11 April 2011


In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus. Daedalus (contrary to the old Hercules cartoon I grew up with), was not an arch-villain, but an inventor, a genius, really. He built the maze for Minos when the king needed somewhere to hide the evidence of Queen Pasiphae's bestial transgression, the minotaur. And when Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the maze, Daedalus made wings for himself and his son so they could escape.

The legend goes that Icarus, enraptured by his ability to fly, flew too close to the sun. The heat melted the wax that held the wings together, and Icarus fell to his death.

All it takes is one good shove.
Initially, Icarus's story represented failed ambition, or the fall that inevitably follows hubris, the ancient Greek concept of arrogance so intense that one loses touch with reality. In terms of sacred iconography, according to Kristina at The World According to Kristina, Icarus represents the destruction and annihilation by fire that is necessary for spiritual rebirth. Kristina argues that the Icarus myth leaves out the renewal that follows burning by fire and immersion in water after the fall. So in warning people not to fly too high, the Icarus myth could be viewed as a technique of control: this is what happens if you try; this is what happens if you follow your inspiration. (Which in turn makes everyone too afraid to even try.)

It probably would have stayed that way if not for the rise of the individual throughout the centuries that followed - a cultural trend that meant that no one really wanted to believe that "pride goeth before the fall."

What helped the recasting of Icarus along was a totally amazing and remarkable painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, called "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus," in which the momentous event is rendered almost irrelevant against the scene of everyday normal life. This is a complete reimagining of the myth.

Where's Icarus? (Click to enlarge)
Building on Bruegel's triumph, twentieth-century poets rendered the Icarus myth into something quite different: a celebration of the continuity surrounding this disaster. My favourite of these poems is W.H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts."

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(Poem, painting, and commentary.)


Annie Neugebauer said...

I love this post! Love the story of Icarus, the painting, and the poem. I had read/seen them before, but this brought them again to the forefront of my mind. And plus, I just love the name "Icarus." Reminds me of Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow.

jkraus8464 said...

Just love your posts about mythology. Icarus was one of my favorite stories. Beautiful images.

Dafeenah said...

Loved this post. Mythology is one of my favorite things to read and learn about. Thanks so much for sharing this!!


Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Mythology is cool and the story of Icarus is one that's always stuck in my mind. Thanks for the extra details :)

Anonymous said...

I love Greek mythology. Thanks for this post.


Marsha A. Moore said...

This is one of my favorite myths. Thanks for your lovely visit back to that tale.

Anonymous said...

Great post, it kept me hooked throughout. Loving what you're doing with this challenge!

Ellie Garratt said...

Fascinating post! There is so much about mythology I don't know.

Ellie Garratt

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy the story of Icarus. Very cool post


Unknown said...

Are we not all angels that must loose our wings and fall to earth? Even Luc-ifer had to make this journey... as all sould so...

So many myths have been distorted, so we will lose the original Way...