Soaring with a Mentor's Help: The Forgotten Lessons of the Icarus Tale
Many of us have heard the story of Icarus and his famous father, the inventor Daedalus. To escape the servitude of King Midas of Crete, and since the king ruled all the land and seas around the island, Daedalus invented wings that he and his son could use to soar to safety. Icarus, during his own flight, flew too high, and the sun melted the wax that held the wings together. The helpless son fell toward the sea, to his death. But there is more to the story.
Though not a few ancient authors were interested in this tale, Ovid (43BC-17AD) is the source of the most familiar account, which can be found in Book 8 of his magisterial poem the Metamorphoses.1 There, as soon as Daedalus is done making both his and his son's wings out of feathers, twine, and wax, he puts his on, and hovers in the air.2 While hanging out there, Daedalus provides the general flight plan to his son:
I warn you to fly in a middle course,
Icarus, lest, if you go too low,
the water may weigh down your wings; if you go too high, the fire may burn them:
fly between the two.3
While the admonition not to fly too high is certainly a commonly repeated—and, it turns out, rather significant—portion of his instructions, it is just as important that Icarus not fly too low. Occasionally the lesson we often remember, in one shade or another, tends to be: “Avoid transgressive pride”—the Ancient Greek word is hybris: do not soar too high. But a non-Christian Greek or Roman would also take to heart not to become overly self-deprecating or self-effacing—which may in fact be considered by a divine figure to be false or extreme in the other direction.
In fact, in a moment of properly gauged humility, Ovid has Daedalus apologize to Jupiter for invading the sky god’s territory, who also promises not to try to arrive at the stars themselves. So, before we even get to Icarus' flight, we already experience a clear gesture—on the father's part, in any case—to keep in mind one’s limits.
As a result, then, a more complete interpretation of the lesson Daedalus wants to impart to Icarus is not just to avoid “flying too high,” but to avoid any extremes—that is, going too high or too low; and so, in turn, we are likely meant to keep in mind this same moderate or temperate way in our own lives.
In Classical Greece (that is, pre-Christian Greece), the word sometimes used for this “middle way” between too high and too low was sophrosyne—a word infamously challenging to translate—and meaning something like: “soundness of mind,” “prudence,” “moderation,” and “temperance.” When they picked up the tale from the Greeks, classical Roman writers also felt the challenge of expressing this idea with (only) one word in Latin—Cicero, one of the most philosophical Roman writers, used four different words to express the idea, depending on the context: "temperance" (temperantia), “moderation” or “self-control” (moderatio), “modesty” (modestia) and “economy” or “frugality” (frugalitas).
Saying all that, this still is not the whole story of the Icarus tale. If we look carefully at the whole pre-flight plan given from father to son, sometimes another important element gets left out. Just after the passage above, we read:
And I bid you not to shape your course by Boötes
or Helice or the drawn sword of Orion,4
but choose a path with me as a leader!
Icarus is told outright that his path should follow that of his father. In fact, Daedalus is genuinely concerned about his son: immediately after he takes off flying, he looks back—actively fearing for his boy—
and encourages him to follow, and instructs him in the fatal arts (of flight),
he himself flapping his wings and looking back at his son.
Note the verbs used in this scene: “encourages” (hortatur), “instructs” (eruduit), "looks back” (respicit): these are verbs of mentoring and instruction.
And as we know, after passing a few islands, it is at that point the son literally errs:
the boy began to rejoice in his bold flight
and deserting his leader led by a desire for the sky,
chose a higher course....
In the act of “deserting his leader” (deseruitque ducem), Icarus loses his guide; when Icarus loses his guide, he loses his moderation; he loses his self-restraint; he loses his way.
