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Ovid's Metamorphoses - Book VIII


When Minos landed on the coast of Crete,

He bled a hundred bulls to mighty Jove,

And decked his palace with the spoils of war.

And yet strange gossip tainted all his honours:

Proof that his wife was mounted by a bull

Was clear enough to all who saw her son,

Half-beast, half-man, a sulky heavy creature.

To hide this symbol of his wife’s mismating

He planned to house the creature in a maze,

An arbour with blind walls beyond the palace;

He turned to Daedalus, an architect,

Who was well known for artful craft and wit,

To make a labyrinth that tricked the eye.

Quite as Meander flows through Phrygian pastures,

Twisting in streams to sea or fountainhead,

The dubious waters turning left or right,

So Daedalus designed his winding maze;

And as one entered it, only a wary mind

Could find an exit to the world again ---

Such was the cleverness of that strange arbour.


Weary of exile, hating Crete, his prison,

Old Daedalus grew homesick for his country

Far out of sight beyond his walls --- the sea.

“Though Minos owns this island, rules the waves,

The skies are open: my direction’s clear.

Though he commands all else on earth below

His Tyranny does not control the air.”

So Daedalus turned his mind to subtle craft,

An unknown art that seemed to outwit nature:

He placed a row of feathers in neat orders,

Each longer than the one that came before it

Until the feathers traced an inclined plane

That cast a shadow like the ancient pipes

That shepherds played, each reed another step

Unequal to the next. With cord and wax

He fixed them smartly at one end and middle,

Then curved them till they looked like eagles' wings.

And as he worked , boy Icarus stood near him.

His brilliant face lit up by his father’s skill.

He played at snatching feathers from the air

And sealing them with wax (nor did he know

How close to danger came his lightest touch):

And as the artist made his miracles

The artless boy was often in his way.

At last the wings were done and Daedalus

Slipped them across his shoulders for a test

And flapped them cautiously to keep his balance,

And for a moment glided into air.

He taught his son the trick and said,  “Remember

To fly midway, for if you dip too low

The waves will weight your wings with thick saltwater,

And if you fly too high the flames of heaven

Will burn them from your sides. Then take your flight

Between the two.   Your route is not toward Boötes

Nor Helice, nor where Orion swings

His naked sword.   Steer where I lead the way.”

With this he gave instructions how to fly

And made a pair of wings to fit the boy.

Though his swift fingers were as deft as ever,

The old man’s face was wet with tears; he chattered

More fatherly advice on how to fly.

He kissed his son --- and, as the future showed,

This was a last farewell --- then he took off.

And as a bird who drifts down from her nest

Instructs her young to follow her in flight,

So Daedalus flapped wings to guide his son.

Far off, below them some stray fisherman,

Attention startled from his bending rod,

Or a bland shepherd resting on his crook,

Or a dazed farmer leaning on his plough

Glanced up to see the pair float through the sky,

And taking them for gods, stood still in wonder.

They flew past Juno’s Samos on the left

And over Delos and the isle of Paros,

And on the right lay Lebinthus, Calymne,

A place made famous for its wealth in honey.

By this time Icarus began to feel the joy

Of beating wings in air and steered his course

Beyond his father’s lead: all the wide sky

Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.

Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back

And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid

Ran hot that once was wax.  His naked arms

Whirled into wind; his lips, still calling out

His father’s name, were gulfed in the dark sea.

And the unlucky man, no longer father,

Cried,   “Icarus, where are you, Icarus,

Where are you hiding, Icarus, from me?”

Then as he called again, his eyes discovered

The boy’s torn wings washed on the climbing waves.

He damned his art, his wretched cleverness,

Rescued the body and placed it in a tomb,

And where it lies the land’s called Icarus.


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