Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus and Icarus

The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is no doubt the most famous of the ancient legends of flight. Many aspects of the legend are worth considering since they certainly influenced later generations of experimenters. In Greek mythology, Daedalus (Greek for “cunning artificer”) is an unusual figure: an Athenian architect and engineer with near-godlike intellectual powers. He is the mythical inventor of the axe and the saw, and was said by Plato to have constructed mechanical statues of the gods so lifelike that they perspired under the hot Aegean sun and had to be restrained lest they run away. Daedalus also invented various puzzles and gadgets that amazed onlookers, including a box that could be opened only by the sound of birdsong in perfect harmony. In time, Daedalus moved to Crete with his son, Icarus, and became the resident architect and inventor for the wealthy King Minos. His greatest public achievement was the design and creation of the dreaded Labyrinth, a maze built in the city of Knossos and said to be so cleverly crafted that once one entered the maze it was impossible to find one’s way out. In the center of the Labyrinth was the monstrous Minotaur, who was half-bull and half-man. Every year Minos sacrificed fourteen Athenian youths to this creature. Being an Athenian himself, this did not sit well with Daedalus. He supported Theseus, King of Attica, in his plot to overthrow Minos and shared with him the secret to finding one’s way out of the Labyrinth. After Theseus killed the Minotaur, set fire to the palace, and escaped with the king’s daughter, Ariadne, Daedalus’ disloyalty was discovered and the king sent his soldiers to arrest him. Years earlier Daedalus had witnessed the witch Medea take flight in a chariot drawn by fiery dragons; since then, he had secretly .devoted himself to creating a mechanism that would allow him to fly. When he and Icarus arrived at Crete, they had set up a secret workshop in the cliffs overlooking the sea. Daedalus spent many hours observing the silent gliding flight of the eagles that nested in the cliffs; he then experimented with many materials that might work for wings. Sail canvas was too heavy, silk and thin cloth were too weak. At last Daedalus came upon the obvious: why not construct the wings out of eagle feathers? The inventor was sad to be hunting the magnificent birds, but he soon collected enough feathers to fashion wings with beeswax. Daedalus was about to begin testing his invention when word came that Minos’ men were coming to arrest him. He and Icarus quickly repaired to their secret cliff-side workshop and donned their untested wings. Daedalus instructed his son to fly at a middle altitude— high enough so that the ocean spray would not dampen the wings and make them too heavy; low enough so that the heat of the sun would not melt the wax that held the feathers together. With that they took off across the Aegean Sea, hoping to glide all the way to Sicily. The end of the story is well known to most Westerners. Icarus, intoxicated with the thrill of flying, flew too high. The wax melted, his wings came apart, and he plunged to his death in the sea, near an island that was later named Ikaria in his honour. Crete does, in fact, have tall cliffs overlooking the sea, against which strong and persistent thermal updrafts are created by winds known as the Miltemi. Large gulls (the eagles, if there ever were any, are long gone) float and glide for long periods. Beginning with the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, many of the details of the leg- end of King Minos and the Labyrinth have been confirmed, bit by bit, and some historians (no less a figure than H.G. Wells, for example) have come to believe that the legend of Daedalus and Icarus has some basis in fact.

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