Wow, been a while since I’ve done a myth re-telling, hasn’t it? I picked this one because of something I came across for my final paper in my Roman history class. (I’ll explain along with my other discussions of the final paper tomorrow.)
In Argos, there was a river named Inachos. The god of that river — like many other river gods, in truth — had many mortal children, and they, in their turn, had many more children, so that the people of Argos were often looked at as being all sprung from the banks of the Inachos.
One of the Argives who truly carried the blood of Inachos in her veins was Io, a beautiful young maiden who served as priestess in Hera’s temple. Argos was a special place to the queen of the gods, and her Argive temple was her favorite place in all the mortal realm, so she visited it frequently. And sometimes when she came back to Olympos, she would tell the other gods about the mortals she had seen in her temple.
And maybe — just maybe — she should have been a little more careful in telling those tales.
Because once — just once — when she was telling her sister Demeter how very lovely the priestess Io was, their brother Zeus overheard.
And of course he wanted to see this beautiful priestess for himself. (He had always been a fan of beauty, after all!)
Zeus disguised himself as an old man, and went down to the mortal plane. Looking harmless enough, he entered Hera’s temple, and was so immediately blown away by Io’s purity and beauty that it was all he could do not to start seducing her then and there, his disguise still in place. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your point of view — he was able to keep himself under control just a little bit as he approached Io.
“You are Io of the blood of Inachos, are you not?” Zeus asked her.
“Yes, I am,” Io answered innocently, looking at the old man in confusion. Her identity was, after all, hardly a secret! She thought everyone in Argos knew who she was. She had often heard rumors that they were planning on making her the next head priestess. Surely they wouldn’t do that if she wasn’t well known! “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I am a seer from a distant land,” Zeus told her, bowing slightly, “and I have come all this way to deliver you an important message.”
“Really?” Io asked. “What is it?”
“The king of the gods, Zeus himself, has commanded that you must go to the nearby plains, fertile with flowers, and await him there,” the son of Kronos replied, trying to keep the lustful grin off his face.
“My goodness, really? How odd! I wonder what he could want with me!” Io exclaimed, so innocent that everyone who heard her — apart from the lecherous Zeus — felt sorry for the poor dear. “Thank you so much for bringing me this message,” Io went on, clasping the old man’s hands. “I’ll do as you say at once. It wouldn’t do to disobey the gods!”
Obediently, Io left the temple, and headed to the flowery fields. Finding them utterly deserted, Io stood there waiting for a few minutes, then decided to sit down for a while. As she sat there, she slowly grew bored, and fell asleep.
While Io slept, dark thunderclouds rolled in over her, hiding her from any prying eyes on Mt. Olympos. Once the field was entirely hidden, Zeus appeared by her side, still in his mortal disguise.
Io awoke and looked at what she thought was just an old man, then looked up at the sky, and grew worried. “Oh, dear, the weather looks threatening,” she said. “And I’ve heard nothing from Lord Zeus. Perhaps you were mistaken? I should go inside before the storm comes…”
“These clouds won’t rain,” Zeus assured her, “and I am never mistaken.”
“But…” Io started. Her voice trailed off as Zeus dropped his mortal disguise, and appeared before her in his preferred form for seducing young maidens. (Though he had not, in all truth, seduced more than a couple of mortal maidens at this point, for the world was still very new, and the great Flood had only been dry for a couple of generations.) This form was similar to his real appearance — but a bit more handsome, truth be told — but without any of the hazards, as his real, divine shape would burn up an unprepared mortal.
Once his true identity was revealed, Zeus expected that Io would know exactly what he wanted from her. To his dismay, she did not — after all, he was still new at seducing mortal maids, and had not yet gained his reputation for it — and he had to explain in great detail, and with ever more liberties on her person, to make her understand his desires.
As soon as Io understood, she was torn between her duties. As a priestess of Hera, how could she betray her goddess by committing adultery with her husband? And yet as a dutiful, proper mortal, how could she resist a divine command?
