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The Flight of Icarus

The Flight of Icarus

"Fly, on your way, like an eagle... Fly as high as the sun..." [Image: Torre de la Parada, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

When, at the end of the 19th century, some English archaeologists, under the direction of Arthur Evans, began excavations among the ruins of the site where Knossos, on the island of Crete, were surprised to find an immense labyrinth of rooms and rooms, open courtyards and corridors, stairways and terraces. In this immense construction that covered a large area of ​​land and that originally should have been simpler, the modern visitor ran the risk of getting lost. It seems, therefore, more than justified all the legends that arose around a similar building, which, at any time, must have impressed the imagination of all who saw it. Such legends, as that of The Flight of Icarus, certainly have ancient origins, and even some, at least in their central nucleus, precede the arrival of the Greeks in the Peloponnese.

According to one of these myths, it was a powerful king of Crete named Minos who had this deceitful building built to enclose the fearsome Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and a gigantic human body, son of Pasiphae, wife of Minos, and a divine bull. The architect, whom Minos commissioned to design and build the labyrinth, was a man of great ingenuity, a famous craftsman and mechanic named Daedalus, already famous for being the inventor of the square, the plumb line and the axe. The construction of such a complicated work took an incredible number of years, but the end result was a wonder that made the city of Minos famous throughout the world.

The First Flying Machine

The Minotaur, who was confined in the darkest place of the labyrinth, was considered a manifestation of divinity and required to be fed with human flesh. The victims were introduced into that twist of rooms and corridors from which no one could find the exit: their miserable fate was to run tirelessly in that sinister place, until they found the monster, which devoured them. But, for it to be possible to follow this ceremony, the greatest secrecy regarding the placement and arrangement of the various parts of the labyrinth had to be kept, and therefore, in order not to divulge the secret, once the construction was finished, Minos ordered that Daedalus delve into his own work together with his young son Icarus. Daedalus, deprived of the drawings and plans that were the key to the intricate place, did not know how to find his way out of that prison. But once again, ingenuity came to his rescue. Undaunted, he built an artifact even more amazing than the labyrinth itself: the first flying machine. Joining with infinite patience feathers from the wings of birds and gluing them with wax, Daedalus built for himself and his son two pairs of enormous wings that could be tied to the back and maneuvered by waving the arms.

«We can rise above other men, but I recommend you to fly carefully, without getting too high»

When everything was finished and the time came to test the artifacts, Daedalus called Icarus to his side, and putting the great wings on his back, he instructed him in these words: «With these wings that I have built for our salvation, we will now abandon this island that the ingratitude of a tyrant has made inhospitable and disastrous for us; We will try to fly across the vast sea and thus reach a more friendly land where science and ingenuity enjoy the freedom that we have been deprived of here. With this artifact we can fly; we can rise above other men, but I recommend that you follow me, that you fly beside me carefully, without getting too high: the wings are big and strong and can support the weight of a man, but if we get too high, the heat of the sun would melt the wax, the feathers would scatter in the wind, and we would plunge hopelessly into the deep sea».

Thus spoke Daedalus, and soon after, father and son, waving their arms, rose on their white wings into the vast blue of the sky. First they saw the fertile island of Crete at their feet: the plowed fields, the forests, the herds of shepherds; but very soon their shadows were cast on the waves of the sea.

Icarus had never experienced such an emotion: he was flying safely and happily in the crystalline air, attempting new evolutions, maneuvering with pleasure those unusual objects that his father's ingenuity had known how to create. He soon felt an irresistible desire to soar. «Where are you going Icarus? -his father yelled. Icarus, keep your flight lower: don't brag too much about yourself and the wings that support you... Icarus!» But young Icarus did not hear; the ardor of his years did not allow him to listen to the prudent and expert words of his father: intoxicated by the pure air, by the great light, by the rapid flight, he climbed, climbed, always higher, towards the great calorific circle of the sun. And the rays of the star became increasingly warm. And a little further up the wax began to melt: the wing frame bent and snapped, the feathers peeled off and were lost fluttering in the wind. In vain Icarus tried to keep himself suspended in the air waving his arms, now deprived of all sustenance: he let out a scream that seemed to fill the sky and fell into the blue waters of the sea below him.

The unhappy Daedalus helplessly witnessed the death of his son; heartbroken by that great pain, he continued, in spite of everything, flapping his huge wings, and after a long journey he landed, at last, near the city of Cumae. There, according to tradition, he built a magnificent temple in honor of Apollo, on whose bronze doors he wanted to reproduce the fall of Icarus; but every time he began the work, his instruments fell from his inert hands.

Ingenuity Against Tyranny... Keeping Feet on the Ground

Many ancient peoples had myths that deal with the construction of fabulous labyrinths -which, as in the case of Knossos, were almost always identified with immense royal palaces- and their legendary architects: from the temple-palace built by Imhotep, architect and minister of Soser, an Egyptian pharaoh who lived almost three thousand years before Christ, to other similar constructions built by Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian artists. In many of these legends we also find the episode of the king who takes the architect prisoner, and on some occasions orders him to be killed, almost always to prevent him from repeating and perhaps surpassing, by order of other sovereigns, his work. What seems to be the contribution of an Aegean tradition, or perhaps Greek, is the part that appears as the most significant of the myth. It is about the escape of Daedalus and Icarus, and in the end, the death of the latter.

Few myths can have such important and universal meanings and implications: the imprisonment of Daedalus can be interpreted, in effect, as the imprisonment of ingenuity, of science often impeded in its free explanation due to material interests, jealousy, superstition and, in a word, factors that are foreign to its essence. Evasion represents the intrinsic force that science has and that makes it get out of the most dangerous and degrading conditions through its own resources. The flight of the inexperienced young man and his final fall can be interpreted as the excess of presumption that mankind must guard against when exercising those gifts that can give it a superior force to the common one, but which, nevertheless, it must use with discretion and humility. But, since it is permissible to offer more than one interpretation of the same myth, it is much more current to think that the flight and fall of Icarus warn human beings not to use without consideration the instruments and means that science provides at their reach.

Myths such as The Flight of Icarus have had an echo in the world of celluloid and music. A good example of this is one of the most emblematic songs of the heavy-metal band, Iron Maiden, whose title is none other than The Flight of Icarus.


[Source: Vv.Aa. (1978). The Flight of Icarus. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor Didáctico (Tome III, pp. 107-109). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]