Io (mythology)

Io (mythology)
This article is about the mythological figure. For the moon of Jupiter, see Io (moon).

Io play /ˈ./ (Ancient Greek: Ἰώ [iːɔ̌ː]) was, in Greek mythology, a priestess of Hera in Argos,[1] a nymph who was seduced by Zeus, who changed her into a heifer to escape detection. His wife Hera set ever-watchful Argus Panoptes to guard her, but Hermes was sent to distract the guardian and slay him. Heifer Io was loosed to roam the world, stung by a maddening gadfly sent by Hera, and wandered to Egypt, thus placing her descendant Belus in Egypt; his sons Cadmus and Danaus would then "return" to mainland Greece.

Io's father is generally given as Inachus,[2] 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[3] and thus by her nature the nymph of a spring, a naiad.

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 (Οίστρος 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.

Hermes, Io (as cow) and Argus, black-figure amphora, 540–530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 585)

Prometheus had been chained on Mt. Caucasus by Zeus for teaching mankind how to make fire and tricking him into accepting the worse 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[4] 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 ancients connected Io with the Moon,[5] 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

In the game Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Io is a Persona of the Arcana "The Lovers", and is the first Persona of Yukari Takeba. She is represented as a young woman chained to a throne shaped as a bull's head and has wind-related abilities.

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 Ares's romantic advances.


  1. ^ In a fragment of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women.
  2. ^ Other fathers, Iasos or Peiren are briefly noted in Bibliotheke 2.5
  3. ^ A genealogy constructed for a "House of Argos" cannot be reconciled with the myths.
  4. ^ Burkert, Homo Necans (1974) 1983:164 note 14, giving bibliography.
  5. ^ Eustathius of Thessalonica commentary on Dionysius Periegetes, 92; the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda s.v. "Io", Hesychius, s.v. "Io".

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