Zeus — his patience beginning to wear thin — began having his way with her long before she had quite made up her mind…though she had certainly been leaning towards accepting his advances, since he was, after all, appearing very handsome to her, and it didn’t seem right to refuse a god.
Up on Mt. Olympos, Hera was looking for her husband. The longer he went without her laying eyes on him, the more suspicious she got that he was off cheating on her. She might not have minded that quite so much if he didn’t always make such a big production number of it. He was always telling their brothers — well, mostly just Poseidon, really — about his latest conquests, and he went so far out of his way to provide for his bastards. If he would just be sneaky and furtive about it like a mortal man, and would refuse to admit that the children were his, then maybe Hera would have let it go more often. If only he would be ashamed of himself, like any decent man!
But the wretch actually seemed proud of his lechery and inability to keep his lust under control!
Of course Hera was infuriated by it!
What else could she be?
So she was in quite the foul mood by the time she realized that Zeus was most definitely not anywhere on Mt. Olympos. She looked in on a few of his favorite mistresses, but didn’t see him with them. What was worse was that Hermes — the lecherous product of her husband’s lechery, and his constant accomplice and go-between — began to act suspiciously every time Hera glanced down towards the mortal realm. He would try to distract her, and turn her mind to games in the gardens of the Olympian palace.
He was covering for his father. Hera just knew it.
Ignoring the little wretch, Hera scanned the horizons of the mortal world. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.
Zeus had never learned the word “subtlety.”
A nice, perfectly round thundercloud, holding in one place, without raining a drop, and without any other clouds anywhere around?
Really, did he think she was an idiot?
The insult of it made her even angrier than she already was. As Hera headed towards the mortal realm, she began to go over her options, trying to pick just the right torments for her adulterous brother and his strumpet.
Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on whose side you’re on — Zeus had just finished his business with Io when he felt the radiating heat of Hera’s anger approaching.
Desperate to avoid getting in trouble — and a little worried about what she might do to his pretty no-longer-a-maiden — Zeus hastily turned Io into a cow, so that when Hera appeared before him moments later, he seemed to be quite innocently standing in a field with a befuddled-looking cow.
“What are you up to down here?!” Hera demanded. She wasn’t fooled. She knew very well the difference between a cow and a mortal girl in the shape of a cow. And she was all the more incensed because she could recognize the blood of Inachos in the ‘cow’s’ veins. “Did you think a cloud was enough to hide your adultery from me?!” She was about to launch into him for his pathetic attempt to hide his mistress in the shape of a cow, but Zeus began speaking even before she could.
“What adultery?” Zeus asked. “I’ve no more committed adultery today than I have lain with this cow,” he assured her, gesturing towards Io, who stamped one hoof indignantly.
“And what are you doing down here hiding from me with a cow, then?” Hera insisted. Let him try to explain that!
“Why, I was just admiring the animal’s fine appearance, and thinking of bringing her up to Olympos as a present for my cow-eyed queen,” Zeus said, with a smarmy smile. He was sure that his proud wife would be aghast at the idea of receiving a cow for a present, and would storm away in another huff, convinced that he was a faithful but idiotic husband.
Of course, he didn’t get the reaction he was expecting. “My, really?” Hera asked, feigning belief. “How very sweet of you, my dear! She is a lovely animal, isn’t she? I’ll put her with the rest of my menagerie in the garden.” Without waiting for him to try to change his mind or worm his girlfriend away from her, Hera took the cow and rose back up to Mt. Olympos.
Setting the poor, confused, terrified Io down in the garden, Hera called out her son Hephaistos, and asked him to craft a collar and chain for the cow, something that Zeus wouldn’t be able to break. Naturally, Hephaistos didn’t quite understand why his mother wanted to chain up a cow, but he did as he was ordered, and soon Hera had chained Io to a stake in the garden. Then she called up her devoted servant Argos.
Argos was an enormous being, covered in eyes. He was incapable of sleep, because it was impossible for him to close all those eyes at once. But that made him the greatest guard anyone could ask for, since he was tireless, and always looking in every direction at once.
