Daedalus and Icarus Revisited


The Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the first wing analogies we know about. The powerful King Minos holds brilliant inventor Daedalus and his son Icarus prisoner on the island of Crete. Daedalus devises a plan that they will escape by flying over the sea. He constructs two sets of wings using feathers and wax. Before they take off Daedalus warns Icarus, Don’t fly close to the water, because wet wings fail. And don’t fly too high, because the sun’s heat will melt the wax.

Icarus flies too high. His wing wax melts. He plummets to his death. Daedalus survives.

The traditional lessons derived from this tale are mostly about hubris: Don’t overestimate your capabilities. Don’t fly too high. Know your limitations.

A Wing and a Prayer

Wing analogies are so common these days one wonders if humanity is part bird. People spread their wings. Airplanes, theaters, hospitals, pilots and ice-hockey teams have wings. Tired people sometimes say they’re winged out. People improvising say they’re winging it. We clip people’s wings. We take people under our wing. A wing-man is a reliable friend.

The most common application of the wing analogy is political. Millions of people are using the terms left-wing and right-wing every day. This usage began in the 18th century before the French Revolution, when aristocrats supporting royalty, the church and the old order sat to the right of the king. The commoners sat to the left.

‘Fear Lent Wings to His Feet’ (Virgil Aeneid)

Twentieth-century history demonstrates that there is much to fear from wings. The left-wing regime led by Joseph Stalin and the right-wing regime led by Adolph Hitler inflicted death and suffering on hundreds of millions of people.

Politically, both wings are prone to support more tough-minded ideology, an authoritarian approach to solutions and less compromise.

Three Things About Wings

Here are three important things to remember about wings:

  1. Healthy birds have two wings. It takes two wings to fly.
  2. A bird’s brain is never in its wings. The brain is in the center.
  3. And the wings of the world have a lot in common. They flap a lot.

 ‘Wing Your Course Along the Middle Air’ (‘Metamorphoses’)

So let us remember the Roman poet Ovid’s retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Consider heeding this father’s advice to his son as they embark on their quest for freedom:

“My boy, take care, to wing your course along the middle air; If low, the surges wet your flagging plumes; If high, the sun the melting wax consumes: Steer between both: nor to the northern skies, nor south Orion turn your giddy eyes …”

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