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Icarus: entering the world of myth
Icarus: entering the world of myth

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3 Daedalus and Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

In this section, you will read two passages from Ovid's narrative and explore his portrayal of Icarus and Daedalus.

Activity 2

Read Ovid's story of Icarus [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Metamorphoses 8.183–235).

  • How does Ovid portray the characters of Daedalus and Icarus?
  • How might Ovid be manipulating our emotions?
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You may have been struck by how Daedalus speaks for himself almost immediately in the text, outlining his dilemma succinctly and appraising the reader of his action plan. We might argue that this invites us as readers into Daedalus’ mind and sets up a sympathetic resonance, as well as making the manufacture of the wings a tense dramatic moment. Ovid renders Daedalus’ dilemma all the more poignant because he is trying to escape with his young son, Icarus. Devising drastic measures to escape, Daedalus knows he is taking a huge risk in attempting flight. He invests all his legendary skills as a craftsman in the design of wings for himself and Icarus.

Icarus is depicted as a boy rather than an adolescent; he gets in his father’s way in the workshop and has no real inkling of the danger he is about to face. The first mention of Icarus creates the image of a meddling child, a familiar scene with tragic resonances. Ovid’s readers (who would not need reminding about the myth) knew that the successful completion of the wings would mean the fall and death of Icarus. The heedlessness of the boy is a fatal characteristic; he will ignore his father’s advice and soar towards the sun.

Before Icarus plummets to his death with his horrified father wailing his name, ‘now no longer a father’ (Ovid twists the emotional knife deeper here), he and Daedalus have enjoyed a brief but god-like view of the world. Angler, shepherd and ploughman have gazed up in wonder at them, but the glory is short-lived. The name ‘Icarus’ appears three times in the final lines, uttered by the desperate father as he looks down for his lost son.

The translation you have been reading captures this threefold lament, but not all translators follow the Latin so closely. A.D. Melville, for instance, renders the two lines as: ‘His wretched father, now no father, cried/“Oh, Icarus, where are you? Icarus/Where shall I look, where find you?”’ (1986, p. 178). However, he does repeat ‘where’ three times, so has intentionally retained the emphasis and rhythm of the repetition. In this way Melville keeps the literary artifice intact, but a cultural context has been lost because the repetition of the name in Raeburn’s translation evokes features of a formal lament. The custom at Roman funerals was to call upon the corpse thrice by name (possibly to ‘waken’ the dead, in case they were actually in a catatonic trance) so the passing over of Icarus is ritually marked by Ovid before the burial even takes place.

Activity 3

Now read about Daedalus and Talos, who is also known as Perdix (Metamorphoses 8.236–59)

  • Does this alter our perspective on Daedalus, the grieving father?
  • Can you suggest why Ovid delays the information about Talos/Perdix?
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The partridge is Perdix, Daedalus’ nephew and one-time apprentice. Ovid’s educated readership would probably be familiar with the background story but the modern reader may be finding out for the first time that Daedalus was fleeing justice and retribution when he left Athens and took refuge in Crete. Daedalus had tried to murder his nephew, Talos, who had been entrusted to him as a second son to learn the craftsman’s trade, but whose remarkable talents inspired jealous rage in his teacher. The goddess Minerva (Greek name, Athena) changed Talos into the partridge (Latin perdix) so he was saved from a fatal fall.

Talos becomes Perdix and this provides the actual transformation that justifies the presence of Icarus’ story in a text about changes in form, and yet it could be argued that Daedalus and Icarus are imitating birds if not actually physically metamorphosing into something else. The murdered nephew is transformed into the partridge, a bird that has paradoxically (but logically given the manner of the boy’s death) a horror of heights and nests close to the ground. The partridge rejoices at Icarus’ death and Daedalus’ grief.

Ovid closes the narrative with an aetiological myth, explaining why the partridge behaves as it does – possibly Perdix is supposed to be the ‘first’ partridge. (Aetia is the Greek for ‘cause’, so aetiological myths often explain the origin of a species or something about their attributes.) Does Ovid mean to alter our perspective and undercut the sympathy we feel for Daedalus by this flashback technique?

There are times when even the ancient reader might feel led along by Ovid, even though they were in touch with the ‘surround’ stories of many major myths and would have this information already. In other words, Ovid’s readership would be aware of Daedalus’ crime against Perdix and Daedalus’ designing of a labyrinth where, every fourteen years, Athenian boys and girls were slaughtered by the Minotaur.

Ovid is a master of allusion, cross-referencing, reprising and prefiguring not just within the confines of his epic, but also shifting the spotlight on to hitherto marginalised figures in the myths. Icarus’ fall is a brief episode, and although he was represented in ancient art, the literature of Greece and Rome tended to focus on the character of Daedalus whose remarkable talent formed the fulcrum of several key myths. Ovid’s reconstruction of the boy’s last moments are so vivid that Icarus became foregrounded, representing a tragic loss not just of life, but of human endeavour and artistic aspiration.

Overall, many would say that in Metamorphoses Ovid perfected the art of theorising myths as he narrated them, suggesting a psychological subtext here, an artistic symbol there, a metaphor on power at one moment, and a crisis of human identity the next. So, the adult reader is unlikely to ‘just read’ Ovid for the stories but will rapidly become engrossed in interpreting their motifs, themes and mixed messages. This is not to suggest that Ovid is producing a theory or theories of myth but he is clearly manipulating myths to yield their full potential as cultural, social and ideological barometers.