Io (mythology)

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Hermes, Io (as cow) and Argus, black-figure amphora, 540–530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 585)

Io (/ˈ./; Ancient Greek: Ἰώ [iːɔ̌ː] means "moon"[1]) was, in Greek mythology, one of the mortal lovers of Zeus. She was an ancestor of many kings and heroes such as Perseus, Cadmus, Heracles, Minos, Lynceus, Cepheus, and Danaus. The astronomer Simon Marius named a moon of Jupiter after Io in 1614.


Pieter Lastman Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io

In most versions of the legend, Io was the daughter of Inachus,[2][3][4][5][6] though various other purported genealogies are also known. If her father was Inachus, then her mother would presumably have been Inachus' wife (and sister) the Oceanid nymph Melia, daughter of Oceanus.[7] The 2nd century AD geographer Pausanias also suggests that she is the daughter of Inachus and retells the story of Zeus falling in love with Io, the legendary wrath of Hera, and the metamorphosis by which Io becomes a beautiful white heifer.[8] At another instant several generations later, Pausanias recounts another Io, descendant of Phoroneus, daughter of Iasus,[9] who himself was the son of Argus and Ismene, the daughter of Asopus,[3] or of Triopas and Sosis; Io's mother in the latter case was Leucane.[10] Io's father was called Peiren in the Catalogue of Women,[11] and by Acusilaus,[3][12] possibly a son of the elder Argus, also known as Peiras, Peiranthus or Peirasus.[13][14][15] Io may therefore be identical to Callithyia, daughter of Peiranthus, as is suggested by Hesychius of Alexandria.[16]

Io was a priestess of the Goddess Hera in Argos,[6][17] whose cult her father Inachus was supposed to have introduced to Argos.[6] Zeus noticed Io, a mortal woman, and lusted after her. In the version of the myth told in Prometheus Bound she initially rejected Zeus' advances, until her father threw her out of his house on the advice of oracles.[18] According to some stories, Zeus then turned Io into a heifer in order to hide her from his wife;[6] others maintain that Hera herself transformed Io.[18][19]

In the version of the story in which Zeus transformed Io, the deception failed, and Hera begged Zeus to give her the heifer as a present, which, having no reason to refuse, he did. Hera then sent Argus Panoptes, who had 100 eyes, to watch Io and prevent Zeus from visiting her, and so Zeus sent Hermes to distract and eventually slay Argus. According to Ovid, he did so by first lulling him to sleep by playing the panpipes and telling stories.[20] Zeus freed Io, still in the form of a heifer.

In order to exact her revenge, Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io continuously, driving her to wander the world without rest. Io eventually crossed the path between the Propontis and the Black Sea, which thus acquired the name Bosporus (meaning ox passage), where she met Prometheus, who had been chained on Mt. Caucasus by Zeus. Prometheus comforted Io with the information that she would be restored to human form and become the ancestress of the greatest of all heroes, Heracles (Hercules). Io escaped across the Ionian Sea to Egypt, where she was restored to human form by Zeus. There, she gave birth to Zeus's son Epaphus, and a daughter as well, Keroessa. She later married Egyptian king Telegonus. Their grandson, Danaos, eventually returned to Greece with his fifty daughters (the Danaids), as recalled in Aeschylus' play The Suppliants.

Paris Bordone - Zeus and Io - Kunstmuseum, Göteborg

The myth of Io must have been well known to Homer, who often calls Hermes Argeiphontes, meaning "Argus-slayer." Walter Burkert[21] notes that the story of Io was told in the ancient epic tradition at least four times of which we have traces: in the Danais, in the PhoronisPhoroneus founded the cult of Hera, according to Hyginus' Fabulae 274 and 143—in a fragment of the Hesiodic Aigimios, as well as in similarly fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. A mourning commemoration of Io was observed at the Heraion of Argos into classical times.

The ancients connected Io with the Moon,[22] and in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, where Io encounters Prometheus, she refers to herself as "the horned virgin", both bovine and lunar.

Argive genealogy in Greek mythology
Colour key:


In popular culture[edit]

In the 2010 film Clash of the Titans, Io was portrayed by British actress Gemma Arterton. The character was a major deviation from Greek mythology: instead of being Zeus' lover, she was portrayed as a guide and later the lover of Perseus. She was cursed with agelessness for refusing a god's romantic advances.

Australian writer Ursula Dubosarsky's play The Girl Who Was Turned Into A Cow, first published in the NSW School Magazine, is based on the myth of Io.[23]

In the video game Persona 3, Io is the starting persona of Yukari Takeba.



  1. ^ Robert Graves. The Greek Myths (1960)
  2. ^ Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 590
  3. ^ a b c Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.1.3
  4. ^ Herodotus, Histories, 1.1
  5. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.583
  6. ^ a b c d Hammond, edited by N. G. L.; Scullard, H. H. (1970). The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2d ed.). Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press. p. 549. ISBN 0198691173.
  7. ^ For Melai as wife of Inachus see Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.1.1
  8. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.25.1
  9. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.16.1
  10. ^ Scholia on Euripides' Orestes, 932
  11. ^ Catalogue of Women. fr. 124
  12. ^ Acusilaus, fr.12
  13. ^ M.L. West, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins (Oxford, 1985) 77
  14. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.1.3
  15. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae, 124.
  16. ^ Hesychius of Alexandria s. v. Ὶὼ Καλλιθύεσσα
  17. ^ Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.1.3
  18. ^ a b Howatson, M.C. L.; Chivers, I. (1993). The Oxford Concise Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press. pp. 288–9. ISBN 0192827081.
  19. ^ Aeschylus, Suppliant Women, 291
  20. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.650-730
  21. ^ Burkert, Homo Necans (1974) 1983:164 note 14, giving bibliography.
  22. ^ Eustathius of Thessalonica commentary on Dionysius Periegetes, 92; the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda s.v. "Io", Hesychius, s.v. "Io".
  23. ^

External links[edit]