INACHUS, king of the Pelasgians, the hereditary monarch of an age-old dynasty, had a beautiful daughter called Io. Zeus, the lord of Olympus, once happened to see her as she was tending her father’s flocks in the meadows of Lerna, and love for her leaped up in the god like a flame. Disguised as a mortal, he came to tempt her with sweet, seductive words.
“How happy will he be who one day calls you his own! Yet there is no mortal worthy of you, you who are fit to be the bride of the ruler of the gods. I am he! I am Zeus! No, do not run away! See, it is burning noon. Come with me to that shady grove, over there to the left, which invites us with its coolness. Why should you toil in the midday heat? You need not be afraid to enter the dim forest where beasts crouch in the dusky ravines, for am I not here to protect you, I, who weigh in my hand the scepter of the sky and flash jagged lightning over the earth?”
But the girl sped from her tempter, and fear winged her feet, so that she would surely have escaped him, had he not abused his power and plunged the entire region into darkness. She was muffled in mists and slowed her steps in alarm lest she stumble against a rock or lose her footing and slip into a river. And so unhappy Io fell into the snares of Zeus.
Hera, the mother of the gods, had long since grown accustomed to her husband’s faithlessness, for he frequently turned from her to lavish love on the daughters of demigods and mortals. Yet she had never learned to curb her anger and jealousy, but watched every move of Zeus on earth with unflagging distrust. Now too her gaze rested upon that very region where her husband was disporting himself without her knowledge, and she saw with amazement that in one particular spot the clear day was blurred with heavy mists which rose neither from the river nor the ground, nor were they due to any other natural cause. Her suspicions were instantly aroused. She looked for Zeus over all Olympus, but he was not there. “If I am not mistaken,” she said sullenly to herself, “my husband is doing me a grave wrong.”
And forthwith she left the high air of heaven, floated down to earth in a cloud, and bade the mists which walled in the seducer and his quarry break apart. Zeus had divined her coming, and to save his beloved from her vengeance, he changed the lovely daughter of Inachus into a snow-white heifer. Even so, the girl was still fair to look upon. Hera, seeing at once through her husband’s ruse, praised the stately animal and guilefully asked to whom it belonged, what breed it was, and where it had come from. In his embarrassment and desire to put an end to her questions, Zeus lyingly told her that the heifer was a mere creature of earth and nothing more. Hera pretended to be satisfied with his answer, but begged him to make her a present of the fine beast. What was the cheated cheat to do? If he granted her request he would lose his beloved; if he refused, her smoldering suspicions would burst into flame and she would surely destroy the unfortunate girl. For the time being, then, he decided to do without her and gave his wife the shimmering creature, whose secret he thought well-hidden.
Hera seemed charmed with the gift. She knotted a ribbon about the neck of the beautiful heifer, whose heart beat under the animal pelt in mortal despair, and led her off in triumph. But the goddess herself had misgivings about her action and knew she would not be at ease until she had given her rival into very safe keeping. She went in search of Argus, the son of Arestor, who seemed well suited for the task she had in mind. For Argus was a monster with a hundred eyes, of which he closed only one pair at a time, while the rest, glittering like stars over the front and back of his head, remained open and faithful to their duties. It was to Argus that Hera entrusted Io, so that Zeus would be unable to regain the mistress she had deprived him of. Fixed by those hundred eyes, the heifer was allowed to graze on slopes, green with luxuriant grass, the livelong day, but wherever she went, never was she out of sight of Argus, even when she moved behind him. At nightfall he locked her up and weighed her neck with heavy chains. She dined on bitter herbs and leathery leaves, lay on the hard bare ground, and drank from turbid pools. Often Io forgot that she was no longer human. She wanted to lift her hands in supplication, only to remember that she had no hands. She wanted to plead with Argus in sweet, compelling words, but when she opened her mouth she shrank from the lows she uttered. Argus did not keep her in one place, for Hera had bidden him pasture her far and wide, so that it would be difficult for Zeus to discover her. Thus it was that she and her guard roamed the countryside, until one day she found herself in her native land, on the bank of the river where she had so often played as a child. Now for the first time she saw herself in her altered shape, and when the head of a horned beast stared back at her from the bright mirror of the waters, she fled from her own image in shuddering alarm. Driven by longing, she turned toward her sisters and her father, but they did not recognize her. Inachus did, indeed, stroke her shimmering flank and proffer her leaves plucked from a bush growing near by. But when the heifer licked his hand in gratitude, and covered it with kisses and human tears, the old man still did not guess whom he had caressed, nor who had returned his caresses. At last the poor girl, whose mind had suffered no change along with her form, had a happy thought. With her hoof she began to trace written symbols in the sand, and soon her father, whose attention had been attracted to this curious behavior, deciphered the news that his own child stood before him.
“What misery!” exclaimed the old man, as he clung to the horns and neck of his moaning daughter. “Must I find you like this, you whom I have looked for the world over! Alas, I grieved less when I was seeking you than now that I have found you. You are silent? Can you give me no word of comfort, but only low? Fool that I was! All my thoughts were bent upon choosing a son-in-law worthy of you, and now you are like those who run in a herd …” Inachus could not finish his lament, for Argus, the cruel watchman, snatched Io from her father and dragged her far away to a solitary pasture. Then he himself climbed to the peak of a mountain and performed his office by peering to the four corners of the world with his hundred wary eyes.
