Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ovid's Metamorphoses: Daedalus and Icarus

This story begins with King Minos of Crete, whose wife, Queen Pasiphae, has fallen in love with a bull and given birth to a monstrous child, half-man (named for his father Minos), and half-bull (Taurus), hence the name: Minotaur. In an abbreviated form, Ovid then tells the story of how Theseus, helped by the king's daughter Ariadne, slew the Minotaur and then escaped from Crete, together with Ariadne. Theseus then cruelly abandoned Ariadne on an island, but the god Bacchus (Dionysus) found her there and made her his bride. You can read more about Ariadne at Wikipedia.

Ovid then turns his detailed attention to Daedalus, the craftsman who built the labyrinth that held the Minotaur; Daedalus will now use his powers of invention to find a way to escape the island of Crete which King Minos is holding him against his will.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).


The Minotaur, Theseus, and Ariadne

When Minos reached Cretan soil he paid his dues to Jove, with the sacrifice of a hundred bulls, and hung up his war trophies to adorn the palace. The scandal concerning his family grew, and the queen’s unnatural adultery was evident from the birth of a strange hybrid monster. Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways.

Daedalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Maeander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea, so Daedalus made the endless pathways of the maze and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that.

In there, Minos walled up the twin form of bull and man, and twice nourished it on Athenian blood, but the third repetition of the nine-year tribute by lot caused the monster’s downfall.

When, through the help of the virgin princess, Ariadne, by rewinding the thread, Theseus, son of Aegeus, won his way back to the elusive threshold that no one had previously regained, he immediately set sail for Dia, stealing the daughter of Minos away with him, then cruelly abandoned his companion on that shore.

Deserted and weeping bitterly, as she was, Bacchus-Liber brought her help and comfort. So that she might shine among the eternal stars, he took the crown from her forehead, and set it in the sky. It soared through the rarefied air, and as it soared its jewels changed to bright fires, and took their place, retaining the appearance of a crown, as the Corona Borealis, between the kneeling Hercules and the head of the serpent that Ophiuchus holds.

Daedalus and Icarus

Meanwhile Daedalus, hating Crete and his long exile, and filled with a desire to stand on his native soil, was imprisoned by the waves. ‘He may thwart our escape by land or sea,’ he said, ‘but the sky is surely open to us: we will go that way: Minos rules everything but he does not rule the heavens.’

So saying he applied his thought to new invention and altered the natural order of things. He laid down lines of feathers, beginning with the smallest, following shorter with longer ones, so you might think they had grown like that, on a slant. In this way, long ago, the rustic pan-pipes were graduated, with lengthening reeds. Then he fastened them together with thread at the middle, and beeswax at the base, and, when he had arranged them, he flexed each one into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings.

His son, Icarus, stood next to him, and, not realising that he was handling things that would endanger him, caught laughingly at the down that blew in the passing breeze, and softened the yellow beeswax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father’s marvellous work.

When he had put the last touches to what he had begun, the artificer balanced his own body between the two wings and hovered in the moving air. He instructed the boy as well, saying, ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’

At the same time as he laid down the rules of flight, he fitted the newly created wings on the boy’s shoulders. While he worked and issued his warnings the ageing man’s cheeks were wet with tears: the father’s hands trembled.

He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.

And now Samos, sacred to Juno, lay ahead to the left (Delos and Paros were behind them), Lebinthos, and Calymne, rich in honey, to the right, when the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him.

The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted, ‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I look, to see you?’

‘Icarus’ he called again.

Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves, and cursed his inventions. He laid the body to rest, in a tomb, and the island was named Icaria after his buried child.




(1000 words)










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