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The Heifer-Maiden


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The story of Io is one of the most touching dramas in Greek prehistory. It's the story of a humble maiden who caught the eye of Zeus and paid a terrible price for her resistance to his amorous advances.

The new Olympians had taken control of all creation and Zeus was relatively new to the Throne of Eternity when he noticed Io. After having several wives, Zeus finally married his sister Hera ... she was the last wife Zeus would take. Zeus was not a faithful husband and Hera knew of most of his indiscretions but Zeus wanted to hide his infatuation with Io.

Io was the beautiful daughter of Inachus of Argos. She began having strange dreams with voices and visions telling her to leave her bed and go into a field where Zeus could 'see' her. She told her father of the dreams and he sought advice from the Oracles at Pytho [Delphi] and Dodona but they could offer no help. Finally, he sent an embassy to Loxias. For the Oracle of Loxias, the meaning Io's dreams was crystal clear. Inachus was advised to disown his daughter, cast her into the streets and drive her from his country. If this was not done, the oracle warned, Zeus would eradicate Inachus and his people without mercy. With a heavy heart, Inachus obeyed the oracle and forced his innocent daughter from his house.

Hera had not missed the drama unfolding in Argos. She was angered by Zeus's infidelity so she decided to punish Zeus by punishing Io. As Io fled in tears from her father's house, she began to change ... horns popped out on her head and as she ran, she completely transformed into a black and white heifer. At Hera's bidding, a gadfly began to sting and pester the Heifer-Maiden, forcing her to run farther and farther from her home and happiness.

Hera wanted to be sure that Zeus could not be alone with his new infatuation so she sent the herdsman Argos to follow the Heifer-Maiden. Argos was called Argos Panoptes, meaning 'all seeing' because he had one hundred eyes. Io was terrified of Argos and she fled from him as much as she did from the sting of the ever-present gadfly.

Zeus was inflamed. With Argos on guard he couldn't secretly meet with the lovely Io. He instructed his son Hermes to kill Argos. To this day, Hermes is often called Argeiphontes, Slayer of Argos. He lulled the herdsman to sleep with sweet music and then beheaded the sleeping watchman before he could defend himself. Io was now free of the all-seeing Argos.

The punishment was not over yet. The gadfly was still goading the Heifer-Maiden to the ends of the earth. As Io fled through the Caucasus Mountains she saw Prometheus bound to the stony crag. Prometheus had angered Zeus by giving fire to the shivering mortals who populated the earth. For his crime, Prometheus was chained, spread-eagle, to the pitiless rock-face at the command of Zeus and by the hand of Hephaistos. Prometheus was left to suffer in solitude and misery until Zeus's fury subsided.


Io's conversation with Prometheus [in the play Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus] is quite moving. She told him of her sorrowful past, how she could never sleep in the same place two nights in succession because of the insistent gadfly. Because his name means 'Forethought,' she begged Prometheus for his prediction of her future ... she simply wanted to know when her suffering would end. Even in his tortured condition, Prometheus tried to spare her feelings. She asked why he would not be forthright and he replied that he was afraid that if he told her the depth and duration of her suffering, the knowledge might break her spirit. She wanted to hear everything, no matter how dismal her future may be ... she wanted to hear it all.

Prometheus told her of the long, lonely road she would have to tread. He advised her on which way to travel and where she might find help along the way. He told her to be strong because she would eventually be freed from the curse of Hera and that her journey would end in Egypt. He told her that she would be restored to her original beauty and be blessed with a glorious son named Epaphos. Prometheus also foresaw the ironic fact that one of her descendants would, after thirteen generations, come back to that lonely mountain and cut the bonds that held him to the rock-face.

The predictions of Prometheus came true. Io's flight took her east towards Asia, through the land of the Amazons and, after years of tortuous wandering, to Egypt. When the hand of Zeus reached out and touched Io, the curse was lifted ... Io was restored to her youthful beauty and allowed to live out her mortal life in peace.

The events involving Io occurred at the dawn of time ... long before The Deluge which might be dated circa 11,000 BCE. It has been suggested that Io's presence in Egypt predated the creation of the Egyptian pantheon. The Greek name of Io was very likely corrupted into the Egyptian language as Isis ... this would explain the reverence given to Isis by the Greeks and Romans well into historical times.

The Sea

Bodies of water named after Io:

Text References

The Aegimius

The Histories by Herodotus

Description of Greece by Pausanias

Library of History by Diodorus Siculus

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