ancient flying myths and legends

The history of flight is the history of a dream:-human-kind’s dream to soar through the sky like a bird. Birds seem to fly with so little effort that it was only natural that early attempts to fly would be attempts do emulate birds. Early myths about flight and probably many early attempts involved fashioning wings out of birds' feathers. Since ancient times, however, it was suspected that the mechanism of bird flight was more complicated than it appeared to the naked eye.

Although a clear understanding of bird flight was not attained until the twentieth century, the issue was considered settled with the posthumous publication in 1680 of Giovanni Alfonso Borelli’s De Motu Animalum. Borelli described bird flight (erroneously, as it turned out) as the combined effect of the action of the individual feathers as they twist and turn during flight and the complex flapping of the wings, and claimed to prove that human musculature was far too weak to support a system of this kind. Yet, birds are not the only creatures that fly. Bats, insects, and even some species of fish, fly without the complex structures of feathered wings, and virtually everyone has witnessed leaves, feathers, seeds, and what-not floating gently to the earth or being borne up by a gust of wind. It was also clear that heated air had the ability to carry things aloft, a phenomenon often observed in ovens and kilns throughout the Middle Ages. And even birds are often observed to be kept aloft with out flapping their wings, not unlike the kite, a toy known since ancient times. It was just a short leap of imagination to envision a larger version of these flying objects with a person aboard.

And imagination was in no short supply as intrepid (or perhaps foolhardy) would-be aeronauts constructed and tested a wide variety of flying machines, often resulting in death or injury as they plummeted to earth. Yet, of the more than fifty documented instances of attempts to fly before 1800 that historian Clive Hart lists in his beautiful  book, The Prehistory of Flight, about a dozen may have been brief instances of legitimate flight or gliding. One such attempt—by Besnier, a locksmith from Sable, France—involving a pair of wood-and-taffeta wings worn on the back and flapped by ropes attached to the hands and feet, became a celebrated instance of flight. And while there was always some doubt about Besnier’s claims, believing them to be true only spurred the resolve of later experimenters.

Borelli’s findings, and the many disastrous failures to “fly like a bird,” soon made it apparent that the entire matter of human flight would have to be rethought if there was to be any progress. Several scientific findings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries laid the foundations for the science of flight: an appreciation of the fact that the air that surrounds us is a fluid and that it may exert forces in particular ways under the right conditions; that the forces required for flight can be separated, first conceptually and then practically; the development of the propeller as a by-product of the study of windmills and waterwheels by John Smeaton and the British engineers of the eighteenth century.

Amazingly, the theory of the airplane may be said to have been born by 1799—more than a century before the Wright brothers’ achievements at Kitty Hawk—in the work of Sir George Cayley, an English baronet who worked on the problem from the 1790s until his death in 1857. Cayley understood the basic principles of flight and constructed working models, perhaps even one that carried a human being aloft, and for this reason he is known as “the father of aeronautics.” But Cayley had a long tradition on which to build, and in many ways his genius lay in being able to bring together well-established science with the legends and dreams of flight.

While the foundations of heavier-than-air flight were being laid, lighter-than-air flight was progressing through the late 1700s. The Montgolfier brothers (one of many brother teams to be found throughout the history of aviation) made their historic flight in 1783, and the balloon soon found a successful military application when it was used by the French at the Battle of Fleurus to defeat the Austrians. As thrilling as balloon flight was, its main contribution was to whet the appetite of the aerialists for real controlled flight, a dream that would not be realized for a century.

The French balloon L’Entrepenant helps direct the French forces against the Austrians in the Battle of Fleurus, June 26, 1794. Messages are passed between the observers and the ground by the anchoring ropes.

Ancient Myths

Nearly all ancient cultures contain myths about flying deities. The gods of ancient Egypt, Minoa, and Mesopotamia were often depicted as having magnificent wings, and the Persian god of gods, Ahura Mazda, is depicted in the Palace of Darius I at Susa (about 490 B.c.) as being nearly all wings. The ancient Hebrews had traditions of placing wings on the seraphim and on the cherubim that were on the Ark of the Covenant, but neither they nor the ancient Greeks and Romans saw wings as an absolute necessity for flight. Greek gods flew without any visible means and biblical descriptions of angels (such as those who visited Abraham or the one who wrestled with Jacob) are not depicted as winged.

