The Symbolism of the Sun and the Sea
Unlike the moon which waxes and wanes, the sun is constant. It doesn’t change its shape or size. In most world mythologies, the sun symbolizes logical thinking and the light of reason. Helios, the sun god in Greek mythology, chariots the sun across the sky each day, thereby witnessing all that takes place on the surface of the earth during daylight hours. He is the light of consciousness shedding light on the natural world.
Helios’ role was later taken over by the god Apollo. Frequently depicted playing a golden lyre, Apollo is also associated with civilization and culture (music, art, and poetry).
With the notable exception of Amaterasu, the sun goddess in Japanese Shintoism, in most world mythologies, the sun is identified as male and is associated with the masculine principle, the principle which values hierarchical relations over horizontal ones; individualism over community; top down communications instead of across; reason over emotion and intuition; and logos over eros.
The sea, on the other hand, represents the subconscious—those parts of the human mind not easily amenable to logic or the light of reason. Just as the naked eye can’t penetrate beneath the surface of the ocean, rational thinking can’t penetrate the hidden depths of the soul and mind. The sea is the primal forces of nature, uncontrolled and untamed by human intervention. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, each time Odysseus journeys on the sea, he is buffeted and thrashed about by Poseidon, the god of the sea. Poseidon strips Odysseus of all the accoutrements of civilization (his ship, his crew, his clothing) until Odysseus is left with nothing. He scrambles on to Calypso’s island, naked, vulnerable, helpless, and alone.
Among British Romantic poets (late 18th Century), the sea frequently symbolizes the creative force of the imagination. It is the source of inspiration emerging from the parts of the human psyche not amenable to logic. In his poem, Ode to a Nightingale, the English poet John Keats (1795-1821) suggests rational thinking can even act as an impediment to inspiration and to the creation of art: “Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.”
Finally, since water is the source from which all life emerges, the ocean is identified with the female and the feminine principle. The feminine principle espouses a cult of care-giving, nurturing, collaboration, reciprocity, and a concern for community. It values emotions, imagination, and eros (the energy that propels all living things toward love and fulfillment and life).
As we shall see, an understanding of the symbolism of the sun and the sea lends an added dimension to interpreting the story of Icarus.