Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.12

Karin Luck-Huyse, Der Traum vom Fliegen in der Antike. Palingenesia LXII. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997. Pp. 264. DM 88. ISBN 3-515-06965-8.

Reviewed by Arthur Pomeroy, Department of Classics, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand,

A revision of her Saarbrücken thesis presented in 1995/6, Karin Luck-Huyse's Der Traum vom Fliegen in der Antike is a study of the depiction of flight in the most prominent literary texts of Greece and Rome, particularly the works of Homer, Vergil, and Ovid. H. begins with descriptions of the flights of the gods (especially those of Hermes and Iris) and mythological characters (Daedalus and Icarus; Phaethon; Bellerophon; Phrixus and Helle), turns to parodies of these, such as Trygaeus' journey to heaven on a dung-beetle in Aristophanes' Peace and Lucian's Icaromennipus, and concludes the first section with legendary descriptions of flight by rulers such as Alexander the Great (in Pseudo-Callisthenes), Etana of Babylon, Kai-Ka'us of Persia, and the Arabic Nimrod. A brief chapter on the wish to be able to fly as escape (as in Ovid, Tristia 3.8) is followed by a chapter on the depiction of the soul as a creature of flight (e.g. in Plato's dialogues or in the apotheosis ceremonies of the Roman emperors), concluding with the accounts of the poet's soul soaring above the earth in triumph, as in Horace, Odes 2.20. A chapter on the metaphors of and for flying concludes the discussion. Most usefully for reference, the book finishes with an index of the vocabulary used in association with descriptions of flying (pp. 240-260).

Although the text clearly displays its origin as a thesis in its listing of passages with partial translations and comments, it is enlivened throughout with indications of the author's passion for flight. The preface notes the completion of the manuscript on the 100th anniversary of the death of the pioneer of glider flight, Otto Lilienthal, who died from his injuries, August 10, 1896, two days after his last attempt. Abaris, making his way to aid Greece in its hour of need on a flying arrow, is playfully compared to the Flying Doctor service. And Alexander, surveying the world on a throne carried through the skies by a great bird, is foreshadowing the passengers transported by Lufthansa's crane or Garuda's bird-god.

As the author does not explore the demands made by the genres of the materials she is using (folklore and epic, elegiac poetry and philosophy form one circling flock), the discussion rarely departs far from the passages being studied.1 Perhaps because they are part of a humble genre, dreams of flying in the oneirocritic writers are not mentioned. This is unfortunate since examples such as that of the man who dreamt he flew over Rome but was forced down by pain in his heart and hid himself in disgrace (Artemidorus 5.69) clearly are related to the mythological and legendary dreams discussed in this thesis. And while H. discusses accounts of flying in the time of Nero, including the unfortunate Simon Magus whose demonic support was rudely exorcised in mid-flight by Saint Peter, she does not treat the gruesome re-enactments of mythology performed in the arena in the period.2

Still, there is much that is useful in the emphasis on the details of flight discussed throughout. It is difficult for humans or gods to fly under their own power with decorum. Most gods simply arrive without comment. Only those who want to impress spend any time in the air. Hermes puts on his boots, takes his staff, and then dives into the air; after appropriate dipping and diving (as in Homer), or after sailing through the atmosphere (Vergil), he alights on the earth and usually dispenses with his flight paraphernalia (except in Ovid, Met. 2, where he keeps it to impress Herse). At least he remembers to circle around his love object, while Ovid's Perseus nearly forgets to flap at the sight of Andromeda (Met. 4.476f.). And Iris' use of the rainbow as a slide between Olympus and earth is hardly the behaviour of a major divinity. Better to mimic land transport and be transported in a chariot drawn by birds or snakes (Venus, Ceres, and Medea) or by heavenly stallions (Phaethon, borrowing Helios' carriage). The trick for humans is to not look down -- the consequent vertigo ruins the experience for Phaethon, Alexander the Great, and Nimrod, among others. And if flight can be explained by the metaphor of sailing (e.g. Daedalus' banks of feathered oars) or land transport (where I wonder whether Daedalus' instructions "medio tutissimus ibis" are the simple traffic rules of the day, still applied in modern third world countries), rapid progress on land (by Vergil's Camilla, for instance) and by ships is compared to flying. As the author rightly notes, before the technical realisation of flight, man can still dream of air and space travel, wondering at the means and making jokes at the danger involved.3


1. There are interesting digressions on Daedalus' wing-construction techniques as described by Ovid (pp. 43-9) and on model flying birds as parallels to Archytas' dove, described by Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 10.12.9 (pp. 134-139).

2. K. M. Coleman, "Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments", Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990) 44-73.  

3. While modern space debris is a constant but extremely low-level threat, Perseus' plan to overfly the cities of Europe while possessing the Gorgon's head (Lucan 9.685f.) presents an alarming vision. Fortunately, for the Eurocentric Romans at least, he is persuaded by Athena to change his flight path to cross North Africa instead.