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The Greek Myth of the Wanderings of Io, the Woman Transformed to a Cow

Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.

Juno discovering Jupiter with Io by Pieter Lastman, 1618

Juno discovering Jupiter with Io by Pieter Lastman, 1618

Io, Daughter of the River God Inachus

Io was the daughter of Inachus, God of the River which flowed across the plain of the Argolid in Central Greece. She was also the priestess of the Goddess Hera in her great sanctuary or Heraion in the mighty city of Argos.

Zeus' Pursuit of Io

Being the priestess of Hera did nothing to protect Io from the lustful eye of the Goddess' husband Zeus, King of the Gods. Observing Io serving in Hera's temple or else on her father's riverbanks with her Naiad sisters, Zeus resolved that he would have his way with her, regardless of his wife or of the consent of the young woman.

There are differing accounts of how Zeus pursued Io. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Zeus simply accosted the young woman in the countryside, and when she fled from him, he hid himself in a dark cloud and raped her.

The Greek tragedian Aeschylus, writing several centuries earlier, has a more complex and eerie account of what happened. In his play, Prometheus Bound, Io describes how she began to be haunted by strange dreams in which a voice told her that Zeus was in love with her and that she should go out into her father's meadows where his herds grazed and gratify him. Eventually, the worried girl told these dreams to her father, who sent messengers to famous oracles to find out what these dreams meant and what they were to do. A grim message was returned: Inachus must turn his daughter Io out of doors and leave her to her fate. Though he was unwilling, Inachus dared not disobey the will of the Gods and he abandoned his daughter to the mercy of Zeus.

The Transformation of Io

When Zeus had had his way with the unfortunate Io, accosting her in the field, enshrouded in mist, his wife Hera's suspicions became aroused by the sight of an unwarranted black cloud in the midst of the summer sun.

Aware of her approach, Zeus at the last moment transformed Io into a beautiful white heifer, so that when Hera arrived on the scene it was to find her husband standing apparently innocently in the company of a cow. Curious and still somewhat suspicious, Hera asked where the beautiful animal came from. Evasively, Zeus claimed that she had been brought forth by the Earth herself. Hera then demanded the heifer as a gift. This put Zeus in an awkward situation. He didn't want to deliver the girl into the hands of his wife, but to refuse the proud Hera such a gift would only lead to more questions and suspicion. Zeus therefore reluctantly handed Io over to his wife's care.

'Io, transformed into a cow, is handed to Juno by Jupiter' by David Teniers the elder, 1638

'Io, transformed into a cow, is handed to Juno by Jupiter' by David Teniers the elder, 1638

Io Is Guarded by Hundred-Eyed Argus the Herdsman

Hera, in turn, placed the cow in the custody of a herdsman called Argus, who was possessed of one hundred eyes in his head.

Each day, Argus would drive poor Io to pasture, at least some of his many eyes always upon her as she grazed, while at night the girl was tethered by the neck to an olive tree in the grove of the Heraion.

One day, by chance, Argus brought Io to the meadow by her father's riverbank. Taking the opportunity, Io rushed up to her father and sisters and succeeded in getting their attention with her beauty and friendly demeanour. Soon her family were around her, petting her admiringly, not knowing, of course, that this was their beloved Io. Then the heifer began scratching with her hoof in the dust of the riverbank. The scratches became recognisable as letters and the astonished Inachus was able to read the story of what had happened to his daughter and realise that she stood before him, transformed into a beast of the field.

As Inachus embraced Io and lamented her fate bitterly, the remorseless Argus came stamping up and drove the heifer away from her family to another pasture.

Io recognised by her father, by Victor Honore Jansens (1658 -1736)

Io recognised by her father, by Victor Honore Jansens (1658 -1736)

Pompeian fresco of Io Guarded by Argus. instead of showing Io as a heifer, the artist has instead just given her cute little horns.

Pompeian fresco of Io Guarded by Argus. instead of showing Io as a heifer, the artist has instead just given her cute little horns.

Hermes Intervenes: The Slaying of Hundred-Eyed Argus

Zeus could no longer bear to observe the torment and humiliation to which the unfortunate Io was being subjected by his wife's herdsman. Calling upon his clever son Hermes, Zeus ordered him to free the girl.

Hermes, accordingly, flew on his winged sandals to the pasture where Argus was keeping his endless watch on his charge. Changing his appearance to that of a goatherd and furnishing himself with a herd of goats, Hermes began to play a bewitching tune on his shepherd's pipes.

Simple Argus was enraptured by the music and he urged his fellow herdsman to sit with him, out of the noontide heat and to let him hear his music. Sitting beside Argus in the shade, Hermes played him one sleepy melody after another, trying to get him to relax his guard and close his eyes. This was no easy task; while Hermes succeeded in getting Argus to close some of his eyes in sleep, others remained open and watchful. It was only by telling Argus a beguiling story that Hermes finally got him to nod off to sleep like a fractious child. By the time the tale was told each of the herdsman's one hundred eyes was closed. Immediately, Hermes leapt to his feet and, drawing his blade, chopped off the head of the zealous herdsman, leaving Io still transformed but without the oppression of her ever-watchful guardian.

