Daedalus and Icarus: A Tale of Many Metamorphoses

The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy

Daedalus and Icarus: A Tale of Many Metamorphoses

By Erin Schott


Author’s Note

In his fifteen-book magnum opus, Ovid recounts over 250 myths. These range from the disturbing and violent (Procne and Philomela) to the sweet and innocent (Baucis and Philemon) and all shades in between. Yet what unites this seemingly disparate set of myths is the poem’s title, Metamorphoses, for each myth describes a change or evolution. As I translated Ovid’s version of the famous Daedalus and Icarus tale, I pondered the plethora of metamorphoses present in this single myth. Although the central metamorphosis of the story is the melting of the wax wings, which leaves Icarus without a means of steering in the air, the myth contains numerous other changes in just over fifty lines of poetry: from imprisoned to liberated, from life to death, and, as Ovid cleverly notes, from father to “no longer a father.” Even Ovid the poet appears to metamorphose in his writing, constantly switching tenses between present and perfect. When I attempted to preserve these tense shifts in English, however, the result read like a stream of grammatically incorrect verses, so I have used the perfect tense for most of my translation. And although I have lost one metamorphosis by rendering the poem into English, I hope to have otherwise done justice to Ovid’s poetry and this myth, whence comes the warning “don’t fly too close to the sun.”


Latin Text: Metamorphoses VIII: 183–235.

Daedalus interea Creten longumque perosus

exilium tactusque loci natalis amore

clausus erat pelago. ‘terras licet’ inquit ‘et undas              185

obstruat: et caelum certe patet; ibimus illac:

omnia possideat, non possidet aera Minos.’

dixit et ignotas animum dimittit in artes

naturamque novat. nam ponit in ordine pennas

a minima coeptas, longam breviore sequenti,               190

ut clivo crevisse putes: sic rustica quondam

fistula disparibus paulatim surgit avenis;

tum lino medias et ceris alligat imas

atque ita conpositas parvo curvamine flectit,

ut veras imitetur aves. puer Icarus una               195

stabat et, ignarus sua se tractare pericla,

ore renidenti modo, quas vaga moverat aura,

captabat plumas, flavam modo pollice ceram

mollibat lusuque suo mirabile patris

impediebat opus. postquam manus ultima coepto               200

inposita est, geminas opifex libravit in alas

ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura;

instruit et natum ‘medio’ que ‘ut limite curras,

Icare,’ ait ‘moneo, ne, si demissior ibis,

unda gravet pennas, si celsior, ignis adurat:               205

inter utrumque vola. nec te spectare Booten

aut Helicen iubeo strictumque Orionis ensem:

me duce carpe viam!’ pariter praecepta volandi

tradit et ignotas umeris accommodat alas.

inter opus monitusque genae maduere seniles,               210

et patriae tremuere manus; dedit oscula nato

non iterum repetenda suo pennisque levatus

ante volat comitique timet, velut ales, ab alto

quae teneram prolem produxit in aera nido,

hortaturque sequi damnosasque erudit artes               215

et movet ipse suas et nati respicit alas.

hos aliquis tremula dum captat harundine pisces,

aut pastor baculo stivave innixus arator

vidit et obstipuit, quique aethera carpere possent,

credidit esse deos. et iam Iunonia laeva               220

parte Samos (fuerant Delosque Parosque relictae)

dextra Lebinthos erat fecundaque melle Calymne,

cum puer audaci coepit gaudere volatu

deseruitque ducem caelique cupidine tractus

altius egit iter. rapidi vicinia solis               225

mollit odoratas, pennarum vincula, ceras;

tabuerant cerae: nudos quatit ille lacertos,

remigioque carens non ullas percipit auras,

oraque caerulea patrium clamantia nomen

excipiuntur aqua, quae nomen traxit ab illo.               230

at pater infelix, nec iam pater, ‘Icare,’ dixit,

‘Icare,’ dixit ‘ubi es? qua te regione requiram?’

‘Icare’ dicebat: pennas aspexit in undis

devovitque suas artes corpusque sepulcro

condidit, et tellus a nomine dicta sepulti.               235



Daedalus, detesting Crete and his long exile, was shut off by sea and struck by a love of his birthplace. “Even though Minos obstructs the lands and seas,” he said, “surely the sky lies open; we shall go that way. Minos may be master of everything, but he is not master of the heavens.”

Thus he spoke, and he sent forth his mind to unknown crafts and made nature anew. For he set down feathers in sequence, starting with the smallest, following the long from the shorter, so that you might suppose they had grown on an incline, similar to how, oftentimes, the reeds of a rustic pipe rise by degrees. Then he bound the middle feathers with cloth and the lowest feathers with wax. And next, he bent the joined-together wings with a slight curve so that they might imitate those of true birds. His boy Icarus was standing beside him with a resplendent smile and, ignorant that he touched things at his own peril, seized the feathers which the wandering breeze had moved. He was softening the golden wax with his thumb and, in his play, was impeding the miraculous work of his father. After the finishing touches were placed, the craftsman positioned his body between the twin wings and hung suspended in the stirring air.

And he instructed his son, “Travel on the middle path, Icarus. I warn you, for if you go lower, a wave may burden your wings, and if you go higher, a fire may ignite them. Fly between both spaces. I order you to gaze not at Bootes nor Helece nor the drawn sword of Orion. Take this path with me as your guide.”

While he was delivering the rules for flying, he fit the unfamiliar wings to Icarus’s shoulders. Amid the work and the warnings, the cheeks of the old man grew wet, and the hands of the father shook. He gave a kiss to his son, which would never again be repeated, and then Daedalus lifted himself up by his wings, flying forward, and feared for his companion. Just as a bird that has brought forth its delicate offspring from a lofty nest into the air, so he encouraged Icarus to follow and taught him the destructive art, and Daedalus flapped his wings and looked back at the wings of his son.

The man in the process of catching fish with a shaking rod, or the shepherd supported by his staff, or the plowman by his plow handle, saw them and was astonished, believing that those who could seize the heavens were gods. And now on the left side was Junonian Samos (Delos and Paros were far behind). On the right were Lebinthos and Calymne, fertile in honey. When the boy began to rejoice at his bold flight, he deserted his leader, and, drawn away by a desire for the sky, he took a higher route. The nearness of the fierce sun softened the scented wax, the fetters of the feathers. The wax had melted. He shook his bare arms, and, lacking his wings, he did not grasp any air. His mouth, calling the name of his father, disappeared into the cerulean water, which now takes its name from that boy Icarus. The unfortunate father, for he was no longer a father, cried, “Icarus! Icarus, where are you? In which region shall I seek you?” He was crying, “Icarus!” and then he saw the feathers in the waves and cursed his craft. He placed the body in a tomb, and the land was thereafter called by the name of the buried boy.


Erin Schott (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and English. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Discentes.