The Flight of Icarus

Becoming a Work of Art

‘My son, be warned! Neither soar too high, lest the sun melt the wax; nor swoop too low, lest the feathers be wetted by the sea.’

As we saw last time, the secret identity-in-difference between Hephaestus, Daedalus, Talos, and Icarus begins to expose the greater network of mythic inflexions that belong to the archetype of the artist in Greek mythology. If Daedalus represents the artist himself, Icarus, his son, stands for the work of art and its fall into the lifeless heap of mythic history. 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Joos de Momper the Younger (1564–1635).

Although Daedalus enjoys a momentary “release” from Crete, he ends up paying for his crime, the murder of his nephew Talos, with the life of his own son, Icarus.  Daedalus had “punished” his sister Polycaste for having incestuous relations with her own son. In the end the dead Polycaste exacted her revenge on Daedalus by taking his own son. Apparently, the ancient law found the satisfaction of an I for an I and a son for a son.

The archetypal nature of human creativity can be gleaned in the transgression of incest, which is again connected with the secret that binds sexuality with death, its self-relating “incestuous” or uroboric logic. Precisely where the symptom becomes a repetition of a traumatic wound, we have already stepped into the subterranean pulse of deathdrive (todestrieb), the realm of the Thing, a universal energy or drive which propells the incessant activity of the artist in flight. Let us recall that todestrieb is, after all, the Freudian category of material transcendence.

The mythologem of Daedalus and Icarus speaks of a being “caught” in the flight of historic becoming and change, exacted by the logic of self-sacrifice and resurrection, in order to carry out a venture which is finally rewarded with loss and pain. Why must the the price for the ecstasy of flight be the death of your son—or daughter, as in the case of Joyce himself whose daughter “drowned” in the archetypal waters her father was swimming in?

Once Daedalus made a pair of wings for himself and another for his son Icarus, they were poised for flight; just before take off, Daedalus addressed his son Icarus “with tears in his eyes”:

‘My son, be warned! Neither soar too high, lest the sun melt the wax; nor swoop too low, lest the feathers be wetted by the sea.’ Then he slipped his arms into his own pair of wings and they flew off. ‘Follow me closely,’ he cried, ‘do not set your own course!’ They had left Naxos, Delos, and Paros behind them on the left hand, and were leaving Lebynthos and Calymne behind on the right, when Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and began soaring towards the sun, rejoiced by the lift of his great sweeping wings. Presently, when Daedalus looked over his shoulder, he could no longer see Icarus; but scattered feathers floated on the waves below. The heat of the sun had melted the wax, and Icarus had fallen into the sea and drowned. Daedalus circled around, until the corpse rose to the surface, and then carried it to the near—by island now called Icaria, where he buried it. A partridge sat perched on a holm oak and watched him, chattering for delight – the soul of his sister Polycaste, at last avenged.

Graves , Robert. The Greek Myths. Vol 1, p 291
17th-century relief with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel)

Icarus becomes a sacrificial victim after all. The tragic flight of Icarus depicts the path of historic self-awakening through the work of Art. As Joyce put it at the very end of Portrait, my path as an artist is “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The proper work of the artist is to create the collective conscience of the human race. This is the same conscience that comes to prick Daedalus in the end at the price of his son. The catastrophe for Daedelus could not be more pleasing to the vengeful soul of Polycaste which took the form of a partridge “chattering for delight,” in this way having exacted the ancient law of an eye for an eye. 

In the context of Portrait, the vision of Icarus that overcame Stephen Daedalus as he walked by the sea was Joyce’s version of the Road to Damascus. Both were struck by lightning, touched by the fire of transformation, but in the case of Stephen Daedalus the blinding encounter turned into a visionary experience of the mythic dimension.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1977 film]

 Such was the vision that overcame Stephen Daedalus: a human form flying sunward, moving over the waves of the sea, like the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters before the dawn of creation. So did Stephen Daedalus begin to sound at the wonder of his own name and its mythic destiny: “Now, as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy,” as Stephen continues the muse near the summit of his experience: 

Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?

This is the ultimate step of creative genius, a being that soars above the waves, turning its ability to find in the details of life the archetypal opening of creative being itself. As Joseph Campbell put it apropos Joyce: “The details of a life are themselves to be opened out so we can feel the archetypes playing under them” (Mythic Worlds, Modern Worlds 10). Emphasizing neither a belief system nor a “Supreme Meaning,” Campbell learns from Joyce (as well as Nietzsche) that the true aim of Art lies in the direction of an existential affirmation of the power of life. Reaching beyond its inherent humanism, Art becomes the transcendental vehicle for the commemoration and celebration of a fundamental archetypal experience of creative being itself. 

So goes the prayer “Thy Will be done,” thy will, not mine nor yours, but its will, on earth as it is in heaven. It is a fusion of the empirical I and the universal self within the encompassing One. As Nietzsche describes the Dionysiac mode of creation in contrast to the Apollonian dreamworld of the contemplation of images:


—the lyrical poet, on the other hand, himself becomes his images, his images are objectified versions of himself. Being the active center of that world he may boldly speak in the first person, only his “I” is not that of the actual waking man, but the “I” dwelling, truly and eternally, in the ground of being. It is through the reflections of that “I” that the lyric poet beholds the ground of being.

The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (39)

Norland Téllez

Norland Téllez, is an Artist and Teacher with over two decades of experience in the animation industry. Grounding himself in classical painting and drawing, he remains committed to the art of the moving image and the archetypal power of Story.

The Flight of Icarus


Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce. Ed. E.L. Epstein. Novato: New World Library, 2004.

Graves , Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 Vols. Illustrations by Grahame Baker. London: Folio Society, 2000.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music and the Geneology of Morals. Trans. Francis Golfing. Anchor Books ed. New York: Double Day, 1956.