Feb 24, 2019

Icarus Falls to his Death; a Cautionary Tale from Greek Mythology

"Icarus", Henri Matisse
How many stories exist about a father who loses his son? How many stories are there of a son who fell away from his father? How many stories are there about a father, a flawed father, whose ambition causes him to lose sight of what’s closest to him? Of a son whose first taste of freedom is so great, he cannot contain it?

Visualizing the Story of Icarus in Art


Image source: Icarus (from the Four Disgracers) Hendrick Goltzius, 1588.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is one such story. It’s a cautionary tale that originates from the Grecian isle of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Ovid and Apollodorus are the writers we have to thank for not allowing the tale to extinguish into non-existence. I prefer Ovid’s telling of the story. But both writers tell the basic plot. It’s not spoiling it to say that Icarus dies at the end. It’s the part of the story most mentioned and memorialized in commentary and in art.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, one can see Hendrick Goltzius’s engraving of the tale (from an ignominiously titled series “The Four Disgracers”). Goltzius’s Icarus depicts a monstrous-looking body plummeting to its death (which the viewer witnesses in a neat trick of visual toe-on perspective). This Icarus looks up at the sun, his hair blown wild, and his face a contorted mix of rage and regret. His body is massive, too much weight to bear in the air. His rage is palpable - directed towards the sun as if the sun is a villain. Yet looking closely at the details of the engraving, the viewer sees Icarus forever fixed in this position, as if he is similar to Sisyphus who rolls the rock to the mountaintop only for it to fall back down again. We see Sisyphus at the top, almost there, almost victorious, and we freeze the frame. Goltzius does the same. We can almost imagine Icarus is victorious in his flight. But there is a clue to the tragedy of the tale. Daedalus is drawn into the image, placed visibly far way, and the shape of his body shows that he remains in flight, while his son, too brazen, will be banished by the sun’s blazing glory.

In Célestin Nanteuil’s depiction, and perhaps many like it, Icarus is a stretched-out angel, his body perfect and unscathed, but his wings are broken. Icarus lies dead on the craggy rock. The setting of the scene is the sea and not the sky. Icarus’s body looks dainty as if he were never meant to fly. Nanteuil’s print reminds me of a video game incarnation of Icarus.

Kid Icarus from Nintendo

As a kid, before I knew anything substantial about Greek myths, or ancient gods and goddesses, my brothers and I played Kid Icarus, a 1986 Nintendo gaming system title that featured a boy angel named Pit; he had wings, but he couldn’t fly (or had lost the ability). He looked more like Cupid, the baby child of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love; than the tragic son of Daedalus, the ambitious inventor of Crete. In the video game, Pit had agency despite his clipped wings; he carried with him a bow and a plentiful armory of arrows. The game was a side-scrolling 2D affair; the player collected hearts and I believe, if my memory serves me correct, there was a princess. And the goal was to regain Pit’s ability to fly. I think. Yet. It’s funny because the game actually has no link to the original myth at all - except for the wings. And in the myth, unlike the game, Icarus has no agency. Like most children, he is limited by the agency of his parents. And, in fact, the myth of Icarus really is about the limitations of parenting, and the sometimes destructive relationships that can arise out of dysfunctional family dynamics.

The Origin Story of Daedalus Foreshadows the Fate of Icarus
Film still from Jim Henson's "Storyteller" version of the Icarus Myth
Some sources say that Daedalus, Icarus’s father, was born in Athens. He fled to Crete after accidentally killing his nephew (yet Apollodorus’s account of the story suggest foul play). In the Jim Henson Storyteller version of the myth, this event is connected with Icarus’s later death. Daedalus’s nephew was amenable to learning and generously caught on to the craft of possibly building a machine that could fly; this may have caused Daedalus to have envy and it is this envy that arose in Daedalus a moment of insanity when he lifted the boy up to fly at the top of the Acropolis and he tragically fell off the roof to his death.

