Parenting Tips from Mythology

Who needs Dr. Spock or the Supernanny when you can learn from Daedalus and Thetis?

By Google Arts & Culture

Parent-Child Care (1970-03) by Grey VilletLIFE Photo Collection

From the 1950’s, when Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care book found its way onto every new parent’s bookshelf, to the 21st century when contemporary shows like Supernanny appeared on our televisions, parents have long been searching for guidance on how to raise their children. 

With the barrage of conflicting articles on social media, parents (and kids!) would be forgiven for being more confused than ever.

Trade catalog:Choosing toys wisely : the right toy for the right time (1935)The Strong National Museum of Play

Even in the 1930s, advertisers used parents’ insecurity as a marketing tool, as this catalogue advising on the right toys for the right time suggests.

However, rather than poring over articles by pop-psychologists, or the latest book on “helicopter” or “free-range” parenting, modern parents could turn to another resource: the myths of ancient Greece and Rome.

Bulla with Daedalus and Icarus (5th century BC (Classical)) by EtruscanThe Walters Art Museum

Any parent can relate to the tragic heartbreak of Daedalus as he loses his son during their escape from Crete. 

This 5th century pendant alludes to the myth of Daedalus and Icarus whose only chance of escaping their imprisonment was by air. A skilled inventor, Daedalus created two pairs of wings out of feathers and wax for him and his son. It was a risky move, and Daedalus lectured his son on how to best fly to ensure his safe escape. 

Daedalus and Icarus (1615/1625) by Anthony van DyckArt Gallery of Ontario

In this painting by Anthony van Dyck, the expressions on the faces of the concerned father and his distracted son could easily be found on the faces of any 21st century father and son arguing over the importance of safe driving! 

Daedalus tells his son in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes: take the course I show you!’ But like most teenagers, Icarus thinks he knows best, and ignores his father’s words. 

Fall of Icarus (1606-07) by Carlo SaraceniMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

This painting by Carlos Saraceni shows his tragic descent. 

Ovid describes how Icarus, delighting in his daring flight, and drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air.’ 

'Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea...’

Red-figured volute-krater attributed to the Berlin Painter (-490/-460)British Museum

Daedalus is not the only mythological parent left bereft by the death of a child. The ancient Greeks and Romans had many different tales about Thetis, the sea-nymph, who desperately tried to protect her half-mortal son, Achilles, from death. 

In this 5th century Red-Figured Volute Crater, Thetis is seen hovering behind Achilles, always supporting and aiding him. 

Thetis dompelt Achilles onder in de Styx (1679) by Ertinger, FranzRijksmuseum

And in this drawing, Franz Ertinger depicts the popular tale of Thetis dipping her beloved son in the waters of the magical River Styx to make his whole body, except for his left heel, invulnerable.

Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes (1669) by Adrien DassierMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

One of the most famous tales of Thetis, as shown in this 17th century painting, tells of her disguising her beloved son as a girl in the court of Lycomedes to protect him from the dangers of the Trojan War. 

As Statius writes in his unfinished poem, Achilleid, ‘But Thetis, standing by night upon the sea-echoing rocks, this way and that divides her purpose, and ponders in what hiding-place she will set her son, in what country she shall choose to conceal him.’

Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles (1804) by Benjamin WestLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Any parent, whether born in ancient Greece or the modern day, can understand Thetis’ desire to ensure her child’s well-being, even if it means bending or breaking the rules. Many parents believe that if they do all the right things, they can secure their child’s future success and well-being. 

However, as mythology teaches us, even Thetis, with the magical powers of a sea-nymph, is unable to ensure her son survives the Trojan War, let alone lives a long and happy life. 

Vase about Trojan war (-0330/-0320) by UnknownRijksmuseum van Oudheden

In this 4th-century vase, we see Achilles battling Memnon as his mother watches on, helpless. Achilles cannot be protected and is persuaded by Odysseus that he must join the Trojan War if he wants honor and glory. 

When he dies on the battlefield, Thetis finally understands what all parents must understand: children will forge their own path, and mothers and fathers must step back and watch from the sidelines.

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