Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Almost everybody is aware of Icarus.
At some point in your life you may have encountered an abridged version or an image from the mythology: A young man wearing wings on his arms, falling from the sky as the sun melts away the wax that held those wings together. You scratch past the surface of this moment and you learn that he wore these wings in a daring escape attempt with his father Daedalus from the labyrinth at Knossos, a prison that Daedalus himself had originally designed to hold the fearsome Minotaur.
You learn how Daedalus had taken great pains to warn Icarus about the dangers of flying too close to the sun, and that while Icarus had heard his father before the flight began, once he took to the air he was so enamored of the experience that he failed to remember his father’s warnings. And as he plummeted to his doom he became a cautionary tale about assuming one’s own invincibility and of reaching beyond limitations into hazard.
It is a useful story. Like many such stories, its moral may be misunderstood or used ill by the unscrupulous as a way of demanding that you never take risks at all, rather than demonstrating the nuance between courage and foolishness.
We seem less familiar with Phaeton.
Phaeton was the son of Helios, the lesser god who piloted the chariot of the sun through the sky each day. The short version of this story is that Phaeton asked his father if he could drive the chariot himself, lost control of it on his first flight, and was killed by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts in a drastic bid to keep the Earth from being scorched to a cinder.
When you scratch beneath the surface of this story, what you find is that Phaeton’s misadventure began with one of his playmates casting aspersions on his parentage by refusing to believe that Helios was his sire. Phaeton approached his father and demanded control of the chariot to show his peers that he was everything he claimed to be. Helios attempted, at length, to explain to his son that the chariot was a vehicle that took all of his own effort to control, and that the consequences of losing that control would be dire.
Phaeton didn’t care. Phaeton had been insulted, and Phaeton demanded to prove his worth. And Helios, despite his significant misgivings, obliged him, leading to destruction and terror upon hosts of innocent people below before ending with his own doom.
I’ve been ruminating on this myth this week. I think about Phaeton’s defiance and insistence in the face of expertise. I think of Phaeton’s sisters, the seven Heliades, who were so distraught with his death that they gathered around his smoldering grave and wept until the gods, in their pity, turned them into poplars. I think about how the myth never addresses the victims of Phaeton’s reckless ride, and how they had to find the means to rebuild afterwards.
I’ve been thinking about how old this story is, and how many times since the story was first told that societies have nonetheless handed awesome power to somebody who believed they deserved that power by right of lineage, or by right of charisma, or by right of needing to deny their own insecurities.
Icarus is an illustration of a personal failing. Phaeton is also an illustration of personal failing, but moreso than that it is an illustration of systemic failing. We have much to learn from both tragedies.