Why Did Icarus Fly Too Close to the Sun?

The Greek mythological character of Icarus famously flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. But why did he do it?

Jun 7, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
why did icarus fly to the sun


Son of Daedalus and captive of King Minos, Icarus was the character from Greek myth who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. His father had made the wings from wax and bird feathers so the pair could escape from their imprisonment on the island of Crete across the sea to Athens. But he warned Icarus to “fly between the extremes”, instructing him that flying too high would melt the wax in his wings, while too low would soak the feathers and make them heavy, pulling him into the sea.


Once Icarus took flight, he couldn’t resist taking to the sky, higher and higher, thus fulfilling his father’s worst nightmare. But why did he ignore his father’s warnings, flying up and up until his wings melted and he fell to his death in the Icarian Sea? We take a closer look at the story as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to find out more.


Icarus Was Enjoying His Newfound Freedom

frederick leighton daedalus icarus painting
Daedalus and Icarus, Lord Frederick Leighton, 1869, private collection


Having been locked up in a tower with his father Daedalus for some time, we can imagine that Icarus felt an incredible rush of freedom once he was finally able to fly free. Ovid suggests Icarus is an adolescent on the brink of adulthood, and he can be understood as a symbol for any young adult yearning for a taste of independence after having been cooped up with a parent or figure of authority. When his father created the wings and instructed Icarus how to fly, the pair took to the sky with relative ease, leaving behind a life of captivity and confinement. In this situation, it’s easy to think of Icarus as a reckless, arrogant youth who lets his guard down and gives in to temptation, losing sight of the bigger picture in the excitement and thrill of the moment.


To Get Closer to the Gods

The Fall of Icarus


While Icarus was soaring through the sky, the adrenaline must have rushed to his head as he looked up towards heaven, the place of the gods. This feeling must have been quite something, a chance to get closer to the gods than any other mortal human had before. In a moment of complete madness, he lost all sense of reason, and, like any thrill seeking individual who makes a rash decision in the heat of the moment, he lacked the foresight to understand where his actions would lead. Blinded by his ambition to achieve the impossible, Icarus let his guard down and paid the ultimate price

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Icarus’s Story Warns Us About the Arrogance of Youth

rubens fall icarus painting
The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy, after Rubens, 1636-1638, Prado, Madrid


Like many Greek myths, Icarus’ tale is well-documented as a parable with a moralizing message. For the ancient Greeks his story was a lesson about the transition from youth to adulthood. Icarus demonstrated how reckless, impulsive behavior can prove disastrous, and even fatal. He also illustrated how desire, greed, and even gluttony, can take over, and become a force of destruction. In ignoring his father’s warnings, Icarus demonstrated what the Greek called hubris, or wanton, excessive arrogance, believing himself to be above all others. We can even read Icarus’s story as a lesson in moderation on the path to adulthood, how flying between the extremes, or not aiming too high or too low in life might be more likely to lead to success. 


To Teach Us About Risk, Hope and Progress

greek heroes bernard picart fall of icarus
The Fall of Icarus, copy after Bernard Picart, c.1730, via the British Museum


As much as there is a stark warning in Icarus’s story about the perils of hubris, many also believe there is a message about risk, hope and progress hidden within his cautionary tale. Flying was an ability the ancient Greeks could only dream of, and while Icarus’s story ended badly, we could also look to him as an imaginative risk taker, a pioneer who hoped, dreamed, and dared to go where no man had gone before, which is often how progress is really made.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.