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Icarus: The Tale of Hubris and Downfall in Greek Mythology

Icarus was a minor character in Greek mythology, but his story is widely known. He was the son of one of Ancient Greece’s most resourceful men, Daedalus, and his death became an important lesson to the world. Here’s a closer look.

Who Was Icarus?

Icarus was the son of the great craftsman Daedalus. There aren’t many reports of who his mother was, but according to some sources, his mother was a woman called Naucrate. Icarus was the right hand of Daedalus, supporting his father and helping him when the famous craftsman built the labyrinth of King Minos. 

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The fall of Icarus
The fall of Icarus, By Peter Paul Rubens, Public Domain

The Labyrinth

The labyrinth was an intricate structure Daedalus and Icarus created under the request of King Minos to contain the Minotaur. This creature was the son of the Cretan Bull and Minos’ wife, Pasiphae – a fearsome creature half-bull half-man. Since the monster had an uncontrollable desire to eat human flesh, King Minos had to imprison it. Minos commissioned Daedalus to create the intricate prison for the Minotaur.

Icarus Imprisonment 

After creating the Labyrinth for King Minos, the ruler imprisoned both Icarus and his father in the highest room of a tower so that they could not escape and share the secrets of the labyrinth with others. Icarus and Daedalus started planning their escape.

Daedalus constructs wings for his son, Icarus
Daedalus and Icarus, by Frederick Leighton, c. 1869. Public Domain.

Icarus and Daedalus’ Escape

Since King Minos controlled all the ports and ships in Crete, it would not have been possible for Icarus and his father to flee the island by ship. This complication prompted Daedalus to use his creativity to craft a different way to escape. Given the fact that they were in a high tower, Daedalus had the idea of creating wings for them to fly to their freedom. 

Daedalus used a wooden frame, feathers, and wax to create the two sets of wings they would use to escape. The feathers were from the birds that frequented the tower, while the was taken from the candles they used.

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Daedalus told Icarus not to fly too high since the wax could melt with the heat, and not fly too low because the feathers could get wet from the sea spray, making them too heavy to fly. After this advice, the two leaped and started flying.

Icarus symbolism

Icarus Flies Too High

The wings were a success, and the pair was able to fly away from the island of Crete. Icarus was very excited at being able to fly that he forgot the advice of his father. He started flying higher and higher. Daedalus told Icarus not to fly too high and pleaded with him but the young boy did not listen to him. Icarus continued to fly high. But then the heat of the sun began to melt the wax that kept the feathers together on his wings. His wings started falling apart. As the wax melted and the wings broke apart, Icarus fell to the ocean beneath him and died. 

In some myths, Heracles was nearby and saw Icarus plummet to the water. The Greek hero took Icarus’ body to a small island and performed the corresponding burial rites. People would call the island Icaria to honor the dead Icarus. 

Influence of Icarus in Today’s World

Icarus is one of the most well-known figures of Greek myth today, standing as a symbol of hubris and overconfidence. He has been portrayed in art, literature and popular culture as a lesson against overconfidence and dismissing the words of experts.

A book by Peter Beinart, titled The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, used the term to refer to American overconfidence in their capabilities in the area of foreign policy and how that has led to numerous conflicts.

In the field of psychoanalysis, the term Icarus complex is used to describe an over-ambitious person, someone who’s ambition goes beyond their limits, which leads to a backlash.

The saying ‘don’t fly too close to the sun’ refers to Icarus’ recklessness and overconfidence, warning against failure from a lack of caution despite warnings.

Even as we contemplate on Icarus’ life and the lessons he embodies, we can’t help but empathize with him as his desire to fly higher, to aim for more, makes him truly human. And even as we shake our head at him, we know that his excitement and recklessness might have been our very reaction also were we given the chance to fly high too. 

Icarus poem

In Brief

Although Icarus was a minor figure in the big picture of Greek mythology, his myth went beyond Ancient Greece to become a story with a moral and teaching. Due to his father, he had to do with the famous story of the Minotaur. Icarus’ death was an unfortunate event that would make his name known.

Affiliate Disclosures
Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.