Study Guide

Daedalus and Icarus Themes

  • Pride and Punishment

    Back in the day, the gods did not like it when humans tried to act like them by overcoming their mortal limits. In ancient Greek culture, acting like a god was called "hubris", and it was often severely punished. Flying through the air definitely constituted hubris, since flight was supposed to be a strictly gods-only activity. Watching from the ground, shepherds and plowmen even mistake Daedalus and Icarus for gods, since mortals had never before achieved flight.

    Of course, Daedalus and Icarus pay a price for overstepping their humanly bounds. Icarus dies and Daedalus loses a child—lose-lose. It's an important lesson in humility, and the wisdom of living within your limits. The myth seems to be saying that instead of wanting something extraordinary (such as flying, or in Icarus' case, flying really high), we should learn to be happy with what we already have.

    Daedalus takes this lesson in humility to heart. It's not an accident that when he lands in Sicily, he builds a temple to Apollo, the god of the sun. After watching his son be destroyed by the sun, Daedalus has accepted that he's just not as powerful as the gods or nature. By building the temple, he's essentially saying, "Sorry, Apollo. I totally respect you now. And just to prove it, I built you this totally swanky house of worship, complete with a bunch of beautiful statues."

    In a bit of poetic justice, the writer Ovid says that Daedalus' nephew—whom Daedalus had tried to kill by pushing him off the Acropolis—watches as the inventor performs the funeral rites for his son. (Daedalus doesn't notice the nephew, since Athena had transformed him into a partridge.) Apparently, Daedalus didn't think twice about pushing his nephew off a cliff, but when his own son fell from a great height? Well, that's a different story.

    Questions About Pride and Punishment

    1. Who has more hubris, Daedalus or Icarus? Have you ever gotten yourself in trouble for reaching beyond your limits?
    2. For trying to be like the gods, Daedalus lost his son. Was this a fair punishment? Do you think Daedalus would have learned his lesson with a lesser punishment?
    3. Is humility (being humble) a "good" characteristic? Does it keep us safe, or does it hold us back from accomplishing great things?
    4. What do you think Daedalus' nephew felt as he watched his uncle perform Icarus' funeral rites?
  • Technology

    Daedalus loves to invent things. What he doesn't love is thinking about the consequences of his inventions. For example, when Pasiphae (King Minos's wife), asks Daedalus to build her a cow suit so that she can seduce a bull, Daedalus does it without pausing to consider the possible outcomes. And guess what? Pasiphae's union with the bull results in the Minotaur, a horrible half-man, half-bull who feasts off human flesh. How's that for unforeseen consequences?

    True, when Daedalus invents the wings made of wax, he briefly considers what might happen if Icarus should fly too close to the sea (damp wings) or the sun (melty wings). But these thoughts sure don't stop him from creating or using his feathered inventions. Ultimately, when Icarus falls from the heavens, Daedalus has no one to blame but himself, since he was the guy who created the devices that allowed the boy to fly so high in the first place.

    Through this myth, we get a glimpse into the dark side of technology—a topic that's still very relevant today. From genetic modification to nuclear weapons, powerful technologies have powerful and potentially dangerous consequences. Just think about Jurassic Park and Minority Report and you'll know what we mean: humankind's curiosity and thirst for invention can lead to awful, scary things. And iPads.

    Questions About Technology

    1. Are the benefits of new technology worth the risk of its possible unforeseen consequences? Ultimately, would humans be better off without technology?
    2. If you were the head of the government, how would you ensure that technology was only used for good? Is this possible?
    3. Should Daedalus and Icarus have stayed in the Labyrinth, instead of risking their lives? Why or why not?
    4. Can you think of other instances in the real world when a technology has been used for both good and evil?
  • Obeying Elders

    Is it just us, or does wax wings + hundred mile journey + hot sun seem like a recipe for disaster? Still, maybe this myth would've had a happy ending if Icarus had just listened to his dad. Because really, how hard is it to just fly at a middle height? Birds do it all the time!

    But does Icarus listen? Nope. Once he realizes how fun and easy flying is, he forgets his father's advice and ascends to new stratospheric heights. For a few fleeting moments, Icarus has the time of this life… but then his wings melt and he falls to his watery death. The message about obeying your parents (and using some self-control) is pretty clear here, don't you think?

    Questions About Obeying Elders

    1. Have you ever disobeyed your parents in order to achieve something great? Was it worth it? Do you think Icarus should have just listened to his dad?
    2. What was the most useful piece of advice you ever received from a parent? What other advice can you imagine that Daedalus gave to Icarus?
    3. Was Daedalus' warning strong enough? How else could he have prevented Icarus' death?
    4. Icarus clearly wasn't mature enough to handle his wings. Should Daedalus have known better than to give him a pair?