Who was Icarus in Greek Mythology?
Icarus was the son of the famous craftsman Daedalus, the creator of the Labyrinth of Crete, where the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull creature lived, and the hallow wooden bull Pasiphae used to mate the Cretan Bull. Icarus and Daedalus attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that Daedalus built from feathers and wax.
In the area that I grew up in, Greek mythology was never something that featured in schools, but the first story I was taught, was that of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the Sun.
Icarus has quite a minor role in Greek mythology’s grander scale, but there’s no doubt that he’s become an iconic figure and his stories still told and retold to this day. It’s likely that even if your knowledge of Greek mythology is limited, you would have heard the story of Icarus or at least know the name.
Today, we’ll be going over the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, as we attempt to understand why the story has become so popular and what exactly it means.
The Story of Icarus and Daedalus
The story takes us to the island of Crete during the rule of King Minos. Minos had the problem of where he would house the Minotaur as he ran rampant through his kingdom. To solve this issue, he enlisted the help of Daedalus, a master craftsman who had previously arrived in Crete after being exiled from Athens.
Daedalus was instructed to create a large labyrinth that was capable of holding the Minotaur. Minos was so pleased with Daedalus’ work that his status and position began to grow as he went from a slave to a valued member of Minos’ Kingdom.
The downfall of Daedalus began with the arrival of the Athenian hero, Theseus. With the help of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, and Daedalus himself, he was able to slay the Minotaur and return from the labyrinth.
Theseus then sailed back to Athens with both of the Kings daughters. Naturally, Minos was infuriated by the actions of Daedalus and his daughter, conspiring against him with the Athenians. But with his daughter gone, the blame fell solely on Daedalus.
Rather than lose his priced craftsman, Minos decided against the execution of Daedalus. Instead, he locks both Daedalus and his son Icarus away in the labyrinth that they created. There are some variants sources that suggest they were locked away in a tower, but I prefer the irony that has been locked away in a prison that you designed.
Having designed the labyrinth, Icarus and Daedalus were aware that escape for most would be impossible. Still, Daedalus was not most men, and the master craftsman began surmising a plan for his son and himself to escape.
Aware that they would have to leave Crete forever, Daedalus planned to do so through the sky, as there would be no chance of escaping Minos’s Navy. Daedalus knew that he would have to construct a method of flying, but this was no easy task, as a manned flight had never been undertaken before.
It was thought that one morning, a flock of birds flew over the head of Daedalus, and he was instantly inspired, asking Icarus to collect all the feathers he could. Just like the birds he had just seen, Daedalus would build wooden frames in the shape of wings. When Icarus had amassed the required feathers, they were glued to the wooden frames using hot wax.
Once Daedalus had crafted two pairs of wings, he carefully warned Icarus, telling him that the wings had many flaws and flying too high in the sky would cause the wax that he used as glue to melt. But flying too close to the sea would cause the feathers to soak up the excess seawater, making them too heavy to fly.
The following day, Icarus and Daedalus decided that they would attempt to finally escape Crete. The two lept in the air and began flapping their wings—the invention of Daedalus had worked, and both he and Icarus soared through the sky as they escaped Crete without being noticed.
The Downfall of Icarus
The further they flew, the more Icarus grew in confidence, but his confidence soon turned into overconfidence. Icarus was so overwhelmed by the feeling of flying that he believed he now knew what it felt like to be a god, and in his newfound divinity, he disregarded his father’s warnings.
He flew higher and higher, as his father Daedalus could only watch him fly closer to the Sun. The wax on Icarus’ wings began to melt, and the feathers attached to wooden frames began to drop off.
When Icarus had finally realized how high he had flown, it was already too late as he began to plummet, holding onto his bare wooden frame the wings for dear life. Daedalus could do nothing but watch as Icarus plunged into the sea, dying upon impact.
The area of water Icarus landed in would be known as the Icarian Sea, and the island where his body washed up would also be named Icaria, in memory of Icarus.
In most variations of the story, after watching his son die, Daedalus flew to safety, where King Minos would begin his search for the craftsman as he would not let him work for anyone else. The hero Heracles witnessed Icarus’ death and recognized him as the son of Daedalus, and he then performed the funeral rites the Daedalus could not.
The Morals of the Story of Icarus
Over the years, people have taken dozens of meanings and morals away from the story of Icarus. On a very basic level, the story essentially tells us to listen to our elders, but as we delve deeper, the story means so much more.
It highlights the carelessness of youth and some of the consequences that it may bring. We see Daedalus, in his experience, maintain level-headed while fly-in, whereas Icarus is overwhelmed and somewhat loses control, disregarding everything he was told and leading to his death.
You could also see the death of Icarus as the god’s punishing Daedalus and his son—in the eyes of the gods, men were never meant to fly, and as an attempt to elevate themselves to the level of the gods, Icarus was killed. Daedalus faced a lifetime of guilt and regret.
The story teaches us to remain level-headed and somewhat warns against the pursuit of instant gratification. Icarus could have listened to his father, and once they were safe, he could have experienced the feeling of flying many more times, but he was unable to see the long-term picture, only concerned by how good it felt now in the present, and he was punished for doing so.
The fall of Icarus is a tragic but also a necessary tale of moderation and caution.
Image Sources: mopeydecker, andrianart.