By Bella Gamboa, JE ’22. Bella is majoring in Humanities.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic poem dating from the early first century CE, is a collection of tales of transformation, many of which remain quite well known in some form today. Among these stories is that of Daedalus, the ill-fated artisan who is exiled to Crete, and his son, Icarus. What follows is an original translation of Ovid’s Latin text.
Daedalus loathed Crete and his long exile; he was filled with longing for his home, the place of his birth, but the vast sea separated him from it.
“Minos, king of Crete, may obstruct our escape by land or sea,” he said, “but the sky is yet clear. We will take that path: though he might possess everything, even Minos does not control the air.”
As Daedalus spoke, he directed his mind to previously unknown arts. Now, he makes nature itself new. He puts feathers in ascending order, beginning from the smallest, with the short feathers following the long – you could imagine they grew along a slope, like a rustic panpipe that rises up little by little, with uneven stalks. Then he fastens the center of the feathers with flax and their edges with wax; and he bends the structures which he assembled so that they resemble real wings.
Meanwhile, Daedalus’ son, Icarus, stands nearby. Not knowing that he handles his own ruin, his face beaming with pleasure, Icarus begins capturing feathers, which he lifts with his breath; just now, he softens the golden wax with his thumb – and his playing hinders the wondrous work of his father.
After Daedalus placed the finishing touch on this undertaking, the craftsman balances his body in the pair of wings, and, as his wings strike the air, he hangs aloft.
Daedalus equips his son and says, “Icarus, I warn you to fly quickly in the middle way. Do not go too low, for the water will weigh down your wings; and if you soar too high, the sun’s fire will scorch you. Do not be distracted by the constellations – not the Deer-keeper or Ursa Major, nor the unsheathed sword of Orion. Rather, be sure to follow my lead, and seize the way!”
As he gives his son this advice for flying, Daedalus fastens the unfamiliar wings onto Icarus’ shoulders. Between the work and the warning, his aged cheeks grow wet, and the fatherly hands tremble; he gives kisses to his son, not to be repeated again. Daedalus flies ahead, lifted by his wings. He fears for his companion, just like a bird that leads forth its fragile offspring from their high nest into the air. Daedalus encourages his follower, and he instructs Icarus in the damned art, and shifts his own wings to look around at those of his son.
Those who catch sight of them flying – a fisherman trying to catch fish with his rod, or a shepherd with his staff, or a farmer leaning on his plough – are amazed and believe those who can soar over the sky to be gods.
And as they begin to pass by the islands – on the left side lies Junonian Samos (Delos and Paros had been left behind), Lebinthos on the right; and Calymne, overflowing with honey – the boy begins to delight in daring flight. He deserts his leader and pursues a higher path, as he flies full of desire for the sky. The nearness of the swift sun softens the sweet-smelling waxes that bind the feathers; the waxes gradually melt.
Icarus shakes his arms, now bare; but, lacking wings, he cannot catch hold of the air. His lips, forming the name of his father, are received by the sapphire sea, which afterwards was named for him.
And the unlucky father, now no longer a father, cries, “Icarus, Icarus, where are you? Where should I seek you? Icarus!” he calls out.
But then he catches sight of feathers in the waves, and he curses his skill. He lays Icarus to rest in a grave. That island is since called by the name of the buried.
From a ditch, a cackling partridge watches the unfortunate son being placed in a muddy tomb. The bird claps his wings and reveals his joy with song. At that time, this bird, called a perdix, was unique and had never been seen before – it was created but recently as an eternal record of your crime, Daedalus.
Once, Daedalus’ sister, not knowing what fate held, had given her child to Daedelus for teaching, a twelve-year-old boy, with a mind hungry for learning. This child, Perdix, removed fishes’ backbones to study them; he cut continuous spikes in the spines with a sharp knife and discovered its use as a saw; and he was the first to fasten two iron arms onto one vertex, so that when the bars were evenly set apart, one arm traced a circle.
But Daedalus envied the boy and threw him headlong from the sacred citadel of Minerva. Then he lied that the boy had fallen. But Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, who favors the clever, saved Perdix and transformed him into a bird and covered him with feathers in midair. So the vigor that once fed his genius was transferred to his swift wings and feet. His name from before, Perdix, remains as the name of the partridge. However, this bird does not lift its body on high, nor does it make its nest in branches and high trees: rather, it flies near to the ground and places its eggs in bushes. Mindful of its past, it fears far drops.
Icarus’ flaming fall is a well-known parable, generally presented as a warning against the foolish ambition represented by his arrogantly flying too close to the sun. But Ovid’s myth in its entirety, including the little-known context of Perdix’s story, transforms typical images of the principal characters. Icarus becomes a playful boy who flies too high due to the exhilaration of flight, while Daedalus is jealous and overreaching, guilty of killing his nephew and of manufacturing the false wings that enabled his son’s death.
