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Context Essay

For my project, I translated lines 200-235 of Daedalus and Icarus, which takes place in Book VIII (lines 183-235) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To a contemporary Roman audience, this story's events happen sometime between the story of Creation and the newly established Roman Empire. In addition, Ovid seems to be the first person to write down and publicize this classical Greek myth, popularizing the story and inspiring many pieces of art made centuries in the future.

This story follows right after the tale of Nisus and Scylla, where the princess of Megara, Scylla, betrays her father, King Nisus, by cutting off his purple lock of hair that protects the kingdom from danger. Scylla betrays her father because she falls in love with King Minos during his siege of Megara. However, Minos does not share her feelings of love and leaves her in the defeated city. As Minos is leaving, Scylla yells insults at him about his wife, Pasiphae, who had committed adultery with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Here, Ovid uses the widely known myth of the Minotaur to transition into the tale of Daedalus and Icarus. In Greek mythology, Daedalus was the one that constructed the device Pasiphae used to have sex with a bull, indirectly creating the Minotaur. Eventually, out of rage, Minos locks both Daedalus and his son Icarus in a tower on the island of Crete. This course of action leads to the beginning of my story. 

The section of Daedalus and Icarus that I translated covers the middle and climax of the story, where Daedalus and Icarus escape imprisonment from the tower. In this section, Daedalus creates two pairs of wings to fly away from Crete, and gives a warning to Icarus: not fly too low, or the moisture from the sea would soak the feathers, nor too high, or the heat of the sun would melt the wax holding the wings together. However, during the climax of the story, Icarus’ wings fall apart because he flies too close to the sun, causing him to plummet into the sea. 

After my story ends, Ovid once again utilizes the myth of the Minotaur as a throughline to transition into the next story: The Calydonian Boar. In this story, Ovid shifts the book’s focus to the Greek hero Theseus, who becomes increasingly famous after he defeats the Minotaur. This increase in fame leads to Theseus being invited to hunt the Calydonian Boar, a fierce monster, along with many other heroes.

This transition further illustrates Ovid’s structure in writing Metamorphoses: introducing characters, themes, events, and places that can branch out and interweave into countless other stories. In the case of Daedalus and Icarus, Ovid primarily used the Minotaur and the character of Minos to transition into and out of the story.

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