From the epics of Gilgamesh to the annals of Thucydides and the poems of Ovid, there is always a great fall of some sort to demonstrate a moral or philosophical lesson. It is often a godly figure that falls from grace to compound the importance of the protagonists’ folly. The myths we are interested in analyzing are that of Gilgamesh’s fall from glory, and the quite literal fall of Icarus. The protagonists of the aforementioned myths ignored a key lesson of life or attempted to skirt them only to encounter severe punishment for their hubris.
The epics of Gilgamesh cover a wide array of stories following the life of a godly king, Gilgamesh himself. The portions we are interested in span tablets nine onwards, following the death of Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s fear of mortality. During his wandering of the wilds following his abandonment of his kingdom, Gilgamesh decides to seek out a survivor of Enlil’s great flood, Utanapishtim, who was one of two humans granted immortality by the gods, with the other being his wife.
Gilgamesh crosses great plains and mountain ranges, encountering many beasts along the way that he either slays directly, such as a pride of lions, or through persuasion, such as the scorpion guardians of Utanapishtim’s solace. These accomplishments serve to bolster the impression of Gilgamesh as an infallible and truly godly being and more deserving of the mantle of immortality than a normal man. Upon finding Utanapishtim and telling his tale of sorrow and fear, he is given a simple challenge to remain awake for seven days.
Gilgamesh immediately fails this task and instead sleeps for seven days. This serves to show that even a man as great as Gilgamesh cannot defeat a simple mortal need such as sleep, let alone death itself. In his grace and pity, Utanapishtim offers Gilgamesh another option, to retrieve a plant from the bottom of the sea that will grant him eternal youth. Although Gilgamesh succeeds in retrieving this plant of “eternal life,” it is quickly stolen from him by a serpent. Gilgamesh is distraught by the realization that death is inevitable and to struggle against the void is an effort in futility. The death of Enkidu signaled the beginning of Gilgamesh’s fall, wherein the rejected death. Through the fall itself, Gilgamesh learned that death was an inescapable and impartial end to all mortal beings and that one must relish what experiences they have during life’s duration.
One of the more popular classical myths is that of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. The origins of this myth lie within the myths of Daedalus, a grand inventor and architect, and the father of Icarus. Daedalus was originally a resident of Athens, granted his abilities from Athena herself. His exile was due to a murder of jealously, wherein his pupil Talos was thrown to his death from a great height for having enviable abilities. Daedalus was exile to the island of Crete, wherein he became a servant of king Minos. He constructed a grand bull to satisfy the odd desires of Pasiphae, the queen of Crete who was cursed by Poseidon. From this, the minotaur was born, a half-man half-bull beast. Daedalus sought to appease Minos for playing an exiled part in the birth of the abomination and created the labyrinth to house the beast. Many aspiring heroes sought to slay the minotaur, but just as many failed except for one. In the myth of Theseus, Daedalus conveys the secrets of the labyrinth and gives Theseus a way to escape, the maze after slaying the monstrosity. Upon learning of this transgression, Minos trapped Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth as punishment. As Daedalus and Icarus could not escape by the guarded land, nor by the patrolled seas, it was decided that the only place that king Minos did not control was the sky itself. Daedalus began another great work, a machine capable of true flight. Armed with only feathers, wax, and wood, Daedalus crafted two sets of grand wings, capable of lifting both him and his son to their homeland in Athens. Daedalus instructed Icarus of the inner workings of his creation, and that flying too low would soak the wings and make them too heavy to fly, while flying too high would melt the wax and cause an uncontrollable fall. A middle ground was the only safe area to fly, and thus the boy and his father began their journey back to Athens. Upon flying across the seas, Icarus grew fascinated with the view before him and wished to fly ever higher. Icarus disregarded his father’s instructions and flew far too high for his wings to carry him, and so the wax holding his feathers to his frame melted away. In an inescapable fall, Icarus plummeted to his death in the waters below where his father could not save him. As recompense for his death, Daedalus named the sea itself the Icarian Sea (a portion of the Mediterranean) and the island Icarus was buried on Icaria. After burying his son, a partridge appeared to Daedalus. This partridge was Talos, saved by Pallas Minerva, who showed Daedalus that the death of Icarus was a product of fate, sealed by the attempted murder of an innocent. Following the burial of Icarus, Daedalus sought refuge in what is now Sicily under the wing of King Cocalus who brought weapons to bear against King Minos. Icarus’ death demonstrates the importance of moderation and promotes the idea of what most people refer to as karma in that evil deeds will not go unpunished.
In the modern age, the lessons provided by both myths appear to be more important than in previous decades. The advancement of technology is akin to the struggle of Gilgamesh against mortality, while the overindulgence of humanity is akin to Icarus flying too high, only waiting to crash down. The great fall of Gilgamesh and Icarus provides knowledge about the consequences of pride and extravagance by providing a platform that the reader likes to place themselves on, that of the glorious protagonist. By trying to place themselves in the shoes of the great Gilgamesh in his triumphs, or the wings of Icarus in his beautiful flight, the reader experiences the fall with investment in it, internalizing the lessons provided more effectively.