Happy New Year, Icarus

Or ‘Play with the sun and get burned: why the tale of Icarus is the worst Greek myth.’


In an alternate world, I would be able to recite the tales of the Greek heroes like they were anecdotes from my own life. I’d describe Jason’s plight with the precision of one of the Argonauts, I’d know the twelve labours of Heracles by heart, and I would recount the dipping of Achilles into the River Styx as if I had done it myself.

But as hard as I try, I just get myself caught up in the gods and the demigods and the mortals, and who’s related to who and who they’re supposed to be fighting or saving or whatever else is supposed to be happening. So instead I marvel at the idea even if I don’t necessarily understand. What difference does it make, though? I can grasp some of the concepts they present. I know that Pandora opens the box she shouldn’t have and that her curiosity releases envy, sickness, hate, and disease to the world. Curiosity kills the cat. King Midas wishes that everything he touches turns to gold and he ends up turning his daughter into a golden statue. Be careful what you wish for. Narcissus thought himself so beautiful that his enemy had him look into a pool, where he was captivated by his own reflection and drowned. Don’t be vain.

But my absolute favourite is the tale of Icarus and Daedalus. Icarus is the reckless daredevil whose tragic demise serves to remind us of the dangers of hubris and complacency. The message is simple; do not ignore your limitations.

It fascinates me. Because it’s so wrong.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll fill you in. Icarus is trapped on the island of Crete with his father, Daedalus. Daedalus crafted two sets of fake wings by adhering feathers onto a wooden frame with wax, which would allow them to escape from the island. With explicit instruction, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, for the heat would melt the wax holding the wings together, and also not to fly too close to the sea, as the sea spray would clog the wings. Daedalus straps the wings to his back, jumps from the tower, and glides across to the mainland. Icarus was told to follow his father’s path through the air, but the sudden rush of excitement and the giddiness of being able to fly was too enthralling for Icarus. He forgot his father’s instructions and soared higher and higher, level with the sun. For a brief moment, he looked like an angel, his silhouette gilded in the golden sun’s rays. But as his father warned, the wax melted, the feathers fell, and Icarus was left flapping in the air with nothing but a wooden board strapped to his back. Icarus suffered the consequences; he plunged from those heady heights, sinking to his death in the icy depths of the Icarian Sea (where do you think the name comes from?).

It’s meant to represent failure at the hands of hubris. His pride, overconfidence, and the overestimation of his own ability was Icarus’s downfall. They tell it to kids, to remind them to do as they are told. To listen to their parents.

But why is hubris a vice? Why is there a beauty in failure? Why didn’t anyone stand on the ground and cheer when Icarus dared to fly higher and higher? Why does the tale of Icarus end with a smug smile and ‘I told you so’?

The only thing poor Icarus is guilty of is dreaming too big. With the right tools, he thought he could do anything. He strapped the wings to his back and thought he was invincible. He ignored his limitations, he ignored everything people told him he couldn’t do, and when he was in the air, he thought he could reach the sun. They said he couldn’t; he thought he could. Why should anyone set limits to Icarus’s dreams?

That should be the real moral to the tale- don’t let them tell you how high you can fly. Don’t let Daedalus dictate your path.

(The Fall of Icarus goes on to explore poor Daedalus, whose own creation killed his son, and that’s the most harrowing part, but that’s a story for another day.)

But the tale isn’t really about what Icarus thinks he can and cannot do, it is about what he is capable of. His wings were not prepared to withstand the blazing heat of the sun- Icarus can dream all he likes but the fact is simple; he was never going to reach the sun. That’s the message we are supposed to get from the tale. It is never about Icarus, he’s just a character that’s given a name and a backstory to get us more involved, it is about the wings and the restriction they present. But it’s ridiculous and it just never makes sense.

Sure, a car with a 1.2L engine will never go 200mph. £50 will never buy you a Gucci dress. By that logic, wings made of wax will never get you to the red-hot sun. But in all the situations, it just takes a little bit more work. Improve the engine to go faster. Work more, save more, to get the dress. Find something else to build your wings from. (Put in a little effort, Icarus. Don’t sit back and let your dad do all the work. Sure, it’ll help you get off the ground, but you’ll never get any further.)

There are limitations; the wings that represent freedom would never let Icarus explore the bottom of the ocean (although, it was the failure of the wings that led him to the depths of the sea so maybe he was just aiming for the wrong thing). Wings chain you to the sky and feet chain you to the floor and gills chain you to the sea.

But that didn’t stop Icarus.

And it shouldn’t stop us, either. It’s resolution season, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I’m not making resolutions, I never stick to them’. I was one of them. (The only resolution I’ve ever made and stuck to is to never watch Loose Women, which is a novelty resolution, really, and I only succeeded since I screamed at the telly every time I caught a glimpse of it.) But this year, I’m making resolutions and I won’t think about how much work it will take to change, how I won’t achieve them.

Perhaps, subconsciously, this is where this blog post comes from. I don’t do lifestyle posts (and I’m not a ‘pep-talk’ person AT ALL) but I thought, why not? I’ve got a blog. I’ve written a post. Let’s see what happens, and if, like Icarus, it completely fails- at least I tried it out.

Let’s forget about how far we can fall if we try to reach the sun. Let’s have enough self-confidence to believe that we can do it. Let’s strap on those wings and see what we can achieve.

We should all aim to be a bit more like Icarus; never afraid to dream too big. So if the Fall of Icarus teaches us anything, it is that we should not accept our limitations, but defy them. And if the wings aren’t good enough, build better ones.

(Or redefine success. Fly at night amongst the stars.)

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