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.
Bodies of water named after Io:
- The Bosporus Straight, i.e. Cow's Ford
- The Ionian Sea
- fragment 3 - The commentator states that Hesiod and Akusilaos believed Io to be the daughter of Peiren; Zeus seduced Io while she was a priestess of Hera and when Hera discovered his infidelity, he turned the girl into a white cow; Zeus then falsely swore that he did not seduce Io and consequently he ordained that a false oath concerning the deeds of Aphrodite [goddess of love] would be without penalty for men.
- fragment 4 - Zeus returned the Heifer-Maiden Io to her human form on the island of Abantis and then renamed the island Euboia meaning Island of Fine Cows.
- fragment 5 - Hera placed Argos to watch over the Heifer-Maiden Io; Argos is said to have only four eyes and due to the enchantment of Hera, never slept.
- fragment 6 - A very brief entry which simply states that Hermes killed Argos who is called the herdsman of the Heifer-Maiden Io.
The Histories by Herodotus
- Herodotus - book 1.1 - Those of the Persians who have knowledge of history declare that the Phenicians first began the quarrel [with the Greeks]. These, they say, came from that which is called the Erythraian Sea to this of ours [Mediterranean Sea]; and having settled in the land where they continue even now to dwell, set themselves forthwith to make long voyages by sea. And conveying merchandise of Egypt and of Assyria they arrived at other places and also at Argos; now Argos was at that time in all points the first of the States within that land which is now called Hellas;—the Phenicians arrived then at this land of Argos, and began to dispose of their ship's cargo: and on the fifth or sixth day after they had arrived, when their goods had been almost all sold, there came down to the sea a great company of women, and among them the daughter of the king; and her name, as the Hellenes also agree, was Io the daughter of Inachus. These standing near to the stern of the ship were buying of the wares such as pleased them most, when of a sudden the Phenicians, passing the word from one to another, made a rush upon them; and the greater part of the women escaped by flight, but Io and certain others were carried off. So they put them on board their ship, and forthwith departed, sailing away to Egypt.
- Herodotus - book 1.2 - In this manner the Persians report that Io came to Egypt, not agreeing therein with the Hellenes, and this they say was the first beginning of wrongs. Then after this, they say, certain Hellenes, but the name of the people they are not able to report, put in to the city of Tyre in Phoenicia and carried off the king's daughter Europa;—these would doubtless be Cretans;—and so they were quits for the former injury. After this however the Hellenes, they say, were the authors of the second wrong; for they sailed in to Aia of Kolchis and to the river Phasis with a ship of war, and from there, after they had done the other business for which they came, they carried off the king's daughter Medeia: and the king of Kolchis sent a herald to the land of Hellas and demanded satisfaction for the rape and to have his daughter back; but they answered that, as the Barbarians had given them no satisfaction for the rape of Io the Argive, so neither would they give satisfaction to the Barbarians for this.
- Herodotus - book 1.5 - The Persians for their part say that things happened thus; and they conclude that the beginning of their quarrel with the Hellenes was on account of the taking of Ilion: but as regards Io the Phenicians do not agree with the Persians in telling the tale thus; for they deny that they carried her off to Egypt by violent means, and they say on the other hand that when they were in Argos she was intimate with the master of their ship, and perceiving that she was with child, she was ashamed to confess it to her parents, and therefore sailed away with the Phenicians of her own will, for fear of being found out. These are the tales told by the Persians and the Phenicians severally: and concerning these things I am not going to say that they happened thus or thus, but when I have pointed to the man who first within my own knowledge began to commit wrong against the Hellenes, I shall go forward further with the story, giving an account of the cities of men, small as well as great: for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small: so then, since I know that human prosperity never continues steadfast, I shall make mention of both indifferently.