Wings on angels were not to become standard, in fact, until well into the Middle Ages. To the people of ancient civilizations, flying was the province of the gods; humankind’s place was on earth. For a human to don wings was an expression of the desire to become closer to the divine, but it was also seen as arrogant, a mere mortal’s attempt to usurp a prerogative of the gods. Two ancient myths demonstrate this ambivalence to flight: the tale of the Persian king Kai Kawus, who was said to have ruled around 1500 B.C., and the story of King Bladud of Britain (the supposed father of Shakespeare’s King Lear), who is supposed to have ruled about 850 B.C.

Winged flight was considered the province of the gods for most cultures, as illustrated by this relief (from the temple of Susa in ancient Babylonia) depicting winged sphinxes and the winged disc, emblem of the god Ahura Mazda.

According to a fable contained in the Book of Kings, - composed by the poet Ferdowsi in A.D. 1000, king Kai Kawus was tempted by evil spirits to invade heaven with the help of a flying craft. This craft consisted of a throne to the corners of which were attached four long poles pointing upward. Pieces of meat were placed at the top of; each pole and ravenous eagles were chained to the feet. As the eagles attempted to fly up to the meat, they carried the throne aloft. Inevitably, however, the eagles grew  tired and the throne came crashing down.

In Persian literature, Kai Kawus is known as “The Foolish King” (even though the legend has the eagle-propelled craft flying the king all the way to China). King Bladud’s motivation for attempting to fly seems to have been somewhat different: he was promoting magic and wizardry (and, perhaps, ingenuity) in the kingdom. Legend has it that the king donned large wings made of feathers and took flight over the city of Trinavantum (present-day London). As he twisted in the air, he lost his balance in mid-flight and came crashing down into the Temple of Apollo, in full view of his horrified subjects. Unlike Kai Kawus, however, Bladud remained a popular, if tragic, figure in British mythology.

The legend of Kai Kawus, the Persian king who was taken aloft on a throne lifted by eagles, was a favourite subject of folklore, as in this 1710 manuscript, in spite of the folly the king represented.

In China, there are many legends of emperors flying in chariots or with the use of wings. As early as 2200 B.C., the emperor Shun is reported to have escaped a burning tower  and later to have flown over his dominion with the aid of two large reed hats. Such hats are still worn in areas of China today and can be as much as three feet wide. Shun may well have been the first parachutist in history. Analogous figures can be found in the mythology of nearly every ancient civilization.

In Northern Europe Wayland the Smith was carried into the sky by a shirt made of feathers. In Africa Kibaga the warrior flew invisibly over his enemies and dropped rocks on them (the first mention of the possibility of aerial bombardment). He was finally killed when his adversaries  simply shot their arrows blindly in the air. These fables were meant as warnings that humans should not attempt to penetrate the heavenly realms,  literally or figuratively. No doubt these cautionary reminders fired the imagination of as many people as they intimidated.

Daedalus and Icarus

The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is no doubt the most famous of the ancient legends of flight. Many aspects of the legend are worth considering since they certainly influenced later generations of experimenters. In Greek mythology, Daedalus (Greek for “cunning artificer”) is an unusual figure: an Athenian architect and engineer with near-godlike intellectual powers. He is the mythical inventor of the axe and the saw, and was said by Plato to have constructed  mechanical statues of the gods so lifelike that they perspired under the hot Aegean sun and had to be restrained lest they run away.

Daedalus also invented various puzzles and gadgets that amazed onlookers, including a box that could be opened only by the sound of birdsong in perfect harmony. In time, Daedalus moved to Crete with his son, Icarus, and became the resident architect and inventor for the wealthy King Minos. His greatest public achievement was the design and creation of the dreaded Labyrinth, a maze built in the city of Knossos and said to be so cleverly crafted that once one entered the maze it was impossible to find one’s way out. In the center of the Labyrinth was the monstrous Minotaur, who was half-bull and half-man. Every year Minos sacrificed fourteen Athenian youths to this creature. Being an Athenian himself, this did not sit well with Daedalus. He supported Theseus, King of Attica, in his plot to overthrow Minos and shared with him the secret to finding one’s way out of the Labyrinth.

After Theseus killed the Minotaur, set fire to the palace, and escaped with the king’s daughter, Ariadne, Daedalus’ disloyalty was discovered and the king sent his soldiers to arrest him. Years earlier Daedalus had witnessed the witch Medea take flight in a chariot drawn by fiery dragons; since then, he had secretly .devoted himself to creating a mechanism that would allow him to fly. When he and Icarus arrived at Crete, they had set up a secret workshop in the cliffs overlooking the sea.

