The Importance of Balance

Daedalus fashioned wings to escape incarceration and gain freedom. He warned Icarus to maintain an even balance between the sun and the sea, cautioning him against straying too far in either direction. But Icarus ignored his words. His pride got in the way and controlled his actions. He flew closer and closer to the sun, straying too far in the direction of logic and rational thinking while losing touch with emotions, intuition, and imagination. If, on the other hand, he had strayed too close to the sea, he would have been mired in the subconscious, wallowing in unbridled emotions and feelings to the exclusion of logic and reason. He would have met the same fate and paid the ultimate price for his action.

The story of Icarus warns us of the need to maintain a balance in our lives and the disastrous consequences that may ensue if we fail to maintain balance.  Our actions need to be grounded in rational thinking but not to the exclusion of emotions and feelings. Balancing the energies represented by the sun with those of the sea, the masculine principle with the feminine principle, reason with emotion, the needs of the individual with that of the community, the logos with eros, and the yang with the yin is what is required if we are to survive the journey and make it safely to shore. And this can only be done by keeping our pride or hubris in check. The myth tells us if we can sustain this balancing act by controlling our hubris, we won’t share the fate of Icarus. 

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Book X of Homer’s Odyssey presents us with another illustration of the importance of balance. On his way home to Ithaca after defeating the Trojans, Odysseus encounters many dangers and mishaps. One of these occurs on Circe’s island. Odysseus sends his men out to scout the island. They encounter Circe who welcomes them to her home and offers them her special brew. Oblivious to the danger awaiting them, the men drink the brew. Circe immediately swishes her wand, transforming the men into swine and sending them out to their hovel.  One man, Eurylochos, escapes and runs back to tell Odysseus what has happened.

Odysseus heads toward Circe’s home, determined to rescue his men. He is intercepted by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Hermes plucks a moly flower and offers it to Odysseus as protection against Circe’s magic.

Odysseus enters Circe’s hall, drinks her special brew, but much to her dismay, he does not transform into an animal at the swish of her wand.  The moly flower does its trick: it protects Odysseus from experiencing the same fate as his comrades.

So, what does this have to do with balance? The answer is everything.

The moly is a white flower with black roots. Just as the two halves complete the flower, the white and black colors balance each other to represent wholeness. White is associated with light, sun, and sky. It is the yang of Taoism and represents the masculine principle within which is embedded a small black circle, the yin. Yin is associated with night, darkness, and earth. It is the yin of Taosim and represents the feminine principle within which is embedded a black circle, the yang. Together yin/yang represent the balance associated with wholeness.

Hermes’ gift of the moly flower to Odysseus is the gift of balance, the gift of wholeness, the gift of equilibrium between masculine and feminine principles. Unlike his comrades, Odysseus is able to withstand his descent into brutish animalism because he receives the gift of balance. In effect, his contact with wholeness enables him to do what Icarus was not—sustain the all-important balancing act, the source of his salvation.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar