Io   EYE o

The Heifer-Maiden

The story of Io is one of the most touching dramas in Greek Mythology. This story goes back to the early days on Mount Olympos (Olympus). Zeus was new to the throne of eternity and his treatment of Io was nothing less than pernicious.

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Daughter of Inakhus

Io was the beautiful daughter of Inakhus (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 of the oracles at Pytho and Dodona but they could offer no help. Finally, he sent an embassy to Loxias. For the oracles of Loxias, the meaning was crystal clear. They advised Inakhus to disown his daughter, cast her into the streets and drive her from his country. If this was not done, the oracles warned, Zeus would eradicate Inakhus and his people without mercy. With heavy heart, Inakhus obeyed the oracles and forced his young daughter, Io, from his house.

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Hera had not missed the drama unfolding in Argos. She was angered by Zeus’ (attempted) infidelity so she punished 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. A gadfly began to sting and pester her, forcing her to run farther and farther from her home and happiness.

Hera wanted to be sure that her husband, Zeus, could not be alone with his new infatuation so she set the herdsman, Argos, to follow the heifer-girl. Argos was called Argos Panoptes, meaning ‘all seeing’ because he had one hundred eyes placed all over his body. Io was terrified of Argos and she fled from him as much as she did from the sting of the ever present gadfly.

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The Herdsman, Argos

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, ‘the 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.

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The punishment was not over yet. The gadfly was still goading the heifer-girl to the ends of the earth. As Io fled through the Caucasus mountains she saw Prometheus bound to the stony crag. Prometheus was a Titan who had angered Zeus with his reckless affection for the lowly mortals who populated the earth below Mount Olympos. Prometheus was chained, spread-eagle, to the pitiless rockface by the plan of Zeus and by the hand of Hephaistos (Hephaestus). Prometheus had been left to suffer in solitude and misery until Zeus’ fury subsided.

Io’s conversation with Prometheus (in Prometheus Bound, by Aeskhylus) is quite moving. She told him of her sorrowful past, how she can never sleep in the same place two nights in succession because of the insistent gadfly. She begged the Titan for his prediction of her future. The name ‘Prometheus’ means ‘forethought’. 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. 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 it all, no matter how dismal her future may be, she wanted to hear it all.

Prometheus told her of her long, lonely road. 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. Her journey would end in Egypt. He told her that she would be restored to her original beauty and have 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 made him famous.

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

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Bodies of Water Named After Io

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