Allusion, Artistry, and the Fall of Icarus

Legend of Icarus and Daedalus


Icarus Saraceni

painted by Carlo Saraceni

Now that you have read and thought about Auden's poem, you can gain a better understanding of both the poem and Breughel's painting by reading the Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus. First read the legend and then freewrite your impressions on the next Web page.


Daedalus, renowned architect, designed the maze in which King Minos of Crete hid the Minotaur. This creature was half bull, half man, offspring of an affair between Pasiphae, Minos's wife, and a beautiful bull given as a gift by Poseidon for sacrifice. Because Minos did not obey and sacrifice the bull, Poseidon had Pasiphae fall in love with the creature. Minos then ordered Daedalus, architect and inventor, to design a labyrinth or maze from which nothing could escape. Athenians who came to conquer Crete were imprisoned in this labyrinth and were of course devoured by the monster. When Theseus came, however, Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love with him. She told him to tie a piece of thread to the entry and unwind the ball as he moved through the maze. Theseus thus killed the monster and followed the thread back, took Ariadne, and escaped. 

Minos determined that only Daedalus could have designed such an escape and therefore imprisoned the inventor and his son, Icarus, in the maze. Knowing that even he could not find his way out of this labyrinth, Daedalus created wings from bird feathers for the two of them to fly away, fastening them with wax and warning his son not to fly too close to the heat of the sun nor the dampness of the sea below but to follow his father closely.

Ovid reports that "Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plow handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment, believing these creatures who could fly through the air must be gods" (Metamorphosis 8). Icarus, enjoying the freedom of flight, soared too close to the sun. When the wax melted, he plunged into the sea. After burying his son, Daedalus went to Sicily but was eventually found by Minos. What then? Neither Ovid nor Edith Hamilton (Mythology) says. 


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