Yet even with the story of Perdix, Daedelus is not entirely despicable. He appears to genuinely desire intellectual distinction, and he achieves mastery as an artisan and inventor. Yet this desire leads him tragically astray. What, then, is the distinction between productive intellectual pursuits, and the destructive desire for preeminence that dooms Daedalus?
Despite the myth’s age, Daedalus’ overreaching ambition remains recognizable, particularly at a place like Yale, where everyone strives for excellence. Just getting to Yale requires a highly competitive process, and that competitive pursuit of success continues here, with countless applications for internships, seminars, and clubs. Although our ambition might not lead us to throw our nephew off a citadel or result in the death of our son, any degree of mastery requires sacrifice — students’ sleep deprivation and overwhelming GCals can attest to the toll.
While the inventive Perdix displays the beauty of innovation and genius, Daedalus twists this pure curiosity with his consuming desire for preeminence. Blinded to his limitations, Daedelus values his own supremacy over Perdix’s life, and that murder leads to his exile. Then, in his attempt to escape, he convinces himself that he can “make nature new.” But as real as the wings might appear, and despite his trust in his creation, Daedalus’ work is flawed and finally melts away. He could never have made Icarus a bird, for no matter his skill, Daedalus is only human. Icarus was only a playful, curious child whose entrancement with flight was practically inevitable. Daedalus begins with genuine knowledge and passion for his artistry; but once his desire becomes one for preeminence itself, without heed for his finitude or the consequences of his actions, he pursues any end to remain the greatest and to escape his stifling exile.
Our desire for intellectual distinction can both push us to be our best self and lead us astray. An understanding of both excellence and humility is necessary to honor our efforts and passions and prevent them from crushing us.
Like Perdix, with his “mind hungry for instruction,” I find that learning is most enjoyable when it is sought for its own sake. Beyond the pleasure of learning itself, as a Christian I think that God appreciates and even encourages intellectual efforts, just as Athena offers her divine endorsement to Perdix. Furthermore, I believe that God is Himself the source of that impulse. Our desire to learn and to create, intellectually or physically, reflects our being made in the image of God. God’s preeminent creativity is apparent in the simple beauty of ochre autumn leaves, or in the more opaque but nonetheless fascinating principles of organic chemistry. The divine value of intellectual pursuits is liberating and invigorating, particularly for students – we ought to and can acquire knowledge, grow in creativity, and passionately pursue our interests.
But lest we depend on excellence for satiation, a certain humility is crucial so that our pursuits do not become distorted as Daedalus’ desire for preeminence. Humility is not equivalent to self-deprecation, but rather entails a healthy recognition of one’s limitations, and of what is greater than ourselves. Daedalus unsuccessfully attempts to bring about a metamorphosis of himself and his son into birds; but unlike Daedalus, the divine Athena successfully transforms Perdix into a true bird. It often seems that we can attain an enduring sense of self-worth, or some sustaining success, through our work and academics, or other spheres in which we might seek perfection and preeminence. But I, at least, cannot successfully manage this. I know that I will fail, whether a slightly disastrous pop quiz or something of greater significance. I cannot accumulate achievements that are sufficiently dependable. When Perdix falls, Athena enfolds him in feathers, and provides some salvation. Yet even his new partridge form remains limited – the bird does not lose its fear, and so it continues to “fl[y] near to the ground and place its eggs in bushes.”
To me, Christianity offers a more thoroughgoing and enduring salvation; Christ, in his faultless life and sacrificial death, covers us with his perfection. As a result, I do not need perfection and supremacy to establish my identity or prove my value. And the existence of God counteracts my hubristic sense that I must or even can attain some unattainable supremacy – it is, in a sense, an impulse to make myself a god, comparable to Daedalus’ foolhardy wings. Just as only Athena can make a true bird, only God can offer me full, lasting perfection and ultimate excellence.
The elusiveness of preeminence and greatness are no longer an existential threat when my performance and distinction do not define my identity or worth. The ability to pursue knowledge and excellence without the pressure that my identity is rooted in my success in these endeavors is quite freeing. That I will inevitably fail, in ways large and small, is not crushing, and I need not despair that I am not the best in every (or any) subject. Though they certainly remain stressful, orgo midterms do not define me, and I can more readily embark upon my attempts to muddle through material without that additional pressure; and classes that are primarily pleasurable can become all the more so. I can enjoy soaring through the sky when I have the chance, for when I fall like Icarus, I know I will not face his end. And unlike Perdix, I need not “fear far drops” due to past catastrophes. The knowledge that in God I needn’t and simply cannot be the best is perhaps the only effective relief I find from the endless pursuit of ever-fleeting success.
Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.