In Crete, Daedalus starts a new life in Crete. It is during this time that Icarus is born (most likely the result of a relationship between Daedalus and a Cretan slave named Naucrate). After the events of the minotaur, Icarus is confined to a cave with his father, held there by the mighty king Minos, who, after Daedalus had constructed a miraculous maze to entrap his son, the half-man, half-bull minotaur, kept him in Crete on indefinite retainer. Reading the original sources, the story of the Minotaur, of Theseus, the hero who slays the creature, Minos, the king, and Daedalus the inventor are very much tightly knit together. It is Icarus and Daedalus who lead Theseus out of the labyrinth, with Ariadne to freedom. Yet that’s another story (for another blog post). Myth has a tendency to radiate out into different spokes. But for this story, the story of Icarus and Daedalus, the central conflict is played out between father and son. Imagine Icarus grew up amazed and bewildered by his father’s inventions, but as he grew older, and approached adolescence, he grew cagey and restless. In the Jim Henson version (which I love) Icarus is portrayed as fragile and clumsy, almost incompetent and difficult to love. Icarus had lived his entire life constrained, so when his father drew up a plan to build him wings so they both could escape Minos’s grasp, the news must have felt like a dream, and a relief. But if you grow up never experiencing even a little bit of freedom, once freedom is granted, it’s like how first-year, coddled college freshman feels after being raised by careful, plodding helicopter parents. You’re going to break bad fast. And that’s exactly what happened to Icarus. Tasting the salt in his mouth and feeling the tang of the ocean air, once he was aloft in the mechanical wings his father had constructed for him, the exhilaration was too intense. Icarus had tasted freedom, and like an addictive drug, he wanted more. Daedalus had warned him: “Fly too low to the sea and the salt water will saturate your feathers weighing you back to the earth. Fly too high, close to the sun the warmth will melt the wax that keeps your wing enclosure intact. It will fall apart”. Icarus most likely replied, “Yes, father” and flew off. Teaching restraint to a teenage boy is like asking a child to not eat the chocolate ice cream or giving him an iPhone loaded with video games and telling him to do his homework.

What is the Moral Message of this Greek Myth?
Traditionally, the story ends with a cautionary warning that those who do well to refuse to listen carefully to their totally well-meaning father will find peril and destruction. He should have listened. Why didn’t he listen? To return to the Jim Henson version of the story (which I love!) the connection is made to the beginning when Daedalus killed Talos, which in turn killed something inside of Daedalus which was also unconsciously transmitted to his son. When Talos fell, so did Daedalus and Icarus fall. That’s some deep generational toxicity. Should the son pay the sins of the father? It reminds me of another ancient tale, of Abraham and Isaac. While Abraham doesn’t slay his own son, he is about to do it (when at the last moment the angel stays his hand). There is something electric in the concept of the “sins of the father” - of this idea that the father’s downfall sets the stage for the son’s eventual demise. Is there a way to break the chain? I think this why this story resonates so strongly. We want Icarus to fly and survive, to thrive. No one wishes, deep down, that Icarus dies. We want an alternative narrative. We want to see a story where Icarus and Daedalus live happily ever after. In this story, however, things would have had to have been different from the get-go. Icarus would not have grown up in the shadow of his father’s guilt. He would not have felt so constrained. What would this Icarus look like? It is a good question because so often I see the Icarus-effect. And as a son myself, I see how we as men are often tied up to our fathers (even when we do not consciously recognize it).

The Story of Icarus Resonates With Me Personally
Cultivating agency is the stuff of adulthood. To go away from Icarus and to become something different, something alive and thriving is hard. To fly away from the comfort of the nest. How does the expression go? He flew the coop. I do think of another story of fathers and sons - which comes from the Christian New Testament Greek writings. Jesus talks about a son who flies the coop; he leaves the nest and squanders his father’s inheritance; yet, he comes back poor and laid low. The father forgives him and takes him back. His sins are forgiven. At any stage of life, I feel like, one is between this prodigal son feeling and the need (and want) for redemption and the fear that I can be burnt up by the sun if I fly too far.