Daedalus spent many hours observing the silent gliding flight of the eagles that nested in the cliffs; he then experimented with many materials that might work for wings. Sail canvas was too heavy, silk and thin cloth were too weak. At last Daedalus came upon the obvious: why not construct the wings out of eagle feathers? The inventor was sad to be hunting the  magnificent birds, but he soon collected enough feathers to fashion wings with beeswax. Daedalus was about to begin testing his invention when word came that Minos’ men were coming to arrest him. He and Icarus quickly repaired to their secret cliff-side workshop and  donned their untested wings.

Daedalus instructed his son to fly at a middle altitude— high enough so that the ocean spray would not dampen the wings and make them too heavy; low enough so that the heat of the sun would not melt the wax that held the feathers together. With that they took off across the Aegean Sea, hoping to glide all the way to Sicily. The end of the story is well known to most Westerners. Icarus,  intoxicated with the thrill of flying, flew too high. The wax melted, his wings came apart, and he plunged to his death in the sea, near an island that was later named Ikaria in his honour. Crete does, in fact, have tall cliffs overlooking the sea, against which strong and persistent thermal updrafts are created by winds known as the Miltemi. Large gulls (the eagles, if there ever were any, are long gone) float and glide for long periods. Beginning with the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, many of the details of the leg- end of King Minos and the Labyrinth have been confirmed, bit by bit, and some historians (no less a figure than H.G. Wells, for example) have come to believe that the legend of Daedalus and Icarus has some basis in fact.

The Chinese and Their Rockets

Rocketry and space exploration are often included in histories of aviation, but there are only a few superficial points the two enterprises share. In both cases, a vehicle is used to transport a person or cargo above the surface of the earth. Sometimes vehicles that are rocket-propelled may also be airworthy, as in the case of the Space Shuttle. The skills and physical abilities of astronauts were, at least in the early stages of space flight, determined to be similar to those of test pilots. And NASA, the U.S. government agency that is responsible for the space program, grew directly out of NACA, the agency responsible for experimentation and research in atmospheric flight. But rocket flight is very different from aerial flight (different even from jet- propelled flight) and its place in the history of aviation is mainly in the early stages, when the distinction between the two was still blurred.

A rocket is simply a device in which an object—the payload—is propelled by the reactive effect of hot gasses exhausted in a specific direction. The faster the gas is spewed out in one direction, the heavier the payload can be and the faster it can be propelled in the opposite direction. The earliest rockets were almost certainly Chinese—there is little doubt that the Chinese first developed “black powder,” the basic propellant used in rockets. The combination of salt-peter, charcoal, and sulphur was probably used in fireworks by the Chinese centuries before Christ lived, but the only written records available are dated well into the Middle Ages. Mongols besieging the city of Kaifeng in 1232 used arrows propelled by rockets (though primarily as a psychological weapon).

Knowledge about rocketry seems to have moved with the Mongol invasions—the Arabs are seen as having developed rockets by the thirteenth century and are reported as having used them against Saint Louis in the Seventh Crusade; the Italians were experimenting with rockets by the fifteenth century. A major refinement in the formula for black powder was made in the thirteenth century by Roger Bacon; this resulted in the creation of gunpowder.

The British encounter with rockets in India led William Congreve to develop the Congreve rocket, the ancestor of the modern ballistic missile. The British used Congreve rockets during the War of 1812 (as “The Star-Spangled Banner” reminds us), and at the Battle of Waterloo.

LEFT: The ancient Chinese had a means of making a rocket propelled chair, as in this depiction of Emperor Wan-Ho blasting off, but whether or not they actually attempted this feat is uncertain!
The military uses of rocket power are depicted in this 15th century illustration of a blunderbuss. Bellifortis Manuscript

What is strangest about rockets when considered from the perspective of aviation is that, even though rockets were used extensively throughout history all over the world—and soldiers in the field who were exposed to rockets conjectured about what it might be like to “ride” one or have one strapped to one’s back—writers of fiction rarely used rockets as a means of transportation when they created stories about trips to the ½ Moon or to outer space until well into the nineteenth century.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde (The Other World), completed in 1662, is a notable exception. In it, Cyrano is carried to the Moon by a ship fitted with many rockets. But virtually all other writers used every conceivable device—from geese to cannons to spheres filled with dew—except rockets. Even Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, published in 1865, has space travellers flying to outer space in a capsule shot out of a cannon. This is why the remarkable 1881 drawings of Nikolai Kilbalchich of a crewed platform propelled by a battery of rockets, drawn literally moments before he was led to his execution for plotting against Tsar Alexander II (and thus not discovered until after the Russian Revolution in 1917), or Konstantin Tsiolkolvski’s 1883 drawings (published in 1903) of staged rockets with a crewed cockpit in the nose, were so revolutionary. Somehow, rockets drew people’s attention skyward but failed to inspire dreams of flight until humankind looked to conquer the stars themselves.

