Daedalus Far From Home

This passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses powerfully captures the desire with which Daedalus longs to return to his homeland. The passage begins in medias res, offering no context for Daedalus’s “longum…exsilium,” and the use of anastrophe in the phrase “Creten longumque perosus /exsilium” reinforces the length of both the exile and his hatred of his exile and of Crete. Daedalus says that while Minos “undas obstruat” and “Terras licet,” he “omnia possideat, non possidet aera Minos.” This chiasmus in line 187 underlines Minos’s tyranny, while opening the free “aera” to exploration and flight. The notion that the air is unexplored and unrestricted by the will of kings introduces a touch of dramatic irony, given that the upper air is the realm of the gods.

In the next lines (188-189), Ovid makes use of prolepsis and hyperbaton to emphasize the grandeur and innovation inherent in Daedalus’s creation. “Dixit et ignotas animum dimittit in artes / naturamque novat.” The hyperbaton is exaggerated, where “ignotas” is four words away from “artes,” exaggerating the “unknownness” of this art, and the suspense in the sentence builds up in both lines toward the resolution of the verbs. Simultaneously, in these lines, the consonance of “dixit” and “dimittit” and “naturamque novat” enforces the power of Daedalus’s creation and the profound way in which it transforms the natural world, over which he assumes control.

The ablative absolute construction in line 190, “longam [pennam] breviore [penna] sequenti,” draws to mind the meticulous care and skillful way in which Daedalus builds his wings, summoning the image of a master who already possesses all the world’s skills and has only to apply them to his strange new craft, and anticipates his success. The metaphor of the result clause in 191, “ut clivo crevisse putes,” borders on synecdoche, as it juxtaposes the fashioned wing with the incline of a cliff where a bird might soar, and it is immediately followed by the simile “sic rustica quondam / fistula disparibus paulatim surgit avenis.” The image of a pipe with reeds of different lengths not only mirrors the wing, but forms a musical image that conjures up the sound of whistling winds that, again, bring to mind the environment where a lone bird drafts near a cliff. In lines 189 and 191, Daedalus “ponit … pennas” and the reader thinks of a “clivo crevisse;” the alliteration in both phrases brings home the attendant care Daedalus builds his wings. Likewise, the rhyming “rustica … fistula” image indicates that, just as a reed pipe is made with care, these wings are fashioned just as they should be, and that they are sound and capable.

The full and partial end-rhymes of lines 183-192—“perosus,” “undas,” “Minos,” “artes,” “pennas,” and “avenis”—move from hatred to waves and Minos to arts, feathers, and reeds. There is a fluid progression of the lines from Daedalus’s exile to his longing for a way to return home and his determination to create his own freedom. In the next section, lines 193-202, it is playful Icarus who becomes the focal point. These lines have their own sequence of end rhymes, from “imas” and “una” and “pericla” to “alas” and “aura.” Again, there is a progression from the deepest point, the “imas,” to danger, to the wing, “alas,” and the “aura,” air.

The introduction of Icarus so late in the verse, who has been, it seems, standing, “stabat,” with his father the whole time, makes him seem youthful and active. Icarus does everything in the imperfect tense: captabat, mollibat, impediebat. Ovid does not give his age, but the fascination he affords to Icarus and the “pericla” mentioned earlier sets the stage for more meddling to come. Icarus will not, apparently, treat the wings with Daedalus’s care. Instead, he will play with them, soften their wax, and try to catch at the air, gaining height for a purpose his father did not intend.




Daedalus interea Creten longumque perosus

exsilium tactusque loci natalis amore

clausus erat perago. “Terras licet,” inquit, “et undas

obstruat: at caelum certe patet; ibimus illac:

omnia possideat, non possidet aera Minos.”

Dixit et ignotas animum dimittit in artes

natarumque novat. Nam ponit in ordine pennas

a minima coeptas, longam breviore sequenti,

ut clivo crevisse putes: sic rustica quondam

fistula disparibus paulatim surgit avenis.


Tum lino medias et ceris alligat imas

atque ita compositas parvo curvamine flectit,

ut versa imitetur aves. Puer Icarus una

stabat et, ignarus sua se tractare pericla,

ore renidenti modo, quas vaga moverat aura,

captabat plumas, flavam modo police ceram

mollibat lusuque suo mirabile patris

impediebat opus. Postquam manus ultima coepto

imposita est, geminas opifex libravit in alas

ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura.

Daedalus, in the meantime, hating his long

Exile and having been touched by love for his birthplace

Was closed in by the sea. “Though Minos may obstruct

The waves and the land,” Daedalus said, “still the sky certainly lies open; we will fly that way: he may hold everything, but he does not hold the air.”

He spoke, and set his mind to unknown arts

And changed the order of nature. Now he put feathers in order

starting from the smallest, following long with shorter,

so that you may think it grows at an incline: in this way sometimes a rustic’s

pipe builds up gradually with reeds of different length.


Next he binds the lowest feathers with wax and the middle with string

And in this way what he has made bends to imitate the curves of a real bird. His son Icarus was standing

And, not knowing that he was dealing with things that would put him in danger,

Caught, smiling, at the feathers that wandered in the wind,

And playing he softened the yellow wax with his thumb, and impeded

his father’s miraculous work. After the finishing touch had been put into the work, Daedalus himself balanced all his weight on the twin wings, his body suspended in the air.




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