Icarus is the boy who flies too high. A mere mortal upon waxen wings that melt in the sun’s heat, he plunges into the sea and dies. He epitomizes what can go wrong when we fail to acknowledge our human limitations. Construed this way, the story is a warning: Ascend too high, approach too near the gods—and you too shall fall.
This is but one layer of the myth’s meaning. It is also a story of artistic defiance. Icarus’s father Daedalus is the consummate craftsman, whose art sets him at odds with Minos, the tyrannical king of Crete. Daedalus abets Pasiphae, the queen, in her erotic pursuit of a striking bull, crafting for her a heifer costume so convincing that she easily seduces her bovine paramour. Daedalus then must design the labyrinth to confine the Minotaur, the monstrous hybrid conceived of this union, and later instructs Ariadne to give her beloved Theseus string to wind his way back through this maze once he’s murdered the man-bull beast. Defiance multiplies. Minos imprisons Daedalus himself to check the artist from further mischief. To escape, father and son elaborately bedeck themselves as birds and take to the air. Art flouts not only the mandates of kings but also the constraints imposed by nature itself.
And it is a story about the middle path between dangerous extremes. Giddy with flight, Icarus forgets to be wise. Wisdom can seem staid, mediocrity dull—these are for elders, not for the young and unruly. Icarus too is defiant, disobeying the strictures laid out by his father. But the middle is not as safely boring as one may think. Boundaries become porous here as the divisions between above and below, mortal and god, (wo)man and beast, flight and descent become hazy. Without the middle we cannot challenge stark binaries. Such power to straddle seemingly natural barriers normally belongs only to the gods. The artist need not abandon the middle path to attain to the divine.
The myth leaves us poised between alternatives, each of which is simultaneously true. Art brings Daedalus grief, but also escape. Icarus falls, but he also flies. This is a story of catastrophe and death, yet it also describes how startlingly beautiful humans can be when we dare to fly higher than ever before. Myth allows us to decide where to tip the balance: to the Orpheus who loses Eurydice or the one who gains her back, to the Medusa slain by a man or the one who turns men to stone, to the Prometheus eaten alive as eternal punishment or the one who challenges Zeus.
Hera lurks inside any woman stifled by a powerful, faithless man—then vilified as a nagging shrew. The winged shoes of Hermes have been replaced with engines that zip across land and rocket through the sky, with data that whisks in an instant over the globe.
Daedalus and Icarus continue to fuel the creative imagination. Yes—defiance, art, and flight can be dangerous for human beings. But without them we would never even leave the ground.