By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Icarus is one of the most famous tales from Greek myth. The tale is often interpreted as being fundamentally about the dangers of hubris, with Icarus’ flight a metaphor for man’s overreaching of his limits (and coming to a sticky end as a result). But does the story really mean that? In order to determine the true meaning of the Icarus myth, let’s delve into it a little more.
Summary of Icarus story
Icarus was the son of Daedalus, the craftsman who built the Labyrinth (which featured in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur which we’ve discussed in a previous post). But after Daedalus aided Ariadne by telling her how Theseus could escape the Labyrinth he’d designed, King Minos locked Daedalus and his son, Icarus, inside the maze.
Ever the inventor, Daedalus fashioned some wings out of feathers and wax, for him and his son to use to fly their way off the island of Crete. They escaped and flew up into the sky. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun; however, Icarus got carried away and promptly did just that, upon which the wax in his wings melted. He fell to his death, drowning in the sea surrounding the island of Samos, a sea which is now named after him. Daedalus reached Cumae and then took refuge at Camicos on the isle of Sicily.
Analysis of Icarus story
Now, of course, Icarus’ name is a byword for one of the Greeks’ most favourite themes: hubris, or overreaching oneself. Icarus thought he could keep flying closer and closer to the sun, higher and higher away from the ‘surly bonds of earth’ (to quote John Gillespie Magee’s poem ‘High Flight’), without suffering any adverse effects. But of course, he soon discovered otherwise, and plummeted to his death.
In his 1938 poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, W. H. Auden addresses the Icarus myth via a painting often attributed to Brueghel the Elder: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (pictured below right) shows the tiny white legs of Icarus plummeting into the ‘green water’ of the Aegean, while a ploughman carries on with his business and a nearby ‘expensive delicate ship’ (which must have witnessed the tragedy) sails calmly on.
Auden’s poem, and the original painting, suggest, on the one hand, that the tragedy is not some great event but something that went unobserved or unremarked by those who witnessed it; but on the other hand, such an interpretation reinforces the point of the myth, which is about man’s smallness and the dangers of his overreaching himself. As T. E. Hulme would put it in his ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, man may fly up, but he must come back down again.
How did Icarus die, though? Did he ‘really’ fly too close to the sun? That depends on which version you read. Obviously an Icarus almost certainly never existed in the first place, and if he did, he never flew, but written accounts of the fictional story of Icarus vary in terms of their details, as Pierre Grimal notes in his entry for ‘Icarus’ in The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary).
Among the detractors from the ‘flying Icarus’ version of the story is Palaephatus, an ancient Greek author who wrote a fascinating book rationalising the classical myths, On Incredible Tales.
Palaephatus argues that the myth of Daedalus and Icarus ‘flying’ arose because of the speed with which they fled the Labyrinth (in a ship, by sea): their ‘flight’ from Crete was metaphorical, rather than literal. However, they capsized, and although Daedalus survived, Icarus drowned.
Other writers, attempting to rationalise the fanciful story of men flying, included Cleidemus and Diodorus, the latter of whom maintained that Icarus was killed while disembarking from the boat he took to escape Crete. The tradition of euhemerism – in other words, seeking rational and real-life origins or explanations for well-known mythical stories – is a long-established one, and almost as fascinating as the myths themselves.
What’s more, some of them, such as the idea that the story of the Golden Fleece arose from real practices which involved panning for gold using wool, seem plausible enough and may carry at least a grain of truth, much as religious writers of the past sought to explain natural phenomena with reference to divine beings.
That said, most writers of the classical era stick with the most familiar version: that Icarus and Daedalus literally did fly, and that Icarus died when he flew too close to the sun. Ovid recounts the story at some length in his Metamorphoses.
But of course, the problem is not man attempting to fly at all: Daedalus successfully does it in Ovid’s version, as well as the other mainstream accounts of the myth. Nor, perhaps, is Icarus’ overreaching himself really the ‘moral’ of the tale. As Randall Munroe of xkcd wittily put it, ‘I’ve never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.’
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.