“Yes, my lady?” Argos asked, several of his eyes looking at the cow in confusion. “What do you require of me?”
“This heifer is one of my husband’s mortal mistresses,” Hera told him.
“Would you like me to slay it and prepare a feast for him?” Argos suggested. Io’s cow eyes opened wide in fear, and she began trying to pull her head out of the collar.
“Of course not,” Hera told him, setting a hand on Io’s head, settling her down again. “The girl was one of my priestesses. I owe it to her to find out the truth before I deal any punishments,” she said, removing her hand again. “I know what Zeus is like; he may have seduced her in disguise, or the girl may have been unwilling. If he is the one who deserves punishment, then why should I punish her? But if she was complicit…” Hera let out a tight, unpleasant laugh. “Well, I’m going to ask Helios and a few of the local nymphs if they saw anything. In the mean time, I want you to guard this girl and keep my husband far away from her. And watch out for Hermes! That wretched scamp is always helping his father in this sort of thing.”
Argos promised Hera that his countless eyes would never allow anyone to reach the cow, and Hera went away to her interrogations, determined to learn the truth.
But Zeus was worried. He wasn’t quite sure what Hera was going to do to poor Io, and he knew that she would be producing a child in due time — no mortal maid can lie with a god in vain, after all! — and if Io was still a cow in Hera’s clutches when that happened…!
Calling Hermes to him, Zeus explained the predicament. Hermes assured him that Argos would be no impediment, and Io would soon be safe again. “Do you want me to turn her back into a girl right away?” he added.
“No one can undo her transformation other than I myself,” Zeus told his son, annoyed at his presumption. “Take her back down to the mortal world, and…hmm. I’m not sure where she’ll be safest from Hera’s wrath. Well, once she’s in the mortal realm again, I’ll think of something.”
Hermes nodded, and headed into the garden. As soon as he arrived, Argos pointed his sword at him, and told him to keep back.
“Why, I’m only here to enjoy the beauty of the gardens!” Hermes insisted. “Surely there’s no reason a god can’t enjoy himself?” he replied. He was not in the least bit hesitant to remind Argos — or anyone else, for that matter — that he was one of the twelve Olympians, gods among gods.
Argos scowled, but didn’t argue the point. “Very well,” he said, “but stay away from this heifer. She’s my charge.”
“Really? My step-mother does have some daft ideas, wasting your time guarding a stupid cow,” Hermes said, testing the waters. If he could convince Argos to give up on his assigned task…
“Speak ill of my lady again, and I’ll cut out your filthy tongue!” Argos snarled. “How many nymphs would want to share your bed if you only had a bloody stump to wag at them?”
Hermes smiled, fighting not to shudder. That had sounded rather like Argos planned on cutting off more than just his tongue…
Clearly, the many-eyed, all-seeing lout could not be talked into abandoning his mistress’ orders. And he was far too large for Hermes to fight him head-on. Fighting wasn’t really his thing, anyway.
Glancing around the garden, Hermes saw that his brother Apollo had left a lyre lying around.
Hermes plucked up the lyre, and began to play it. Inventor of the thing or no, he wasn’t actually as skilled with it as Apollo was, but he did know a few tricks his elder brother hadn’t yet (and probably never would) picked up on. He played a special melody, and added a soft song to it. No, not a song. A spell.
A spell of sleep.
Argos’ eyes began to close, but the gigantic foe was struggling to stay awake.
It was a long and tough battle. As soon as Hermes managed to get three eyes to close, one would open again. Every time he thought he had it made, four or five would open at once.
But Hermes was tenacious, and Argos was just a big, dumb brute covered in eyeballs. (Or so Hermes insisted later, in bragging of the task.)
Eventually, every one of Argos’ eyes had closed, and the giant had drifted off into a deep and peaceful slumber.
Treading carefully, Hermes walked over to Argos’ side, and picked up his sword, lying discarded by his side. Without a moment’s hesitation, he plunged the sword into Argos’ throat, putting an end to the eye-covered foe.
