so well for Daedalus: his son flies too close to the sun, which melts his wings and causes him to plummet into the ocean. And of course, Daedalus curses himself for trying to fly. Sound familiar? That's because this is pretty much Dr. Frankenstein's story: just like Daedalus, the doctor curses himself for trying to defeat death with his reanimated monster. Both crazy inventors learn the hard way about the danger of disobeying nature.

    Daedalus' inventive influence can be found all over pop culture. Basically, anytime you see a genius scientist inventing amazing things—especially contraptions that defy nature—we can trace that guy back to Daedalus. Some of Shmoop's favorite mad scientists? Doc Brown from Back to the Future, Dr. Bruce Banner from The Incredible Hulk, and Dr. Horrible from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along are all great examples of people trying to play God in the laboratory… and often suffering disastrous consequences for it.