- Herodotus - book 2.41 - The clean males then of the ox kind, both full-grown animals and calves, are sacrificed by all the Egyptians; the females however they may not sacrifice, but these are sacred to Isis; for the figure of Isis is in the form of a woman with cow's horns, just as the Hellenes present Io in pictures, and all the Egyptians without distinction reverence cows far more than any other kind of cattle; for which reason neither man nor woman of Egyptian race would kiss a man who is a Hellene on the mouth, nor will they use a knife or roasting-spits or a caldron belonging to a Hellene, nor taste of the flesh even of a clean animal if it has been cut with the knife of a Hellene. And the cattle of this kind which die they bury in the following manner:—the females they cast into the river, but the males they bury, each people in the suburb of their town, with one of the horns, or sometimes both, protruding to mark the place; and when the bodies have rotted away and the appointed time comes on, then to each city comes a boat from that which is called the island of Prosopitis, this is in the Delta, and the extent of its circuit is nine schoines [approximately 1 mile or 1.6 kilometers]. In this island of Prosopitis is situated, besides many other cities, that one from which the boats come to take up the bones of the oxen, and the name of the city is Atarbechis, and in it there is set up a holy temple of Aphrodite. From this city many go abroad in various directions, some to one city and others to another, and when they have dug up the bones of the oxen they carry them off, and coming together they bury them in one single place. In the same manner as they bury the oxen they bury also their other cattle when they die; for about them also they have the same law laid down, and these also they abstain from killing.
Description of Greece by Pausanias
- book 1 [Attica], 25.1 - Such were the fates I saw befall the locusts [1) gale force winds, 2) rain followed by violent heat and 3) sudden cold]. On the Athenian Acropolis is a statue of Perikles, the son of Xanthippus, and one of Xanthippus himself, who fought against the Persians at the naval battle of Mycale [479 BCE]. But that of Perikles stands apart, while near Xanthippus stands Anakreon of Teos, the first poet after Sappho of Lesbos to devote himself to love songs, and his posture is as it were that of a man singing when he is drunk. Deinomenes [fl. 400 BCE] made the two female figures which stand near, Io, the daughter of Inachus, and Kallisto, the daughter of Lykaon, of both of whom exactly the same story is told, to wit, love of Zeus, wrath of Hera, and metamorphosis, Io becoming a cow and Kallisto a bear.
- book 3 [Lakonia], 18.13 - [carved on the throne in Amyklae] Hera is gazing at Io, the daughter of Inachus, who is already a cow, and Athene is running away from Hephaistos, who chases her. Next to these have been wrought two of the exploits of Herakles—his slaying the Hydra, and his bringing up Kerkeros [from the House of Hades]. Anaxias and Mnasinous are each seated on horseback, but there is one horse only carrying Megapenthes, the son of Menelaos, and Nikostratos. Bellerophontes is destroying the beast [the Chimaira] in Lykia, and Herakles is driving off the cows of Geryon.
Library of History by Diodorus Siculus
- book 1.24.8 - And they say that Perseus also was born in Egypt, and that the origin of Isis is transferred by the Greeks to Argos in the myth which tells of that Io who was changed into a heifer.
- book 3.74.1 - As for the first Dionysos, the son of Ammon and Amaltheia, these, then, are the deeds he accomplished as the Libyans recount the history of them; the second Dionysos, as men say, who was born to Zeus by Io, the daughter of Inachus, became king of Egypt and appointed the initiatory rites of that land; and the third and last was sprung from Zeus and Semele and became, among the Greeks, the rival of the first two.
- book 5.60.4 - Not long after this Inachus, the king of the Argives, since his daughter Io had disappeared, sent forth Kyrnos, one of his men in high command, fitting him out with a considerable fleet, and ordered him to hunt for Io in every region and not to return unless he had got possession of her.
- book 5.60.5 - And Kyrnos, after having wandered over many parts of the inhabited world without being able to find her [Io], put ashore in Karia on the Chersonesus we are discussing; and despairing of ever returning to his house, he made his home in the Chersonesus, where, partly by persuasive means and partly by the use of force, he became king of a part of the land and founded a city which bore his name Kyrnos. And by administering affairs in a popular fashion he enjoyed great favor among his fellow-citizens.
Copyrighted Material—All Rights Reserved