And now Zeus could no longer endure the sorrows of Io. He summoned his dear son Hermes and commanded him to trick hated Argus into closing his eyes. Hermes bound his winged sandals to his feet, grasped in his strong hand the staff which scatters sleep, and put on his travelling cap. In this raiment he left his father’s house and sped down to earth. There he laid aside his cap and wings and kept only his staff, so that he looked like a shepherd with his crook. He coaxed a flock of wild goats to follow him and went to the lonely meadow where Io was nibbling the young blades under the stare of the ever-watchful Argus. Then Hermes drew forth a shepherd’s pipe, called a syrinx, and began to sound notes more full and sweet than mortal herdsmen play.
Hera’s servant, pleased with the unexpected music, rose from his lofty seat and called down: “Whoever you may be, most welcome piper, come and rest on this rock with me. You will find no thicker or greener grass for your beasts, and that clump of close-growing trees offers pleasant shade to the herd.”
Hermes thanked Argus and clambered up beside him. He began to speak, and his talk was so lively and beguiling that the hours passed unnoticed. Those hundred lids grew heavy, and now Hermes fingered his reed and thought to put Argus to sleep with his playing. But Io’s guard feared the anger of his mistress, should he slacken his watchfulness, and fought his desire for sleep to the extent of keeping at least part of his eyes open. With a great effort he marshalled his drowsy wits and, since the reed pipe was something new, asked his companion its origin.
“I shall be glad to tell you,” said Hermes, “if you have the patience to listen at this late hour. In the snow-covered hills of Arcadia lived a famous hamadryad called Syrinx. The woodland gods and satyrs were charmed with her loveliness and wooed her ardently, but again and again she eluded their pursuit, for she feared the yoke of marriage. Like Artemis with her girdle, Artemis, lover of the chase, she was loath to give up her maidenhood. Finally the great god Pan saw the nymph as he was roaming the forest and began to court her insistently, though with the proud bearing the knowledge of his own majesty gave him. But him too she spurned and fled through pathless wilderness until she came to the sandy river Ladon, whose waters were just deep enough to block her crossing. She hesitated on the bank and implored her sisters, the nymphs, to take pity upon her and change her form before the god overtook her. Just then he came and clasped her in his arms, but to his great astonishment he found himself holding a reed instead of a maiden. His deep sighs entered the reed, were multiplied in passage, and echoed their own sound in mournful murmurs. The magic of these notes soothed the bereft god’s anguish. ‘So be it, O Loveliness transformed,’ he cried in pain and delight. ‘Even so we shall be united and nothing can ever part us.’ Then he cut himself reeds of various lengths, joined them with wax, and named his flute for the fair hamadryad. Ever since that time we have called the shepherd’s pipe syrinx …”
This was the tale of the messenger of the gods, and never did he turn his gaze from Argus in the telling. Before the end he saw one eye after another veiled beneath its lid, until at last heavy sleep had put out all the hundred lights. Now Hermes checked the ripple of his voice and with his magic staff touched each of those closed eyes to deepen their oblivion. Then he swiftly drew forth the sickle-shaped sword he had concealed under his shepherd’s smock, cut through the bowed neck of Argus where it was closest to the head, and both head and trunk plunged down from the peak and stained the stones with jets of blood.
Now Io was free, and though she was still in the shape of a heifer, she sped away in unshackled liberty. But the sharp eyes of Hera detected all that had happened below. She cast about for some instrument to inflict exquisite torment upon her rival, and chanced upon the gadfly. This insect almost crazed Io with its sting and drove her from her own country and over all the earth: to the Scythians, to the Caucasus, to the tribe of the Amazons, the Cimmerian Isthmus, the sea of Maeotis, and thence into Asia. After long and difficult wanderings she came to Egypt. Here, on the shores of the Nile, she sank down upon her forefeet, bent back her head and gazed upward to Zeus in heaven in mute accusation. So stricken with pity was he at sight of her, that he hastened to Hera, embraced her, implored her mercy for the poor girl, who had done nothing to provoke his faithlessness, and swore by the waters of the underworld (on which the gods take their oaths) that he would give up his fondness for her. While he was still beseeching her, Hera heard the low of the heifer which rose through the clear air, even up to Olympus. Her heart softened, and she gave her husband leave to return Io to her own true shape.
Zeus hurried to earth and swept on to the Nile. He passed his hand over the heifer’s back, and a curious change ensued: the shag vanished from her body, the horns dwindled, her eyes narrowed, the muzzle curved to lips, shoulders and hands appeared, and the hooves were suddenly gone. Nothing of the heifer remained but her fair white color. Io rose from the ground and stood erect, and beauty breathed about her. There, on the bank of the Nile, she bore Zeus a son, Epaphus, and because the people venerated her, who had been so miraculously saved, as though she were a goddess, she ruled over that country for many years. But even so, she was never quite safe from the wrath of Hera, who incited the savage Curetes to steal young Epaphus. So again Io wandered up and down the earth, this time in a futile search for her son. At last—after Zeus had struck the Curetes with lightning—she found Epaphus on the border of Ethiopia, took him back to Egypt, and shared the throne with him. He married Memphis, who bore him Libya, for whom the land of Libya is named. When mother and son died, the peoples of the Nile built temples for them and worshipped them as gods, her as Isis, and him as Apis.