Daedalus and Icarus

Long, long ago, on the island of Crete, there lived a creature called a Minotaur. The Minotaur was half bull and half man. It was strong and fierce and hungry, and roamed about the island. The people of Crete were very afraid.

So one day, the people went to their king, King Minos, and begged him to find a way to destroy the Minotaur. But King Minos had a different plan.

‘If I could capture this creature,’ he thought, ‘he could guard my palace. Then my enemies would not dare to attack.’

And so King Minos summoned Daedalus, the greatest inventor in the land. ‘Make me a prison for the Minotaur,’ the king said. ‘It must be so strong that the monster can never escape.’

Daedalus thought for a long time, and then he had an idea. He built a labyrinth.

Daedalus built a maze with very strong, high walls and so tangled and twisted that once inside, it was almost impossible to find a way out.

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Illustration of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus

It was so complicated that Daedalus himself got lost in it. But he escaped – and he refused to tell the king how he had done it.

According to (one version of) the story, when he entered the maze he unrolled a big ball of string, and kept unrolling it as he went. And so he could follow the string out again.

Once the maze was finished, Daedalus went into it once again, this time carrying a large piece of meat that he placed right in the centre. Then following the string again and rolling it up as he went, he made his way to the entrance. And from there he could see the Minotaur coming towards the maze. Daedalus ran to safety, and watched as the Minotaur disappeared into the entrance, never to come out again.

Now Daedalus’ work was finished, and he went to the palace to report to the king. King Minos was overjoyed. But Daedalus did not get the reward he expected. Instead, the king told him to go and fetch his small son, Icarus. So Daedalus did. But as Daedalus and Icarus entered the palace, they were seized by the king’s guards, and taken to a tall tower, where they were locked up.

‘You will spend the rest of your lives here,’ called the king, ‘so that you cannot tell anyone the secret of how to escape from the maze.’

But Daedalus was an inventor. Before long, he had managed to free himself and his son from the tower. Carefully and quietly they made their way to the shore of the island. And Daedalus saw the king’s men were guarding every ship in the harbour.

‘We cannot escape by ship,’ Daedalus said to his son. ‘And we cannot swim to the next island,’ said Icarus. ‘It is too far.’

Just then, Daedalus looked up, and saw a flock of seagulls circling and calling to each other.

‘The king controls the sea,’ Daedalus said. ‘And he controls the land. But he does not control the air.’ And then he had an idea. He thought of a way to escape.

He would make some wings – just like the seagulls’ wings, only bigger. And then he and Icarus would fly away. It would take some time, but they could hide amongst the bushes while he worked.

And that is what they did. First they collected the seagull feathers that lay scattered around the beach. Icarus went on collecting them, day after day, while Daedalus studied the birds that flew overhead, noting the exact shape of their wings and studying the way they flew. Then he sewed the feathers together with thread, and to make sure they would stay in place, he melted some wax and poured it over the thread.

When at last the work was done, Daedalus fitted the wings onto his shoulders and waved his arms, just as he had seen the seagulls do. He found himself rising up and being blown about in the wind. And after practising for a while, he learnt to fly.

Then he made wings for Icarus and taught him how to use them.

Icarus was proud of his wings. After all, he had gathered all the feathers himself. He was also proud that he could fly so well.

‘I can fly faster than my father,’ he thought. ‘And I’m much bigger and stronger than the seagulls

– I bet I can fly further and higher than they can.’

Then as they stood, ready to fly away from their island, Daedalus said to Icarus, ‘Remember never to fly too high. If you fly too close to the sun, the heat will melt the wax that holds your wings together. Just follow me and you will be safe.’

Then he kissed his son and, rising on his wings, he flew off. Looking behind, he saw Icarus following him.

But as they flew on, Icarus saw the seagulls flying high above him.

‘I know, I can fly higher than the seagulls’, he thought. ‘I can fly higher than anyone or anything!’ And he flew higher and higher, faster and faster – past the seagulls, higher even than the eagles. Now his father was just a tiny dot below him.

Icarus saw a feather drift past and float downwards towards the sea. And then another….and another…. . The air grew warmer and warmer and his wings drooped. He was falling. Too late he knew – the sun had melted the wax that held his wings together.

He fell to the sea, like a leaf blown by the wind. Daedalus heard him cry out and turned back in the direction of the sound. But all he could see were feathers floating on the water.