The myth of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun

Icarus

Icarus – Origin story and death | Image: Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637)

Icarus is a tragic character in Greek mythology whose undoing and ultimate death came after he flew too close to the Sun, completely disregarding the warning of his father Daedalus. The Icarus story was the ancient Greek’s and Roman’s way of symbolizing the repercussion of hubris, overconfidence, uncalculated risk-taking, over ambition, disobedience and recklessness. In modern times, the story has been alluded to or discussed by a number of poets, philosophers, writers, business executives, and psychologists.

Here is everything you need to know about the story of Icarus, an ancient Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun.

Family and apprenticeship

In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of renowned master craftsman Daedalus. In the myths, there is hardly any mention of Icarus’ mother. However, in some sources, a woman known as Naucrate is said to be the mother of Icarus. Icarus’ family hails from Athens; however he and his father serve as the chief engineers of the King Minos Crete. Icarus works in his father’s workshop as an apprentice, learning quite a great deal from a master craftsman like Daedalus.

Icarus and his father Daedalus construct the Labyrinth

Icarus, together with his father, Daedalus, the famous Athenian craftsmen, is credited with building the Labyrinth to hold the ferocious Minotaur. According to ancient Roman poet Virgil (in the book the Aeneid), the lower half of the body of the Minotaur is beastlike, while the upper part is a man. However, in some other accounts, it is the other way round. | Image: The Minotaur in the Labyrinth, engraving of a 16th-century AD gem in the Medici Collection in the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

In the myth, Icarus is born to a well-known Athenian engineer called Daedalus, the man who famously constructed the puzzling Labyrinth to contain the ferocious Minoan Minotaur. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Minotaur, a part man and part bull creature, was born out of the union between Minos wife, Pasiphae, and the Cretan Bull.

The Minotaur, a part man and part bull creature, was born after King Minos of Crete’s wife Pasiphaë mated with the Cretan Bull. For many years, the ferocious monster terrorized the people. The creature’s reign of terror subsided after King Minos commanded Icarus and his father to build a very complex maze-like labyrinth so that the beast could be locked in there.

The Minotaur is a mythical creature of ancient Greek era. Described as half-man half bull, the creature feeds only on human flesh to sustain itself/himself. Ultimately the monster is held up in an intricately designed maze-like structure, i.e. the Labyrinth. Image: Pasiphaë and her half-human half-bull son, the Minotaur, Attic red-figure kylix found at Etruscan Vulci in Italy. Now exhibited at Cabinet des Médailles, Paris

How Icarus and his father aided Theseus in slaying the Minotaur

Icarus story in ancient Greek mythology | Image: Daedalus, Icarus, Queen Pasiphaë, and two of her attendants in a Roman mosaic from Zeugma, Commagene

To keep the Minotaur alive, King Minos fed the beast with seven Athenian boys and seven maidens on a yearly basis. That arrangement would continue until Athenian hero and son of King Aegeus volunteered to slay the beast. On his way to Crete, King Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell heads over heels for Theseus. The young princess even offered to help Theseus in his quest. Ariadne had received a ball of thread from Icarus and Daedalus. The thread had been produced by the father and son to help anyone brave enough to face the Minotaur at the center of the Labyrinth. Using the thread, Theseus was able to retrace his way out of the Labyrinth after he had killed the monster.

The thread produced by Icarus and his father Daedalus proved invaluable in Theseus quest to slay the Minotaur. The Athenian hero is said to have vanquished the monster with his bare hands and a very powerful club. | Image: Theseus Fighting the Minotaur, 1826, by Jean-Etienne Ramey, marble, Tuileries Gardens, Paris, France

Icarus and Daedalus get imprisoned

How ironic is that Icarus and his father end up imprisoned in the very structure that they built? King Minos was completely livid after the Theseus had killed the Minotaur. First of all, as ferocious as the creature was, Minos still had some soft for the beast, considering the fact that it was his wife’s offspring. Second, the death of the Minotaur meant that Minos could no longer exert that much influence and control over the Athenians. Thus no longer did the Athenians have to send seven girls and seven boys to their death at the hands of the Minotaur.

Therefore it came as no surprising that when Minos heard of how Icarus and his father aided Theseus’ quest, the king immediately ordered the imprisonment of father and son.

In some accounts, Icarus and his father are imprisoned in the highest building on the island of Crete. King Minos does this so that the father and son can never again disclose the secrets of the labyrinth that they built.

Icarus and his father build two pairs of wings

Rather than resign themselves to the deplorable and completely hopeless situation they found themselves in, Icarus and his father Daedalus set out to break free from their prison. Daedalus, a man whose engineering prowess knew no bounds, designed and built two pairs of wings made out of wood, wax and feathers. Icarus and Daedalus obtained the wood from the wooden window frame; the wax from the candles that lit up their cell; and the feathers from the birds that perched near their cell window.

Once completed, those two pair of gigantic wings became Daedalus and Icarus’ ticket out of prison. Rather than try to navigate through the very elaborate maze-like structure, Icarus and his father would take to the sky and put a lot of distance between themselves and King Minos.

Daedalus makes his way out of prison with the wings that he fashioned out | Image Daedalus escapes (iuvat evasisse) by Johann Christoph Sysang (1703-1757)

Daedalus’s warning to his son

Once the wings were constructed, Daedalus tried his first. However, before the craftsman flew out of the Labyrinth, he warned Icarus not to fly too close to the surface of sea, nor too close to the sun. He could not have made his warning clearer enough to Icarus, insisting that it was of absolute importance that Icarus flew in the same path that he took.

