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Io and Zeus in Greek Mythology

Updated on December 12, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Story of Io and Zeus in Greek Mythology

The story of Io and Zeus is one of the oldest stories from Greek mythology, and predates the time of Homer, as the Greek writer was well aware of it.

The legend of Io though, was one told by almost all of the writers in antiquity, each adding their own take and embellishment. This means that the story of Io in Greek mythology is not a straightforward one, but a basic retelling is outlined below.

Who is Io?

Io was a Naiad, a water nymph, and the daughter of the powerful river god Inachus. Inachus, although a Potamoi, was also regarded as the King of Argos, meaning that Io was also given the title of princess of Argos.

Zeus and Io

Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1759-1829) PD-art-100
Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1759-1829) PD-art-100 | Source

Io and Zeus - Io Transformed

Io was so beautiful that she caught the attention of Zeus, who sought to seduce her. Zeus was well aware of the jealous nature of Hera, his wife, and so first sought to mask his indiscretion. This the god did by bringing forth cloud cover over Argos, hiding the land from the prying eyes of Mount Olympus.

Hera though, was not so easily fooled, and recognised the trickery of her husband in the divine cloud. Hera therefore descended to Argos to investigate for himself. At the prospect of being caught in flagrante by his wife, Zeus quickly transformed Io into a beautiful looking heifer.

Io Tethered

Hera again was not fooled, and rather than accusing her husband, asked him to give her, as a present, the beautiful heifer. Zeus, of course, had no choice but to agree; and so Io, in the form of a cow, was now a possession of Hera.

Hera called upon the services of Argus Panoptes, the hundred-eyed giant, to act as herdsman for her new heifer; the ever watchful Argus would prevent Zeus coming close to Io unnoticed.

So, Zeus and Hera departed from Argos, and Io was left in the care of Argus, in a sacred olive grove of the goddess. During the day she was never out of sight of the giant, for he could look in all directions at once, and at night, the giant would tether up the cow to prevent her wandering off.

Hera Gifted the Heifer

David Teniers the Elder (1582–1649) PD-art-100
David Teniers the Elder (1582–1649) PD-art-100 | Source

Io and Argus - Io Freed

Zeus had not abandoned Io though, and sent his son Hermes, the thief god, to try and steal away the transformed Naiad, from under the watchful gaze of Argus. Even Hermes, as skilful as he was, could not steal away the prize, and so Hermes instead killed Argus Panoptes.

Hermes either killed Argus with a stone; or instead disguised himself as a shepherd, played sweet music to lull the giant to sleep, and then decapitated Argus.

Hera was almost immediately aware that Io was no longer a prisoner of Argus. Firstly, she honoured a trusted prison guard by taking his 100 eyes and placing them on the plumage of the peacock for all time, and then planned her continued punishment of Io

Io, Argus, and Hermes

Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651) PD-art-100
Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651) PD-art-100 | Source

Io Wanders the World

Io might be freed from captivity, but she was still in the form of a heifer, and to cause her pain, Hera dispatched a gadfly to sting her.

The wanderings of Io were long and widespread, with the combined writings taking almost every area of ancient Europe and Asia.

It is generally agreed that after leaving Argos, Io went to Molossis, and then Dodona, before resting by the sea, this sea being named the Ionian Sea in Io’s honour. Later in her journey, Io would also give her name to the Bosporus, for that word means “ox passage”.

The most important part of Io’s wanderings though took her to the Caucasus Mountains, where the transformed Naiad encountered the chained up Prometheus. The words of the Titan would soothe Io, for having the gift of foresight, Prometheus told Io the route by which she had to travel to be saved. Prometheus also advised her that her descendants would include the greatest of all Ancient Greeks.

The final destination for Io would prove to be Egypt, and heartened by the words of Prometheus, Io set off once again.

Io and Zeus

Jacopo Amigoni (1682–1752)  PD-art-100
Jacopo Amigoni (1682–1752) PD-art-100 | Source

Io in Egypt

Getting from the Caucasus Mountains to Egypt (Aigyptos) was no easy task, especially when in the form of a heifer, but eventually Io made it; and by the banks of the Nile found some peace. It was there that Zeus found Io once again, and by touching her with her hand, turned Io back into a beautiful maiden.

Io would then give birth to Zeus’ son, Epaphos; Epaphos would become ancestor for all Libyans and Ethiopians, the founder of Memphis and a king of Egypt. Io would then be identified with Isis, the Egyptian goddess, and Epaphos would be the sacred bull Apis.

Some sources, including the Bibliotheca, do tell of how Hera as not quite given up on her persecution of Io. Hera would send the Curetes or Telchines to kidnap the newborn son of Zeus; and when Zeus heard of the abduction, he threw down lightning bolts, killing the kidnappers.

Io though, was forced to wander once again, this time in search of her son, and she found him safe in the court of King Malcander of Byblus. Io and son would return to Egypt, where Io married the king of Egypt, Telegonus.

Loose Ends to the Io Story

It might be pondered what Inachus was doing about his missing daughter. In some versions of the Io myth Inachus does nothing, as he has been warned by an oracle about the deadly consequences of searching for Io. In other versions though, Inachus sent out ambassadors, Cyrnus and Lyrcus, to look for his daughter, although both were unsuccessful in their quests.

As to the prophecy of Prometheus, the descendant of Io would return to Greece; Danaos would found the new royal line of Argos, and Cadmus, would found Thebes. The family line of Io would also include many noted individuals, including Heracles, Perseus and Dionysus.

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