Jacob Jordaens, Mercurius and Argus, 17th Century. Artists seem shy of having a go at depicting the 100 eyes.

Jacob Jordaens, Mercurius and Argus, 17th Century. Artists seem shy of having a go at depicting the 100 eyes.

Io Is Stung by the Gadfly

When Hera saw that her appointed herdsman Argus had been murdered and that Io had thus escaped from her ownership, the Goddess became truly infuriated. She caused Io to be stung by a tormenting gadfly that caused the luckless heifer to gallop far from her home in Argos in an effort to escape it.

The gadfly continued to pursue Io remorselessly, driving her far from her home on the banks of the River Inachus. The bedevilled heifer crossed great plains, rivers, and even seas in her desperate attempts to elude the tormenting insect. The strait of the Bosphorus, now in Turkey was said to take its name as the place where Io crossed over into Asia (Bos = cow Phoros = crossing).

Io Meets the Suffering Prometheus

In the course of her wanderings, Io happened to meet a fellow-sufferer in the shape of the Titan Prometheus, chained to Mount Caucasus and doomed to have his liver devoured each day by a pair of eagles, only for the wretched organ to regenerate.

In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus represents Io as being accompanied on her wanderings by her naiad sisters and it is some consolation to think she did not have to wander alone and friendless. In the play, when Io and her sisters come across Prometheus, chained to his rock, they stop and offer him sympathy as a fellow sufferer at the hands of Almighty Zeus. They also question him about how he came to be in such a miserable plight.

In turn, Prometheus questioned Io about her own situation and was moved to prophesy her fate. He predicted that Io faced further long journeying through far-flung and dangerous terrain. This included encountering the Amazons, a race of women warriors, who, Prometheus assures Io, despite their fearsome reputation, would be happy to assist and direct Io to her ultimate destination. It was in the distant land of Egypt that Io would finally gain release from her sufferings.

The conversation came to an abrupt end when Io was again afflicted by the gadfly and went galloping off at a tangent, leaving the chained Prometheus to contemplate his own fate.

Redemption in Egypt: the Birth of Epaphos

As foretold by Prometheus, Io's long journeying eventually brought her to the land of Egypt. When she found herself on the bank of the sacred Nile, Io, Ovid tells us, lifted her face to heaven and cried out in desperate supplication to Zeus for her sufferings to come to an end.

Zeus was deeply affected by her appeal and, embracing his wife Hera, he implored her to cease her cruel anger against the luckless girl, whom he would never approach lustfully again and allow him to relieve her of her misery. Satisfied by his oath, Hera finally consented to bring her long vengeance to an end.

Appearing before her on the bank of the Nile, Zeus touched Io with his hand and at that touch, Io finally regained her mortal shape.

Later, Io gave birth to a son named Epaphos, whose name means 'touch'. She went on to marry the Pharaoh of Egypt, Telegonos, who adopted Epaphos as his son.

The Descendants of Io: The Egyptian Connection

When Epaphos ascended the Egyptian throne, he married the Egyptian nymph Memphis. Their daughter Libya had two sons, Agenor and Belos.

Agenor settled in the land of Phoenica. Two of his children were Cadmus and Europa. Cadmus became the founder of the Greek city of Thebes and ultimately the grandfather of the God Dionysus. Europa was famously abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull and taken to Crete where she became the mother of the famous King Minos of Crete.

Belos had twin sons, Danaus and Aegyptus. Danaus had fifty daughters, while Aegyptus had fifty sons.

Defying Aegyptus' demand that his sons should marry Danaus' daughters, Danaus fled with them on the first ever ship to the land of Argos where his ancestress Io had originated. Aegyptus and his sons followed in pursuit. Wanting to avoid a fight, Danaus agreed that his daughters should marry their cousins, but instructed each one to kill her husband on their wedding night. All but one, Hypermestra, obeyed.

Hypermestra and her husband Lynceus went on to found a dynasty of kings of Argos, while the other forty-nine daughters married local men.

These myths show the descendants of Io becoming some of the most important founding mothers and fathers of Greek mythology. Egyptian civilisation and religion were often admired by the Greeks and Romans for their great antiquity and sophistication and the mighty monuments it had left behind. The complexities of the story of Io and her descendants allowed the Greeks both to suggest that the roots of their civilisation owed something to ancient Egypt while also suggesting that in fact, ancient Egypt was in some way actually Greek!

Something of the Graeco-Roman sense of Io as a connecting link between the civilsations of Greece and Egypt can be seen in the temple of Isis at Pompeii where frescoes celebrate the arrival and redemption of Io in Egypt. The Egyptian Goddess Isis is shown reaching out her hand to touch Io, who still bears her horns. Was there a tradition among Isiacs that it was Isis rather than Zeus who redeemed Io?

Fresco from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, showing Isis welcoming Io.

Fresco from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, showing Isis welcoming Io.