Icarus soars too close to the sun

The Sun, or the Fall of Icarus (1819) by French painter Merry-Joseph Blondel, in the Rotunda of Apollo at the Louvre

As expected the two wings worked perfectly well, sending Icarus and his father up into the sky. As the two men reached cruising altitude, the younger gradually began to get carried away by the whole flying thing. Icarus also got complacent and started straying away from his father’s path. He had completely forgotten the warning of his father.

The death of Icarus

Icarus in Greek mythology | In the myth, Icaris’ father Daedalus could not do anything to save Icarus from drowning in what is now the Icarian Sea. Image: A 16th century print of Icarus falling into the sea.

By the time Daedalus could turn back to warn Icarus, the latter had already reached too close to the sun. The wax that held the wings that Icarus was flying with instantly melted. No sooner had he touched the surface of the sun than did he begin to tumble down to earth. Icarus crashed straight into the sea and subsequently drowned.

The Island of Icaria in Greece

Overcome by sheer grief, Daedalus went on to name the island closest to the spot where Icarus drowned to his death Icaria. Also spelled Ikaria, the Greek island of Icaria lies southwest of another Greek island called Samos. And did you know that the archeologists estimate that the island has been inhabited since 7500 BC? In ancient Greek times, the Icaria was home to the Temple of Artemis at the northwest coast of the island. In 1521, about 70 years after Constantinople fell (in 1453) to the Ottoman Turks, Icaria became part of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. It was not until the early 1910s that Icaria became independent and then later became part of the Kingdom of Greece. The then Ottoman Sultanate recognized Greece’s annexation under the Treaty of London in 1913.

Icarus and Heracles

In some accounts of the myth, the Greek hero cum demigod Heracles (also known as Hercules in Roman mythology) happened to witness the young boy Icarus fall to his death. Heracles then fetched Icarus’ body out the sea and gave him the necessary burial rites. As time passed, the surrounding area of Icarus’ burial site came to be known as the island Icaria.

More on the Icarus story and meaning

Under command of King Minos of Crete, the Minotaur was Contained at the center of the Labyrinth – an elaborate maze-like construction built by the Athenian craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus. | Image: Athenian hero Theseus and the Minotaur

It is quite often the case that whenever the Icarus myth is discussed, alluded to or interpreted, there is a great tendency to forget that Icarus was vehemently warned not to fly too close to the sea lest his wings get ruined by the seawater. We famous idiom like “not flying too close the sun”, it’s no wonder writers tend to focus on the disastrous consequences of overconfidence, complacency and hubris.

The popularity of Icarus’ myth has often been alluded to by authors and poets since ancient Greek era. Some of the notable poets include Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, also known as Ovid, and Gaius Julius Hyginus. The former includes Icarus’ story in the famous Metamorphoses, written in 8 AD.

Modern writers like English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton took some amount of inspiration from the Icarus’ myth.

During the Renaissance Era, some authors and artists associated Icarus with water. Also it was used to caution people, institutions, and countries to desist from being overly ambitious or trying to defy limitations in a reckless manner.

American poet Anne Sexton referenced the Icarus myth in her work “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph”. Similarly, British poet and playwright Carol Ann Duffy produced a work titled “Mrs Icarus”.

American author and business executive Seth Godin states in his 2012 book The Icarus Deception of how not only flying too low in terms of ambition can be as dangerous or even more dangerous than flying too high. Godin opined that flying too low puts one in a misleading feeling of comfort and safety.

Lesson and moral from the story

An unchecked risk-taker unlike his dad who did not make risk taking the end in itself. Daedalus took calculated risk to attain his goal – breaking free from prison. On the contrary, Icarus somehow got lost in thrill of flying and could not properly check his appetite for risk taking.  Rather than making it safely, Icarus flew from bondage straight to his death.

The Icarus myth teaches that at extreme levels traits that Icarus possessed could be disastrous from anyone soaring. If one is not careful, traits such as optimism, independence, imagination, and risk-taking, the very traits that helped Icarus fly out of bondage, could be one’s undoing.  Icarus’ overconfidence and wild imagination are the very things that sent him tumbling down to his death in the Icarian Sea. In modern times, those traits have been referred to as the Icarian traits or in some case the Icarus Complex in psychology.

The Icarian traits in management and business

In management, some writers have related those Icarian traits to the hubris theory of entrepreneurship, which explains the tendency of many overly confident and creative businesses and startups in general get drawn to too risky ventures like a moth to a flame. Self-help book writers, business consultants and therapists best advice to keeping the Icarian Complex at check is to be alert manner, be more willing to engage and properly understanding one’s environment.

In politics

In politics, the Icarus Syndrome, developed by American author Peter Beinart, talks about how Americans often tend to be overconfident about our nation’s foreign policy only for us to suffer the consequences those decisions in the near future.

Read More: Top 10 Greek Heroes and their Achievements in Greek Mythology

Conclusion

Although Icarus is a minor character in Greek mythology, his story is full to brim of very important moral that for many centuries have featured in art and literature across the Western world and beyond.

The Icarus story is not only a profound way of describing how when ambition mismatched with our limitations could spell doom for us, but it also strikes at the core of what makes us human. Human beings have innate tendency to thrive and be more; without that desire, our civilization as whole might not have made the progresses that we see today.

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