At the sight of such violence, Io reared up on her hind legs — little realizing that cows do not usually do that — and began to fight to get away, terrified of just who this new, vicious man could be, and worried about what he would do to her.
“Calm down,” Hermes told her, even as he was appropriating Argos’ sword belt — it was a nice weapon, after all! — and slinging it over his own shoulder. “My father sent me here to rescue you.”
His words did little to calm Io’s fears, and she continued her futile attempts to escape.
Annoyed, Hermes walked over to the panicking cow, and tried to remove her collar. No matter what he did, though, neither the collar nor the chain would break or budge. Hephaistos was a very skilled craftsman, let no one forget!
After several minutes of trying — in the course of which Io had grown tired and stopped struggling to escape — Hermes finally laughed. “Of course. Everything has its weak point,” he said. Then he simply pulled up the stake to which Io’s chain was attached. “Now let’s go,” he said, leading the beheifered maid away by her chain.
Hermes had gotten Io down to Euboia by the time Hera returned to Olympos. No one she had asked had seen anything, except that Helios had seen Zeus approaching the innocent and confused maid in Hera’s own temple. If the girl hadn’t known what Zeus wanted from her…
All thoughts of Io’s possible innocence disappeared from Hera’s mind when she arrived in her garden, however. All that awaited her was the pathetic slight of poor, slain Argos. Disgusted, Hera sent a gadfly down to sting Io over and over again. Some part of her mind knew that the murder was hardly the girl’s fault, but she was enraged to have one of her few allies so brutally, horribly and needlessly slain!
While the gadfly was stinging Io and sending her into such a fit of madness that Hermes lost his grip on her chain and let her go running off wildly, Hera called up her favorite bird, the peacock. It was a beautiful bird, but its tail was surprisingly plain for something so large and impressive. Hera gently removed Argos’ undamaged eyes, and set them on the tips of the peacock’s tail feathers. The bird seemed pleased by the adornment — and the peahens were delighted, too, it turned out — and Hera hoped that in some way the bird would inherit Argos’ spirit, too.
Down in the mortal realm, Io ran and ran, bitten and stung. She was sure that the gadfly was Argos’ ghost, hounding her over his death, though it had been none of her doing.
By the time she arrived in distant Egypt, her running had become slow indeed. It wasn’t that the stinging gadfly bothered her any less! But by now she was nearly ready to give birth, and that was quite the impediment to her progress.
Zeus couldn’t allow his son to be born as a calf, so he made the hasty journey to Egypt, and slew the gadfly — hardly a difficult task for a god! — then laid his hand on Io’s head, restoring her to her original human form. And not a moment too soon, as she was soon giving birth to his son. While Io was giving birth, Zeus lifted the collar off her — it was now much too large, after all!
But before she had finished giving birth, Zeus returned to Mt. Olympos, worried that his continued presence might put the baby in jeopardy from his sister-wife’s jealousy.
The baby was given the name Epaphis, and he went on to rule over all of Egypt…not that it was yet called Egypt! It would only gain that name from one of Epaphis’ descendants, Aegyptos.
But that’s another story.
OMG, I’m sorry about that Neverending Story ending. I shouldn’t lift stuff from such a great book, not with my flimsy and meager skills.
Aaaaaaaanyway, I think I’ve been resisting the tales of Zeus seducing mortal women because of the way Hera tends to come off as a villainess for wanting to avenge her honor. I hope I’ve managed to relate the tale well enough without either smearing Hera’s name further while keeping the the original story. Most of the elements are genuine, in any case, even if I’ve combined them oddly.
Oh, btw, the reason I don’t say exactly what the relationship is between Inachos and Io is because in early texts there are several generations between the river god and Io, while in later versions (like the surviving tragedies) Io is directly his daughter. I wanted to be vague so it would fit in with either version.
Now that I’m thinking about it (in applying the tags to this post), it is rather odd that the maiden being guarded over by Argos Panoptes is from Argos. I bet there was a reason for that as the myth developed. Pity there’s no way of finding out without a time machine…