Io (mythology)

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Hermes, Io (as cow) and Argus, black-figure amphora, 540–530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 585)
This article is about the mythological figure. For the moon of Jupiter, see Io (moon).

Io (/ˈ./; Ancient Greek: Ἰώ [iːɔ̌ː]) was, in Greek mythology, one of the mortal lovers of Zeus. She was an ancestor of Cadmus and Danaus.


Pieter Lastman Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io

Io was a priestess of the Goddess Hera in Argos.[1] A mortal woman, she was seduced by the god Zeus and then transformed by him into a heifer to escape the jealousy of his wife, Hera. The deception failed, however, and Hera recognised Io. Pretending to go along with the ruse, 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. Zeus freed Io, still in the form of a heifer. In order to extract her revenge, Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io continuously, driving her to wander the world without rest. Eventually she reached Egypt, where Zeus restored her to human form with a touch, and raised her children, including Epaphus, her son by Zeus.[2]

Io's father is generally given as Inachus,[3] a river god credited with inaugurating the worship of Hera in the countryside around Argos, thus establishing her as an autochthonous spirit of the Argolid[4] and thus by her nature the nymph of a spring, a Naiad. However, due to the Inachid genealogy being generally confused, other versions concerning her parentage existed as well. In some accounts, she is the daughter of the Argive Iasus, who himself was given either as the son of Argus Panoptes and Ismene, the daughter of Asopus,[5] or of Triopas and Sosis; Io's mother in the latter case was Leucane.[6] Io's father was called Peiren in the Catalogue of Women,[7] and this figure might be a son of the elder Argus also called Peiras, Peiranthus or Peirasus in other sources.[8] Io may therefore be identical to Callithyia, daughter of Peiranthus, as is suggested by Hesychius of Alexandria.[9]

Ovid's myth[edit]

Paris Bordone - Zeus and Io - Kunstmuseum, Göteborg

Another of the myths is told most anecdotally by Ovid, in Metamorphoses. According to Ovid, one day, Zeus noticed the maiden and lusted after her. As Io tells her own story in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, she rejected his whispered nighttime advances until the oracles caused her own father to drive her out into the fields of Lerna. There, Zeus covered her with clouds to hide her from the eyes of his jealous wife, Hera, who nonetheless came to investigate. In a vain attempt to hide his crimes, Zeus turned himself into a white cloud and transformed Io into a beautiful white heifer. Hera was not fooled. She demanded the heifer as a present, and Zeus could not refuse her without arousing suspicion.

Hera tethered Io to the olive-tree in the temenos of her cult-site, the Heraion, and placed her in the charge of many-eyed Argus Panoptes to keep her separated from Zeus. Zeus commanded Hermes to kill Argus; Ovid added the detail that he lulled all hundred eyes to sleep, ultimately with the story of Pan and Syrinx. Hera then forced Io to wander the earth without rest, plagued by a gadfly (Οἶστρος or oestrus: see etymology of "estrus") to sting her into madness. 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.

Prometheus had been chained on Mt. Caucasus by Zeus for teaching mankind how to make fire and tricking Zeus into accepting the inferior part of a sacrifice while the mortals kept the better part (meat); every day, a giant eagle fed on Prometheus' liver. Despite his agony, he 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.

The myth of Io must have been well known to Homer, who often calls Hermes Hermes Argeiphontes, "Hermes Argus-slayer." Walter Burkert[10] 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 mythic events concerning Io were transplanted, no doubt by colonists from Argos, to various far-flung sites in the Hellenic world.

The abduction of Io from Argos, which ultimately leads to the Trojan War, is mentioned by Herodotus in Histories (Herodotus).

The ancients connected Io with the Moon,[11] 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

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 to Perseus. Her transformation into a cow was also not mentioned. Instead, she was "cursed" with agelessness for refusing a god's romantic advances. Despite confirming her return for Wrath of the Titans in September 2010, Arterton did not reprise her role for unknown reasons. Instead, it is revealed that Io died shortly before the beginning of the sequel, as Perseus is seen placing stones on her grave.

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.[12]

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


  1. ^ Bibliotheca 2.1.3 = Catalogue of Women fr. 124 = Acusilaus, FGrHist 2 F 26.
  2. ^ Hammond, edited by N. G. L.; Scullard, H. H. (1970). The Oxford classical dictionary (2d ed. ed.). Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press. p. 549. ISBN 0198691173. 
  3. ^ Other fathers, Iasos or Peiren are briefly noted in Bibliotheke 2.5; cf. Bibliotheca 2.1.3 = Catalogue of Women fr. 124 = Acusilaus, FGrHist 2 F 26.
  4. ^ A genealogy constructed for a "House of Argos" cannot be reconciled with the myths.
  5. ^ Bibliotheca 2.1.3.
  6. ^ Scholia on Euripides' Orestes, 932
  7. ^ Cat. fr. 124 = Bibliotheca 2.1.3.
  8. ^ M.L. West, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins (Oxford, 1985) 77; Pausanias 2.16.1, Hyginus, Fabulae 124.
  9. ^ Hesychius of Alexandria s. v. Ὶὼ Καλλιθύεσσα
  10. ^ Burkert, Homo Necans (1974) 1983:164 note 14, giving bibliography.
  11. ^ Eustathius of Thessalonica commentary on Dionysius Periegetes, 92; the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda s.v. "Io", Hesychius, s.v. "Io".
  12. ^

External links[edit]