I awoke this morning thinking, for some reason, about Icarus. My dreams were completely unrelated to the young lad out of Greek mythology, so why he would have been on mind was a mystery to me. Since mythology is one of the subjects I plan on featuring here regularly, though, it seemed that if nothing else, maybe Icarus could be the subject of a post here…
Do you know Icarus? He’s this unfortunate youngster:
In modern times, I feel that Icarus has become a sort of shorthand symbol for “pride” or “hubris”…but I don’t believe this is entirely accurate, and it may not be completely fair to the young man in question. Now, it could be that I just happen to have a soft spot for the kid — and I kind of do — but I’ll make my case as for why I believe Icarus is less the concept of hubris in human form, and more the embodiment of exhilaration, and the spirit of striving to surpass known limits (which, if done without ego, seems a much finer undertaking to me than something done out of pure ego-based pride)…
So first, a slight bit of background… Icarus was the young son of one of the most brilliant humans then walking the ancient Grecian landscape: an engineering genius named Daedalus. This Daedalus was in the employ of one King Minos of Crete — perhaps forcibly so, as Minos is never painted as the kindliest of fellows…? — and it was Daedalus who designed and built not only Minos’ spectacular palace, but also the baffling labyrinth within it that housed the monstrous Minotaur…also, according to many accounts, Talos, the great humanoid man of bronze who tirelessly patrolled the shores of Crete, destroying any and all foreign ships that dared to attempt landfall without Minos’ permission, was another construct of wizardly Daedalus.
As it happened, Daedalus managed — through events best left to another post, as they make up a pretty good tale in their own right — to torpedo his good standing with King Minos, who, in response, consigned the great engineer to miserable incarceration. Seeing no other way out of his predicament, Daedalus crafted two harnesses and attached to each one a set of great wings he’d fashioned from real bird feathers and wax, which would hold all the feathers in place. One of these “flight-suits” would be for himself, and the other was for his young son, Icarus (engineering may have been Daedalus’ main field of expertise, but he was no dunce when it came to human affairs, either, and he knew that with his own fate, so would rise and fall the fate of his son under the harsh thumb of Minos).
Now, it’s important at this juncture to point out that Icarus was 1) basically just a youth, maybe not even yet on the cusp of manhood; 2) never documented as being cut from the same superlative mental cloth as his old man; and 3) a total victim of circumstance — that is, he never asked to be in the position in which he soon found himself, and he did nothing whatsoever to bring it about. He was essentially just a wide-eyed kid caught up in events that were way beyond his control.
As the father and son duo were about to make their escape up into the sky, Daedalus cautioned his young son that while he would quite likely experience some temptation to fly higher and higher, possibly even rising up to heights so lofty as to be at a level with the great chariot of the Sun itself, piloted across the sky each day by the god Helios, it would be critical that Icarus resist such urges: flying too close to the Sun would cause the wax holding all the feathers of his wings together to melt, and Icarus would find himself suddenly wingless, flightless, and dropping like a stone toward a merciless collision with the surface of the ocean far below.
I probably don’t have to tell you how this all played out, but in short: Icarus took to the air, was immediately seduced by the unparalleled thrill of flight, raced up toward the Sun, lost his wings to its incinerating heat exactly as Daedalus had warned him he would, and plummeted to his death. His body eventually washed ashore, and was found and given burial by the great hero Heracles (more commonly known by his Roman name of Hercules…).
I ask you, though: did Icarus’ actions show overreaching pride? I really can’t see it that way, myself. Like I said above, he never set out to gain the ability to fly. He didn’t campaign for his father to build those wings, nor did he contrive to manipulate events so that Daedalus would have to do so. He was just an ordinary kid in a bad situation, given an extraordinary opportunity…and it turned out to be more than he was ready for. But is that some horrible crime? Should he be forever used as a symbol for hubris or a kind of mythic greed? I can’t get on board for that designation. I could come up with a few better possibilities for that role — Phaethon, for one, and the still-great-to-me-despite-his-pride hero, Bellerophon, for another, come to mind, and they, too, might wind up as focal points for subsequent posts here — but to bring this particular post on home, I’d like to close instead with a different way of viewing the myth of Icarus than just “He overstepped his bounds and got what he deserved!”
I think that maybe the most important element in the tale of Icarus is that the young lad extended the bounds of human achievement. He ascended higher into the sky than any human before him, and in so doing, he brought humanity as a whole along for the ride. Before his landmark flight, no one had really flown at all, so it would have been necessary to say “Humans can’t fly.” The instant Icarus used his father’s wings to climb up into the airy reaches above, though, revisions to that statement would have become necessary — the truth would then absolutely be that “Humans can fly — and in fact, humans can nearly embrace the Sun…” In an act that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud, Icarus kissed the sky…and through him, so did we all.
And it doesn’t matter that he couldn’t maintain that state — he was just a boy, for crying out loud, not a Deity, so how could he? — but like the Wright Brothers or Charles Lindbergh or Neil Armstrong, who all also strode purposefully up into the sky, and thereby extended the scope of what our species can do, Icarus, for one brief, shining moment, took us up with him to the Sun. And if you can see it that way…we’ve been there ever since…