Daedalus or Icarus?

Daedalus lived in exile (he killed his nephew) on the island of Crete.  A brilliant Athenian architect, he designed the labyrinth, which kept the Minotaur at bay.  He helped Theseus navigate the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur, perhaps hoping that, once the monster fell, the people of Crete would no longer need him.  But King Minos of Crete did not take kindly to the death of the minotaur, as Theseus fled the island with Ariadne, Minos’ daughter.  Minos locked Daedalus and his son, Icarus, inside the labyrinth in retribution.  Methodical, resourceful and determined “to stand on his native soil,”[1] Daedalus began to engineer an escape for himself and Icarus.  Minos, Daedalus reasoned, “may thwart our escape by land or sea…but the sky is surely open to us.”[2] He fashioned wings out of reeds and feathers, held together by wax, which the two could use to fly away from Crete.

I can only imagine the excitement young Icarus must have felt at the prospect of traveling not across the ocean, as mere men must do, but over the ocean, as only birds and gods had done before.  Daedalus, concerned, warned his son, “Take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them.  Travel between the extremes…take the course I show you!”[3]

Many know – or, at the very least, can predict – the end of the story.  Icarus, “drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher”[4] As he neared the sun, his wings, held so tenuously together by wax and string, began to melt.  Icarus fell from the sky into the sea, crying out his father’s name.  Daedalus, “now no longer a father, shouted, ‘Icarus, Icarus, where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’”[5] But as he saw Icarus’ wings sink beneath the waves, he knew that Icarus was lost.  Brokenhearted, Daedalus buried his son and continued flying.

People can debate a lot of aspects of the story: whose fault is it that Icarus fell?  Why did he disregard his father’s instructions and fly toward the sun?  Why did Daedalus risk everything he held dear to return to a home that did not welcome him – a home that he never even reached?  But the question that intrigues me is: who is worse off – Daedalus or Icarus?

Maybe that seems like a ridiculous question.  I mean, Icarus ends up dead – most would call that the ultimate downside.  But Daedalus has to live with the consequences.  Icarus may have met an early end, but he soared – literally – to heights of which his father never dared to dream.  He aimed for the sun and, though he never reached it, he came closer than most ever will.  Icarus lived the last moments of his life to the fullest, never having to see the pain that his actions caused his father.  Daedalus, on the other hand, did not stray from the safe course; his recompense is his life.  Though he has the burden of his grief and regret, Daedalus manages the most critical of human imperatives – stay alive.

So who really drew the short end of the stick?  Is it even possible to know?  Did Icarus regret his final act or did he relish the chance to pursue that heady dream?  If he had chosen to remain within safer bounds, would he have regretted his lack of action?  Daedalus, though, did he rue the day that he chose to screw with his fate?  Before aiding Theseus, he had a perfectly pleasant life, aside from one deep sadness.  In trying to return home, he risked his own life and the life of his son, and paid for it dearly.  Should he have just been happy with what he already had?  Or did he thank the gods that he made it out of Crete alive with a hope – though never realized – of reaching home?

Who was right?  Icarus, who eschewed risk management and reached for the most that he could achieve?  Or Daedalus, who let pass the prospect of greater heights in order to minimize his risk?  Did Daedalus, in fact, take the more sensible path?  A man, a father, he chose a fantastical pursuit of greener pastures over the solid, reasonable life he already grasped.  Icarus may have chosen to fly toward the sun, but Daedalus gave him his wings.

I keep asking myself: am I Daedalus or am I Icarus?  Have I finally set out on a journey, having reasoned it through and realized I cannot live with being trapped on that island?  Or am I so caught up in the thrill of the flight that I don’t even see the wax of my wings melting?  And which, even, would I rather be: safe and miserable, or in danger and exhilarated?  Am I even taking a risk?  Since coming out as trans and starting out on the path of my transition, I have been waiting for the anxiety that uncertainty produces.  I keep looking for the confusion, the fear, the weighing of pros and cons.  But despite the obvious perils of being a crooked person in a straight-laced world, I am not afraid.  I don’t know whether I feel safe because I have, in fact, stuck to the peril-less route, or if I am merely invigorated by the heat of the sun and the rush of the wind.  I’m not sure I care.  I’m not sure it matters.

In the end, the only striking difference is that Daedalus lived the rest of his days with sorrow and regret, while Icarus ended up dead.  Both Daedalus and Icarus were compelled by a powerful force, a desire to live and to enjoy life.  In this particular case, they both met unhappy ends, regardless of their divergent paths.  But that speaks more to the unpredictability and uncontrollability of life than to the inevitability of misery.  I choose neither safe and miserable nor fulfilled and dead, but safe and fulfilled.  For what does it get you to be safe on Crete, but aching for Athens?  Life is a risk, and whether I am reaching toward the sun or striving for home, I cannot know what happens next.  I just know my wings are made of stronger stuff than wax.


[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book VIII, lines 183-235, http://www.mythology.us/ovid_metamorphoses_book_8.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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“Daedalus or Icarus?” by growingupgareth.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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