I say “I” because of the story of Icarus, of the Prodigal Son, and other stories of freeing oneself from the nest is a powerful one. I can relate to it and I am sure many can. I think about my own upbringing, and how I grew up; I learned from my parents how to live in the world, for better or for worst, and then at High School graduation I was thrust into the world. I had a second upbringing. Then I graduated from College; lived in a monastery for a while; then, I left and became a school teacher! I look at the successes of my adult life, my teaching, my career, projects I have completed and articles and stories I have written and I compare those things to how I was as a kid. Did one lead from another? Is it possible to trace who I am now from who I was then? The line is not continuous; there are broken lines; new lines drawn over old ones; and lines that are going in opposite directions. That’s probably why, as a teacher, I have gravitated to teaching this story a lot in my career. I have taught it to Sixth Graders, and to Ninth Graders. Kids like the story, and they are appalled by the tragedy. But they all say they would never fly too close to the sun. Or, they remind me, “Mr. Roselli, why didn’t Icarus just use better glue?!” Good point!
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Higher Education, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com Teaching the Myth of Icarus to your Students in a Middle or High School Classroom
The story of Icarus and Daedalus is a powerful one. So, I put together a simple 3-day lesson plan that teachers can implement in their classroom with kids (preferably Middle or High School students). There are a ton of books that have reprinted the myth and there are a ton of artistic representations. I like using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology by the book Parallel Myths is my favorite. There is a gorgeous children’s book version of the Icarus myth that is fabulous because the illustrations are evocative. Use my lesson plan with any text of the story and guide your students through this remarkable tale.

Teaching Resource for the Icarus Myth:


  • 3-day Lesson Plan for 45-minute class sessions or 1.5-hour session with a 45-minute writing block.
  • 4 Works of Art to Compare to the Story:
    • Drawing of Icarus by Hendrick Goltzius
    • “Icarus Fallen” by Célestin Nanteuil
    • “Dies” - an Etching of Icarus
    • “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel
  • 1 Visual Organizer for Key Characters and Places from the Story
  • 2 different Exit Tickets to Check for Understanding
  • 13 Reading Comprehension Questions w/ answer key
  • 5 Critical Thinking Questions
  • 1 Cornell Notetaking Template
  • 10 Frayer Model Vocabulary Cards (aligned to the lesson)
  • Includes a Writing Activity based on a Lewis Hine photograph of a worker building the Empire State Building
  • Includes a “Further Reading” Bibliography for you and your students
  • Includes link to 21 editable Google Slides (Google Classroom friendly)

Further Reading: Ten Useful Sources on the myth of Icarus:
(1.) The Story of Icarus by Leanne Guenther (2.) “Icarus and Daedalus” in Parallel Myths by J.F. Bierlein (3.) Mythology by Edith Hamilton - a tried-and-true anthology of Greek and Roman myths (4.) Classic Mythology by Carl Witt - free on Google Books (4) Animated Video Lesson on the Myth of Icarus and Daedalus from Ted-Ed by Amy Adkins (5.) “Daedalus and Icarus” clip in The Storyteller from Jim Henson Studios (in this version, it is suggested that Daedalus had killed his nephew Talos because he was envious of his abilities). (6.) The Myth of Daedalus and Icarus by Ovid (republished by Commonlit) (7.) Allusions to Icarus explained by TV Tropes (8.) Kid Icarus (video game) by Nintendo is about a hero named Pit (with wings). The video game was released in 1986-87 for the Nintendo gaming system and relies heavily on Greek Mythology for its content. (9.) & (10) Iron Maiden's song "Flight Of Icarus" and Phish’s song “The Squirming Coil” both allude to the Icarus myth! 

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