Ovid's Metamorphoses: Io

As the story begins, Jupiter (Zeus), the king of the gods, has fallen in lust with a woman named Io (sometimes called "Phoronis"), the daughter of the river god Inachus, who is a priestess in the temple of Juno (Hera), Jupiter's wife, the queen of the gods.

You will also see that Juno is referred to as "Saturnia," as both she and Jupiter are the children of the god Saturn. You will also see a reference to Juno's special bird: the peacock. In addition to being a story about Io, this is also a story about how the peacock got its colorful tail feathers, decorated with what look like eyes.

I have omitted part of Ovid's poem here, a "story within a story" when Mercury is lulling Argus to sleep; he tells Argus the story of Syrinx, the story of a nymph pursued by the lusty god Pan.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

Jupiter’s rape of Io

Jupiter first saw her returning from her father’s stream, and said, ‘Virgin, worthy of Jupiter himself, who will make some unknown man happy when you share his bed, while it is hot and the sun is at the highest point of its arc, find shade in the deep woods!’ (And he showed her the woods’ shade). ‘But if you are afraid to enter the wild beasts’ lairs, you can go into the remote woods in safety, protected by a god, and not by any lesser god, but by the one who holds the sceptre of heaven in his mighty hand, and who hurls the flickering bolts of lightning. Do not fly from me!’ She was already in flight. She had left behind Lerna’s pastures, and the Lyrcean plain’s wooded fields, when the god hid the wide earth in a covering of fog, caught the fleeing girl, and raped her.

Jupiter transforms Io to a heifer

Meanwhile Juno looked down into the heart of Argos, surprised that rapid mists had created night in shining daylight. She knew they were not vapours from the river, or breath from the damp earth. She looked around to see where her husband was, knowing by now the intrigues of a spouse so often caught in the act.

When she could not find him in the skies, she said ‘Either I am wrong, or being wronged’ and gliding down from heaven’s peak, she stood on earth ordering the clouds to melt.

Jupiter had a presage of his wife’s arrival and had changed Inachus’s daughter into a gleaming heifer. Even in that form she was beautiful. Saturnia approved the animal’s looks, though grudgingly, asking, then, whose she was, where from, what herd, as if she did not know.

Jupiter, to stop all inquiry, lied, saying she had been born from the earth.

Then Saturnia claimed her as a gift. What could he do? Cruel to sacrifice his love, but suspicious not to. Shame urges him to it, Amor urges not. Amor would have conquered Shame, but if he refused so slight a gift as a heifer to the companion of his race and bed, it might appear no heifer!

Juno claims Io and Argus guards her

Though her rival was given up the goddess did not abandon her fears at once, cautious of Jupiter and afraid of his trickery, until she had given Io into Argus’s keeping, that son of Arestor. Argus had a hundred eyes round his head, that took their rest two at a time in succession while the others kept watch and stayed on guard. Wherever he stood he was looking at Io, and had Io in front of his eyes when his back was turned.

He let her graze in the light, but when the sun sank below the earth, he penned her, and fastened a rope round her innocent neck. She grazed on the leaves of trees and bitter herbs. She often lay on the bare ground, and the poor thing drank water from muddy streams. When she wished to stretch her arms out to Argus in supplication, she had no arms to stretch. Trying to complain, a lowing came from her mouth, and she was alarmed and frightened by the sound of her own voice. When she came to Inachus’s riverbanks where she often used to play and saw her gaping mouth and her new horns in the water, she grew frightened and fled terrified of herself.

Inachus finds Io and grieves for her

The Naiads did not know her: Inachus himself did not know her, but she followed her father, followed her sisters, allowing herself to be petted, and offering herself to be admired.

Old Inachus pulled some grasses and held them out to her: she licked her father’s hand and kissed his palm, could not hold back her tears, and if only words could have come she would have begged for help, telling her name and her distress. With letters drawn in the dust with her hoof, instead of words, she traced the sad story of her changed form.

‘Pity me!’ said her father Inachus, clinging to the groaning heifer’s horns and snow-white neck. ‘Pity me!’ he sighed; ‘Are you really my daughter I searched the wide world for? There was less sadness with you lost than found! Without speech, you do not answer in words to mine, only heave deep sighs from your breast, and all you can do is low in reply to me.  Unknowingly I was arranging marriage and a marriage-bed for you, hoping for a son-in-law first and then grandchildren. Now you must find a mate from the herd, and from the herd get you a son. I am not allowed by dying to end such sorrow; it is hard to be a god, the door of death closed to me, my grief goes on immortal for ever.’

As he mourned, Argus with his star-like eyes drove her to distant pastures, dragging her out of her father’s arms. There, sitting at a distance he occupied a high peak of the mountain, where resting he could keep a watch on every side.

Jupiter sends Mercury to kill Argus

Now the king of the gods can no longer stand Phoronis’s great sufferings, and he calls his son, born of the shining Pleiad, and orders him to kill Argus. Mercury, quickly puts on his winged sandals, takes his sleep-inducing wand in his divine hand, and sets his cap on his head.

Dressed like this the son of Jupiter touches down on the earth from his father’s stronghold. There, he takes off his cap, and doffs his wings, only keeping his wand. Taking this, disguised as a shepherd, he drives she-goats, stolen on the way, through solitary lanes, and plays his reed pipe as he goes.

Juno’s guard is captivated by this new sound. ‘You there, whoever you are’ Argus calls ‘you could sit here beside me on this rock; there’s no better grass elsewhere for your flock, and you can see that the shade is fine for shepherds.’

The descendant of Atlas sits down and passes the day in conversation, talking of many things and playing on his reed pipe, trying to conquer those watching eyes. Argus however fights to overcome gentle sleep, and though he allows some of his eyes to close, the rest stay vigilant.

Cyllenian Mercury saw that every eye had succumbed and their light was lost in sleep. Quickly he stops speaking and deepens their rest, caressing those drowsy eyes with touches of his magic wand. Then straightaway he strikes the nodding head, where it joins the neck, with his curved sword, and sends it bloody down the rocks, staining the steep cliff. Argus, you are overthrown, the light of your many eyes is extinguished, and one dark sleeps under so many eyelids.

Io is returned to human form

Saturnia took his eyes and set them into the feathers of her own bird, and filled the tail with star-like jewels.

Immediately she blazed with anger, and did not hold back from its consequences. She set a terrifying Fury in front of the eyes and mind of that ‘slut’ from the Argolis, buried a tormenting restlessness in her breast, and drove her as a fugitive through the world.

You, Nile, put an end to her immeasurable suffering. When Io reached you, she fell forward onto her knees on the riverbank and turning back her long neck with her face upwards, in the only way she could, looked to the sky, and with groans and tears and sad lowing seemed to reproach Jupiter and beg him to end her troubles.

Jupiter threw his arms round his wife’s neck and pleaded for an end to vengeance, saying, ‘Do not fear; in future she will never be a source of pain,’ and he called the Stygian waters to witness his words.

As the goddess grows calmer, Io regains her previous appearance, and becomes what she once was. The rough hair leaves her body, the horns disappear, the great eyes grow smaller, the gaping mouth shrinks, the shoulders and hands return, and the hooves vanish, each hoof changing back into five nails. Nothing of the heifer is left except her whiteness. Able to stand on two feet she raises herself erect and fearing to speak in case she lows like a heifer, timidly attempts long neglected words.

(1500 words)

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