The Flight of Daedalus, The Flight of Technology

Daedalus?, Icarus? Which one sounds more familiar ?.

In the southern italian city of Naples, far away from the better known circuits of Rome or Florence there is a Museum called "Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte". One can find there a unique series of paintings by venetian artist Carlo Saraceni ( c.1585-1620) on the myth of Icarus.

Paintings on the myth of Icarus by Carlo Saraceni
Volo di Icaro
"The Flight of Icarus"
"The Fall of Icarus"
"The Burial of Icarus"


"Men at flight"
We have seen many old paintings with winged characters: angels, little blond Cupids, cherubs and so on. But this series of paintings tells us a story of flying men; not gods, not angels, but common mortals.
-Is it a real story ?- could ask our five-year-old child.
Well, maybe the events the story tells us did not happen in reality but the story-telling was certainly real. As a matter of fact that story was recorded in writing by Ovid (The Metamorphoses) and has been echoed through the centuries in messages like those by Saraceni and many other artists.

The real but abridged story of Icarus and Daedalus
The ancient greeks knew and Ovid wrote that Daedalus was a skilled architect-inventor-sculptor highly respected in his hometown of Athens. But human as he was, he was not free of sin. He became jealous of his nephew and apprentice Talus, a promising young man called to become his successor. In a foolish outrage Daedalus "flung his nephew headlong down from Minerva's sacred citadel" in an attempt to kill him. But the goddess Pallas changed the boy into a bird, "clothing him with feathers in mid-air" (Ovid 186).
For this crime Daedalus was exiled to Crete to serve King Minos, where he eventually had a son, Icarus, with the beautiful Naucrate, a mistress-slave of the King.
Minos called on Daedalus to build the famous Labyrinth in order to imprison the Minotaur, a dreaded human-eating monster protected by the King. He made a good job but could not keep a secret. By revealing the mystery of the Labyrinth he allowed the killing of the Minotaur by Theseus. When Minos found out what Daedalus had done he was so enraged that he imprisoned Daedalus & Icarus in the Labyrinth themselves.
To escape from the Labyrinth and from Crete Daedalus designed sets of wings made of feathers and wax for him and his son. Before flying to freedom he warned Icarus not to fly too low - for his wings would touch the water and get wet - nor too high - for the sun could melt the wax. But young Icarus, overwhelmed by the thrill of flying, forgot his father's warning and flew too close to the sun. Sure enough the wax in his wings melted down and he fell into the sea killing himself.

Knowledge, power and punishment
There are many ways to look at this mythical tale and as many ways to interpret its message. But the one that strikes me most is the clear association of knowledge, power and punishment made with the chain of events. Daedalus attempts to gain his freedom by improving upon his human condition. He uses his knowledge to gain power over his limiting nature. In a metaphorical way his technology aims at matching his power with that of the goddess Pallas. But only gods are the power to convert falling humans into birds. Daedalus, and humankind with him, is humiliated and punished with the death of his own son for daring to reach out of his humble human condition. Icarus is the impulsive and inexperienced youth, too daring and deaf to his father's wisdom. He makes a temerarious use of the powers given to him by the wise and prudent inventor and pays with his life the failure of the rude human technology.

Echoes of Icarus
The death of Icarus has moved many humans over the centuries. The aesthetic appeal of his tragic story has inspired many artists. Icarus fate has been reminded to us in old, modern and contemporary art. Just take a look at the following examples:

"The fall of Icarus" 
Wall painting in Pompey 
Ancient Pompey wall painting
"Landscape with 
the Fall of Icarus" 
Pieter Bruegel 
Full image 53K 

By the way...
Can you find Icarus here?
Can you find Daedalus?

there are performances   too
Icarus by Matisse. Click to view jpg image (21K)
Henri Matisse.
Full image 21K
The Fall of Icarus by Chagall. Click to view jpg image (48K)
"The Fall of Icarus" 
Marc Chagall 
Full image 48K
"The Fall of Icarus"
Concept/Direction: F. Flamand 
Scenic design: F. Plessi 
Original Music: M. Nyman 


And of course there have been books on the topic. Even essays dealing directly with the icarian dangers of the use of science and technology (See for example "Icarus or the Future of Science" by Bertrand Russell. Kegan Paul, London, 1924)

Icarus is definitively the star of this story. He is the tragedy, he is our lesson, he is the one in our "collective mind".
Let us see what the Web has to say about this. Look what I got when I requested from a search engine a precise count of matches of pages mentioning Icarus, Daedalus and a few popular characters:

Name Counts
Daedalus 17044 ....|... So many counts?
Brad Pitt 22636 ....|....|. Should I have checked "DiCaprio"?
Icarus 31115  ....|....|....|. Not bad for a Hollywood outsider !
Pamela Anderson 48205 ....|....|....|....|.... Sex does appeal
Elvis 155697 ....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|....|... He's still "The King"


Looking at this improvised non-scientific (but unbiased) survey one can reach a few interesting (non-scientific) conclusions. Let us just state a couple of them relevant to our present story:

  1. The mythical guys scored surprisingly well for such an old story. We could have forgotten about them after so many centuries. Their story seems to have some interest in our days.
  2. Icarus beats Daedalus almost two to one.
The legend of Icarus can be taken as a fable, a story with a moral, a warning about defying our place in nature under the surveillance of G(g)od(s). By the way...which was first, Icarus fall or Adam and Eve's fall from Eden ?.
But contrary to what it might seem, that message is not a matter of the past. We are reminded from time to time of the dangers lurking behind our technologies. Of course there are dangers! and we should never forget about Chernobyl for example. But the messages I am talking about here are not specific warnings which could lead to useful prevention. I am talking about a characteristic kind of subliminal warnings which are injected from time to time into the mainstream of our popular culture. Take for instance movies like "The Lawnmower Man", "The fly" or the mass-movie "Jurassic Park" where the Icarian fall is replayed in modern science-fiction terms (for an alternative view check the related story "Mad Scientists never die" ).

Now, if the deal is story-telling then let's get the complete story. Let's go beyond the fall of Icarus, pass the page of punishment and failure so well remembered and ask....

Whatever happened to Daedalus?
He was certainly devastated by the death of his son, but his infinite grief came to and end. His prudent use of his imperfect technology led him to freedom.

The End

Did you find Icarus in Bruegel's painting ?
Icarus is hard to find. He has just fallen into the see
(a leg can be seen on the bottom-right of the painting, close to the ship)

Did you find Daedalus in Bruegel's painting ?
Neither did I.

Go up in This page Click here to go back to Icarus Masterpieces

The following are some interesting links to Icarus/Daedalus pages: .......... Mythology on the island of Ikaria. .......... Great collection of pictures on Icarus "The Fall of Icarus and Re-imagining Technology". ..........Philosophical analysis on Ovid's Icarus and the recreation by Bruegel

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©Pedro Gómez-Romero, 1998,1999