The Middle Ages

Roger Bacon

The first individual to write in what we would consider a serious, scientific way about the possibility of flight was Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk who lived from 1214 to 1292. Bacon was a prolific writer and devoted much energy to defending the power of reason and to ridiculing medieval scholasticism and the “magic of alchemy. Those who followed him look upon Bacon as a critically important step in humankind’s emergence from the ignorance of the Dark Ages; considering he had little support around him, he was probably one of the keenest minds of human history. In 1260, Bacon wrote a work on the superiority of reason called De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae (On the Marvellous Powers of Art and Nature). In it he suggests that human reason is so powerful that it could even manage to do something that seems utterly impossible, namely, build a machine that would enable a person to fly. The manuscript—which was not published for nearly three hundred years—then yields two incredible passages.

The first outlines two possible ways in which a person might fly. One is a rough description of what was later to become known as an ornithopter. The other is a more detailed description of a globe filled with “ethereal air.” Having demonstrated that air is a kind of fluid in which less dense objects might float like a ship floats on water, Bacon suggests methods of thinning the air in a globe that will give it buoyancy in air—more than five hundred years before lighter-than-air flight would become a reality. The second remarkable section is even more intriguing, for in it Bacon claims, “There is an an instrument to fly with, which I never saw, nor know any man that hath seen it, but  I full well know by name the learned man who invented the same.”

It is possible that Bacon is referring to his fellow Englishman, Eilmer (also known as Oliver) of Malmesbury, a monk who was the first of the so-called tower-jumpers—people who tried to fly by jumping off a high place with winglike contraptions connected to their arms or body. Most of these attempts ended in the death of the jumper, but Eilmer, who jumped in about 1010, some 250 years before Bacon, was reported to have glided about 250 yards (228.5m) and survived a bumpy landing (though he broke both his legs). Eilmer is immortalized in a stained glass portrait in the Malmesbury Abbey, holding his batlike wings (perhaps pre-flight, since he is standing rather erect). If Bacon meant a device used in his own day that flew successfully, it was certainly the best kept secret of the Middle Ages.

Leonardo da Vinci:Forgotten Genius

It is not possible to write a history of aviation without mentioning Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian artist and scientist who lived and worked in Florence in the late fifteenth century, even though fate dictated that he would have virtually no impact whatever on the development of flight. In spite of his brilliance, the world knew nothing  of his theoretical work in aviation for the simple reason that nearly none of his notes were published (or even known about) until the late 1800s. Unlike Bacon, whose influence lay mainly in his efforts to dispel the human fear of flying as an impossible or demonic activity, Leonardo was very secretive about his aviation research, committing his drawings and notes to paper in a mirror writing that would conceal his findings from most observers.

Leonardo discussed some things with his contemporaries (not many, since that could some times prove dangerous for a man like him), but it does not seem that anyone had any idea of his aeronautical musings. In all, Leonardo left behind a large body of work about flight: more than five hundred sketches and thirty-five thousand words. Much of his work involved the careful study of birds and of batlike wing sections. He realized that human physiology was not capable of birdlike flight, but he designed many ornithopters that required coordinated pedalling of arms and feet. Most of his conclusions about how birds fly were wrong, and these errors rendered most of his aircraft useless. Recent models based on Leonardo’s drawings have been built and flown for very short distances, but it is unlikely that the builders will be marketing kits very soon. Two aspects of Leonardo’s work are interesting, though.

First, he did realize that an aircraft would require a tail section to stabilize the flight. And, second, he conceived of a proto-helicopter that used a wide screw to lift itself into the air. The principle behind this device, the Archimedean screw, was known since antiquity and was used to transport water uphill or up from a well. Leonardo seems to have been the first to apply the mechanism to aviation. Here, too, however, the power was to be provided by a human being, making it a hopeless enterprise. Of his many designs, da Vinci made only one model: a miniature version of his helicopter. After he constructed the model, he wondered (in his notes) whether the machine would have to wait for the invention of a lighter power source than a human being to work. That no one tried anything remotely like any of the designs contained in his notebooks in the century after he died is evidence of how private this work was.

Leonardo da Vinci spent some forty years—his entire adult life—working on the problem of flight. His approach was to emulate birds, and these drawings reveal his careful anatomical studies of birds’ wings

Da Vinci’s genius is also apparent in his plan for a four-wing ornithopter that maximizes human muscle output, enabling the operator to mechanically flap wings via gears and pulleys. None of these drawings was known to anyone working on flight  until the late eighteenth