We know the rest: wax melts, bare arms flap as if in a roadrunner cartoon, he calls out to his father, and Icarus falls and drowns in “the dark blue sea.” Poor father Daedalus, looking down, sees the wings floating on the surface of the water, and—at least in the Metamorphoses—buries the boy on land, giving the island near his fall its name: the island of Icaria. (According to other authors, the island upon which the boy's body washed ashore received the same name.) According to other works by Ovid, Icarus gives his name to the waters where he fell: the Icarian Sea, which is part of the Aegean Sea to the south of Chios, to the east of the Eastern Cyclades and west of Anatolia.
In another of Ovid's poems, the Tristia (3.4.21-26), we read a clear expression of the moral of the Icarus story:
Why was it that Daedalus flew in safety,
while Icarus marks the limitless waves with his name?
Doubtless because one flew too high, the other flew lower;
Because both had wings that were not their own.
Believe me: he who hides his life well, lives well.
Each person ought to remain within their proper position in life.
(The Latin word I have translated as “proper position in life” is fortuna.)
Again, we find the usual lesson of humility: do not boast about your successes; do not complain excessively about your bad luck; remember your proper place in the world.
But if we look closely back at the Metamorphoses, one of Daedalus’ important instructions was for his son to follow his lead. We saw such instruction in the Metamorphoses, above, but we also find it in Ovid's instructional love elegy, the Ars Amatoria (2.55-58):
You should not look on the Tegean maid5 nor on the comrade of Boötes,
Follow me on the wings I will give you; I will lead the way:
Make it your task to follow. You will be safe under my leadership.
My task is to lead you; your task is to follow my lead. If we each fulfill our roles, you will be fine.
Later in the same poem (Ars Amatoria 2.65-66), after having instructed him in this way, we find Daedalus providing hands-on mentoring:
While he advises, he fits his invention on his son. He demonstrates how to move,
as mothers themselves instruct tender fledglings.
He “advises” or “warns” (monet); he “shows” or “demonstrates” (monstrat); he “instructs” or “teaches” (erudit)—all words that Ovid knows well that Romans would themselves use to describe what any mother does with her young.
What is occasionally left out of the story of Icarus is the student-teacher relationship, the relationship of mentoring. The tale is as much about a model of apprenticeship and guided skill development as it is about avoiding extremes: that is, provide instruction, follow someone's lead, stay within the suggested limits. Ovid tells us in the Ars Amatoria that Icarus falls because he was too bold, too fast—he fell because he deserted the guided path (provided by his father, who “kept on his own course”) too quickly, before he was fully ready (2.83-84):
When the boy, overly rash in his youthful recklessness,
deserted his father and chose a path that was higher.
An English translation cannot smoothly convey these lines: in their original Latin, the couplet ends with the desertion of his father—emphasizing the pathos, and the unnecessary misfortune, of that desertion.
In the end, there are three lessons in the Icarus story: first, do not be arrogant; second, do not be unreasonably self-deprecating; but also, third (as Daedalus is given to say at Met. 8.206-207, in Rolfe Humphries’ 1960 translation):
Keep to the middle way. And one more thing:
No fancy steering by star or constellation,
Follow my lead! That was the flying lesson!
This full trio of lessons complicates the usual story we tell about Icarus, but complicated in a helpful way. The mentor-mentee relationship is significant and should not be quickly dismissed. When ignored completely, there might be fateful (or fatal) results.
At least Ovid thought so.
1 Met. 8.195-233, 10.450.
2 It's true—he hovers! Ovid writes (8.200-203): “When now the finishing touches had been put upon the work, the master workman himself balanced his body on two wings // and his own body hung poised on the beaten air.” (postquam manus ultima coepto // inposita est, geminas opifex libravit in alas // ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura.)
3 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are based on Frank Miller’s 1916 Loeb Classical Library edition, often with slight adjustments.
4 That is, by the stars of the three constellations the "herdsman," Ursa Major, and (of course) belted Orion.
5 That is: Callisto, the daughter of King Lycaon, turned into a bear by either Hera or Artemis (the stories differ), so Ovid is referring to the constellation Ursa Major ("the Great Bear").