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Definition: Icarus from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Greek mythology, the son of Daedalus, who with his father escaped from the labyrinth in Crete by making wings of feathers fastened with wax. Icarus plunged to his death when he flew too near the Sun and the wax melted.

Summary Article: Icarus
from Dictionary of Classical Mythology

Son of the supreme inventor and craftsman DAEDALUS, borne to him by a slave-girl while he was living at the court of MINOS, king of Crete. When Theseus came to Crete to kill the Minotaur, Daedalus provided the thread that helped him to escape from the Labyrinth once the deed was done. This enraged Minos so much that he imprisoned Daedalus himself in the Labyrinth, and Icarus with him. But Minos’ wife Pasiphae released them, and Daedalus, brilliant inventor that he was, fashioned wings of wax and feathers in which he and his son could fly to freedom. While fitting these ingenious wings to Icarus, he gave him careful instructions on how to fly safely: he must keep midway between earth and heaven, neither too low, where the sea-spray might weigh down his wings, nor too high, where the flaming sun might scorch them. When they took off, Daedalus watched his son as anxiously as any parent bird its fledgeling.

At first all went well as they flew far out over the sea, but then Icarus was fatally overtaken by the joy of flying freely through the air. Forgetting his father's warnings, he let his wings lift him higher and higher and soared towards the sun. At last he came so close that the wax of his wings melted in the heat, the feathers parted and he plummeted headlong into the sea below, still calling for his father as the waters engulfed him. The stricken Daedalus retrieved his body and buried it on a nearby island, ever afterwards called Icaria, just as the sea was renamed the Icarian Sea in honour of the dead boy, and still bears his name.

The rational Pausanias (9.11.4–5) suggests that the “wings” that Daedalus made were in fact ships’ sails, as yet unknown to the men of those times, an invention with which he hoped to take advantage of a favourable wind and outsail the fleet of Minos, powered only by oars. Daedalus’ ship, he adds, sailed on safely, but Icarus’ ship overturned because he was a clumsy helmsman. Despite such rationalisation, it is the notion of genuine flight that has captured the imagination of later artists. Ovid writes of the people who may have watched Daedalus and Icarus as they flew across the sky (Metamorphoses 8.217–20):

Perhaps some fisherman, wielding his quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on his plough handle caught sight of them and stood stupified, thinking these must be gods who could fly through the air.

When Peter Brueghel the Elder painted The Fall of Icarus (c. 1567), he put in the fisherman, the shepherd and the ploughman, but showed them all going about their work quite indifferent to the tiny figure of Icarus disappearing into the sea: as the proverb says, no plough stops for the man who dies. The myth has always been a potent source of inspiration for artists and has had many different interpretations: paintings and sculptures exist by Van Dyke, Rubens, Canova, Saraceni, Matisse and Picasso, among many others. Icarus’ flight has always been a powerful symbol of man's soaring aspirations. The eighteenth-century French poet Phillippe Destouches sees him as “un esprit glorieux”:

Le ciel fut son désir, la mer son sépulture:

Est-il plus beau dessein ou plus riche tombeau?

And perhaps for Icarus it was worth it: he was doing what mankind, seeing the effortless flight of birds, has always longed to do. It is W. B. Yeats who best captures the brief exultation of Icarus’ flight to the sun in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

[Apollodorus, Epitome 1.12–13; Diodorus Siculus 4.77.5–9; Strabo 14.1.19; Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.183–235.]

Text © Jennifer R. March 2014, illustrations © Neil Barrett 2014

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