Tag: argus

Zeus and Io

Zeus and Io

“…and Hera, Hermes and Argus”

The story of Zeus and Io is one of the many fascinating tales from Greek mythology. It involves love, deception, and a remarkable transformation. The story is written in various ancient Greek texts, but one of the most well-known versions can be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Ovid was a Roman poet who lived during the 1st century AD and wrote a collection of mythical tales, including the story of Zeus and Io.

Here’s the story: Io was a beautiful mortal princess and her radiant beauty caught the attention of Zeus, king of the gods. He became infatuated with her and desired her affection. Zeus, being notorious for his amorous escapades, sought to pursue Io without the knowledge of his jealous wife Hera. To avoid detection, Zeus approached Io in the form of a cloud. It’s Zeus naughty and cunning habit to seduce his amorous victims in disguise, in the form of a cloud this time.

Zeus, disguised as a cloud, seduces the beautiful princess Io. Look at his face and his paw! (c.1530)
Correggio (Italian, c.1489 – 1534), 162×74cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Zeus’ wife Hera became enormously suspicious when she saw that cloud hanging above the fields and went to see if her husband Zeus was behind it and maybe after another beautiful girl.

Oops, there is Zeus wife Hera! Catching her husband with Io; Hermes and Argus in the background, but that’s only later in the story… (1619)
Hans Bock the Elder (German, c.1550 – c.1623), 47x62cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Zeus then used his divine powers and transformed Io into a white heifer (a young and fertile cow) to hide their affair from his jealous wife. This transformation allowed Io to live among the other cattle without arousing suspicion.

However, Hera was no fool and soon became suspicious of her husband’s intentions. She suspected that Zeus was up to something and devised a plan to discover the truth.

Hera is now finding out what’s happening, having watched her husband Zeus with the beautiful Io in the body of a cow (c.1656)
Jan Gerritsz. van Bronchorst (Dutch, c.1603 – 1661), 274x176cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

Hera approached Zeus and cunningly expressed her admiration for the cow, suggesting that she would love to have the creature as a gift. Zeus, aware of his wife’s jealousy, could not refuse the request and reluctantly agreed to give the cow to her.

Hera demand Zeus: “Give that cow (Io, that is) to me!” (1638)
David Teniers (Flemish, 1582 – 1649), 47×61cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Now, Hera had possession of the transformed Io, but she wasn’t entirely convinced of her husband’s innocence. To keep an eye on the situation, she assigned the many-eyed giant guy Argus Panoptes (the all-seeing Argus) to guard the cow. Argus was an extraordinary creature with hundreds of eyes, and he was capable of keeping watch over Io at all times, even while some of his eyes rested.

Hera tells Argus, the guy with 100 eyes, to guard the cow Io (c.1625)
Printmaker Moyses van Wtenbrouck (Dutch, c.1595 – c.1647), engraving, 13x18cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Zeus was deeply concerned for Io’s safety and well-being. In a desperate attempt to free her, he sought the help of his son Hermes, the messenger of the gods and a skilled trickster.

Zeus instructs Hermes to kill Argus and to free the cow Io (c.1656)
Jan Gerritsz. van Bronchorst (Dutch, c.1603 – 1661), 277x183cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

Hermes devised a clever plan to rescue Io. He played a melodious tune on his flute and began to tell entertaining stories to Argus. As the music and tales enchanted the many-eyed giant, his eyes gradually closed, one by one, until all were shut in a peaceful slumber.

Hermes plays the flute and tells stories, until all the 100 eyes of Argus fell asleep,with the cow Io in the background (c.1592)
Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566 – 1651), 64x81cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.
Argus fell asleep and Hermes is pulling his sword to kill Argus; the cow Io in the background (1610)
Paulus van Vianen (Dutch, 1570 – 1614), Silver Plaquette, 13x16cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Taking advantage of the situation, Hermes swiftly slew Argus with a single stroke of his sword.

Hermes kills the 100-eyed Argus with Io as a cow in the back of the picture, 5th Century BC
Greek Stamnos Vase, 5th Century BC, found in Cerveteri Italy, height 30cm, diameter 25cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

After Argus’s death, Hera was informed of his demise, and she mourned the loss of her loyal servant. As a tribute to the fallen guardian, Hera transferred Argus’s eyes to the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock, which became a symbol of her power and authority.

The dead Argus on the ground, and Hera placing the eyes of Argus on the tail of a peacock (17th Century)
Deifobo Burbarini (Italian, 1619 – 1680), 159x255cm, Private Collection, latest Christie’s New York 2017.

Io was finally free from her captor, but Hera’s rage did not subside. In her fury, she sent a tormenting gadfly to relentlessly sting and chase Io across the world, making her wander in agony.

Poor Io being pestered by a gadfly sent by Hera; the fly on her ear, she cannot reach it and it makes Io-as-cow running in panic all over the Mediterranean, through the Ionian Sea and over the Bosporus into Egypt (2019)
Olivia Musgrave (Irish, 1958), Bronze, 39x54x26cm, John Martin Gallery, London.

Io’s wanderings led her to Egypt, where she eventually returned to her original human form. In Egypt, she gave birth to a son named Epaphus, who would later become a renowned king and ancestor of various legendary figures.

Io (left, back in human form but still with the cow horns) is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (right) and Io is living happily ever after
fresco from the temple of Isis in Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy.

The story of Io and Zeus is one of the many tales that highlight the complicated relationships among the gods and mortals in Greek mythology. It showcases the consequences of divine infidelity and the lengths to which the gods would go to protect their interests and secrets.

Ionian Sea and Bosporus

After her transformation into a cow and subsequent escape from Argus, Io roamed through various regions, enduring Hera’s torment in the form of a gadfly that continually stung her. Her wandering took her through different lands and over various seas. The Ionian Sea is named after Io and she crossed the Bosporus on her way to Egypt.

The word “Bosporus” does indeed have a connection to the idea of “cow crossing” in its etymology. The Bosporus, the strait that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey, derives its name from ancient Greek. The Greek word “Βόσπορος” (Bosporos) is a combination of two words: “βοῦς” (bous), which means “cow,” and “πόρος” (poros), which means “crossing” or “passage.” So, the term “Bosporus” can be interpreted as the “Cow Crossing” or the “Cow Passage.” In a similar vein, “Oxford” in England has its name derived from “oxen ford,” which means a place where oxen (and likely other cattle) could cross a river. Same for “Coevorden” in The Netherlands. Place names often carry historical or mythological significance, and they can provide fascinating insights into the cultural heritage and stories of the regions they represent.

Greek and Roman Gods

The three gods involved in the story of Zeus and Io are:

  • Zeus (Ζεύς) is the god of the sky and thunder, and king of the gods, married to Hera. His symbol is the eagle. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter, also knows as Jove. Read more about Zeus in The Twelve Olympians.
  • Hera (Ήρα) is the goddess of marriage, women and family and the queen of gods, wife of Zeus. Her symbol is the peacock. The Roman equivalent is Juno. See Hera in The Twelve Olympians.
  • Hermes (Ἑρμῆς) is the messenger of the gods and the divine trickster. His Roman equivalent is Mercury. More about Hermes in The Twelve Olympians.