Sunday, January 04, 2015

Mythic Monday: The Boy Who Flew Too High

In the time before time, a desperate King searched for a way to trap the monster his wife created. An inescapable prison to hold a creature so terrifying and bloodthirsty the King couldn't keep it in his court, yet, being a canny and ruthless man, the King knew he could use his wife's monster to his advantage. 

And so, King Minos of Crete hired the most famous architect and inventor in the Athens to build his prison: his Labyrinth at Knossos, built to hold Asterion captive for his own bidding. 

Daedalus, a genius inventor famed throughout the Greek world for his ingenuity and architecture, designed and built the Labyrinth with his son, Icarus. But Daedalus was horrified and disgusted with the way Minos used his creation, demanding annual sacrifices and forcing the monster to consume human flesh, including the flesh of Daedalus' own countrymen and women. And so when Theseus arrived to destroy the Minotaur, Daedalus helps by giving Ariadne the ball of string and disclosing the secrets of escaping the center of the maze.

Unfortunately for Daedalus, King Minos was no fool. When Theseus escapes the inescapable prison, the King knew Daedalus is involved. Daedalus, however, was also no fool: he'd planned for all contingencies. He constructed wax-and-feather wings for both himself and Icarus, his son, to fly from Crete back to the mainland. Carefully, Daedalus fitted the wax wings to his son's arms and back, warning Icarus to fly neither too low, as waterlogged feathers won't fly, nor too high, as hot wax melts. 

Daedalus flew the middle path, gliding in a direct path between sea and sky exactly as he should, and arrived safely on the mainland. 

Icarus, full of both youthful exuberance, was overcome by the thrill of flight. He swooped to skim the water and soared higher and higher toward the sun...and melted the wax. His feathers lost, Icarus fell from heaven to drown in the sea.  

To this day, the place where he drowned is known as The Icarian Sea

Poor Icarus...the epitome of teenage recklessness gone wrong. 

A good number of Greek myths focus on the foolishness of ordinary humans trying to be like the Gods. For centuries (particularly in the Renaissance when all things Classical came back into fashion in Europe) Icarus was known as "the boy who flew too high." This isn't a reflection of his physical flight: the detrimental effects of hubris (defined most simply as excessive pride or defiance of the Gods) is a constant theme in Greek myth. To those who heard the story in ancient Greece, Icarus foolishly rose too high and paid the price: the fact that his father, who flew the middle path and survived, was the expected validation in a society often espousing the virtues of moderation and not tempting Fate or catching the attention of the Gods.

It's important to note that neither Daedalus nor Icarus had any God-touched qualities in any story I've found. These are not half-immortal men who gain the notice of the Gods through their blood and deeds. These are ordinary, creative, intelligent human beings (with nothing special other than Daedalus's masterwork in craftsmanship). That's key because the hubris theme is very often specific to pure humans: demi-gods (Herakles/Hercules) are EXPECTED to challenge the Gods and often suffer hardship because of it. Humans are generally punished swiftly and severely for pride and defiance. Icarus did defy his father's moderate advice, and he paid for it. 

Personally,  I think it's interesting that the focus of discussion and morality for this tale is always Icarus's youthful idiocy (seriously...do you know ANY teenagers who don't do foolish or reckless things, believing in their own immortality?). Is it possible Icarus's death was a sort of punishment for Daedalus's hubris, in creating both the Labyrinth AND the wings? I can interpret it both ways because both Icarus and Daedalus suffered, but historically the tragedy of Icarus's death is purely due to his impulse to fly as high as the Gods. 

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