Re-Interpreting Icarus and Phaethon.

icarusWe have, most all of us, heard at some point or another in our lifetimes, the mythological story of Icarus.

The son of the master-inventor Daedalus, he fashioned wings of wax and feathers for them both to escape from the island of Crete where they were being held by King Minos. It was Daedalus who designed and built for Minos, the legendary maze of the Minotaur. In the story, Daedalus warns Icarus thus:

The fall of Icarus by René Milot
The fall of Icarus by René Milot

“Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them.”

For a start, I find this is a minor difference, but it is important that unlike our common version that is shared around, he never says “stay away from the sun”, merely to be careful of how high or low his flight. Icarus of course, was so taken, so enraptured by the feeling of flying that he flew heedlessly higher and higher, until the heat of the sun was so great that the wax holding his wings together melted and now wingless, poor Icarus plummeted to his end.

The Fall of Phaethon
The Fall of Phaethon

A very similar story from ancient mythology is that of Phathon, son of the Roman Sun-God. He was offered a boon by his father, something he would grant no matter what – Phatheon in his turn asked to be permitted to ride the great “Chariot of the Sun” and disregarding all pleas and worries that were put to him, went ahead and rode the chariot. Sadly his ride was too short, the stallions too powerful and wild and the poor fellow lost control and the result was much damage to the Earth below and eventually Jupiter himself (the Roman analogue of Zeus) had to use his lightening bolts and kill Phatheon before they could stop the destruction.

A far greater cost than was paid by Icarus, but the two tales are often held up side-by-side as examples of the same thing: trying to go where you are not meant to go.

For most people the lesson they take away from the Icarus story in particular, is one of hubris vs. humility and being able to put other things aside and take the middle path – the one neither too high or too low, neither utterly self-absorbed nor foolishly selfless.

I suppose we take to this so easily because apart from being a fairly obvious assessment of the stories moral, it is also a concept that a lot of people can – at least intellectually – relate to in their own mind. There is something to be said for taking the “safe” road because in the end it is a balanced approach to things and often a product of equal parts rationality and emotion.

Even the great Aristotle, one of the pillars of philosophy, held moderation in high regard as a virtue. Specifically he did so in his idea of “The golden mean” which was a way to represent the balance between extremes, i.e.,  courage would be the middle between cowardice and recklessness.

There is even a school of thought I have come across that holds the idea that Icarus’ journey sky-ward was representative of the quest for ultimate knowledge, with the Sun symbolising the highest ideal, i.e., God. In this line, Icarus approached too close to the sun and in essence tried to know as much as or simply become equal to God and his demise was the punishment for his affront.

Personally, being of a nature not prone to agreeing with most of the conventional and “normal” assumptions of “God” and the unexplainable, I tend to disregard that theory as just more dogma to keep alive the fear of divinity and suppression of knowledge and its pursuit.

In the end, I find that while the first and most common interpretation of hubris v. humility is not wrong, there is a dual lesson here. In this regard there is no better way to put forth the idea than with the epitaph supposedly enscribed on Phatheons tomb:

Here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god’s chariot fared.
And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.

– Edith Hamilton, MYTHOLOGY: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes

For me these stories show foolishness, they show a certain amount of self-delusion even – but the other aspect that often gets tossed aside or ignored is that of daring and dreaming.

The Flight of Icarus by Garbiel Picart
The Flight of Icarus by Garbiel Picart

The heights of human achievement, the pinnacles of our development throughout history, has too often been achieved by those deemed heretical, crazy, foolish or just plain day-dreamers. That is not to say it is the only way, there are many who have simply worked hard and left their marks in the annals of history – but the ones that shine the brightest, the ones that we keep going back to are the ones who bucked the trend, who were told their own limits and that of the world and chose willingly to ignore that sane advice and aim for the sun or dive toward the oceans deep. Many blazed bright and burned out or crashed to Earth too soon or even dove too low and were taken by the darker side of ourselves – yet the mark left by them is undeniable.

So while it is good to be careful, it is good to be prudent and rational and think about what one is doing, it can be just as important to see a moment for what it can be and fly in the face of reason – to dive headlong or soar dangerously high.

The hard part of course, is realising when to stop and return to the safer path or even to heed those close to us calling us back from the edge – but sometimes it can be so very worth the risk.

What do you think? Do you agree with me or feel I’m reading something into this that should not be so?


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