There are few things more heart stopping than watching your three-year old child run straight towards a road. Thankfully, there were no cars – this time. What does a parent/academic do in the face of such recklessness? She consults a parenting book of course! My parenting bible reassures me that this total disregard for safety is completely normal for a toddler. Even worse, it confirms my worst fears and repeated experiences: toddlers, it says, have little understanding of cause and effect, limited vision, limited concentration, an inability to think ahead and intense curiosity! (1)
Once I had caught up to my daughter, firmly grabbed her little hand and told her sternly to “Stay with us!” it occurred to me that nothing has really changed since the time of Daedelus and his little son Icarus. Daedelus was a master craftsman, the architect of the infamous labyrinth that kept the monstrous Minotaur within its walls. He was in exile on the island of Crete under the rule of King Minos and he was desperate to escape. He reasoned that if he could not escape by and or sea, he would escape by air. By carefully arranging feathers and binding them with thread and wax, he crafted a set of wings for himself and his son. Meanwhile, Icarus was playing in the workshop:
“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 bees’-wax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father’s marvellous work.” (2)
Once Daedelus finished, he fitted the wings to his own back and tested them. Hovering in the air, he gave these words of instruction before fitting the wings to his son:
‘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!’
With his old cheeks wet with tears and his fatherly hands trembling, he fitted the wings to his son and they took flight together. Daedelus called out instructions to his son and looked back anxiously to check on his progress. Soon enough, Icarus’ confidence grew, and we all know what happens next:
“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.”
Tragedy. Grief. Despair. Daedelus cursed his clever inventions and buried his son in a land forever to be named Icaria.
There is so much in this ancient story, especially for us modern parents: the utter innocence of children and their inability to anticipate danger; the tender care with which parents issue instructions and warn of dangers; the quickly growing confidence of a child and the risks they are prepared to take. Daedelus, who was unmatched as an inventor, was undone by his own little child. Oh, ancient tale, I hear your warning and promise to heed it.
- Robin Barker, The Mighty Toddler, Macmillan, Sydney 2009, p. 301.
- Text of myth from:
Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A. S. Kline) Book 8, lines 183-235, available online at: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph8.htm#482327661
- Header image:
The Fall of Icarus. Fresco from Pompeii, The House of the Priest Amandus. 40-79AD.
*Many artworks both ancient and modern depict Icarus as a young man, aged 13 or 14 perhaps. Based on my own experience, and my reading of the texts, I’m quite sure that Icarus must have been no more than three years old at the time of the accident! That being said, it is entirely possible that I will publish this same blog again when my children are in their early teens.