Io (mythology)

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Hermes, Io (as cow) and Argus, black-figure amphora, 540–530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 585)
This article is about the mythological figure. For the moon of Jupiter, see Io (moon).

Io (/ˈ./; Ancient Greek: Ἰώ [iːɔ̌ː]) was, in Greek mythology, one of the mortal lovers of Zeus. She was an ancestor of Cadmus and Danaus.


Pieter Lastman Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io

In most versions of the legend, Io was the daughter of Inachus,[1][2][3][4][5] though various other purported genealogies are also known. Pausanias suggests that she is the daughter of Iasus,[6] who himself was either the son of Argus Panoptes and Ismene, the daughter of Asopus,[2] or of Triopas and Sosis; Io's mother in the latter case was Leucane.[7] Io's father was called Peiren in the Catalogue of Women,[8] and by Acusilaus,[2][9] possibly a son of the elder Argus, also known as Peiras, Peiranthus or Peirasus.[10][11][12] Io may therefore be identical to Callithyia, daughter of Peiranthus, as is suggested by Hesychius of Alexandria.[13]

Io was a priestess of the Goddess Hera in Argos,[5][14] whose cult her father Inachus was supposed to have introduced to Argos.[5] Zeus noticed Io, a mortal woman, and lusted after her. In the version of the myth told in Prometheus Bound she initially rejected Zeus' advances, until her father threw her out of his house on the advice of oracles.[15] According to some stories, Zeus then turned Io into a heifer in order to hide her from his wife;[5] others maintain that Hera herself transformed Io.[15][16]

In the version of the story in which Zeus transformed Io, the deception failed, and Hera begged Zeus to give her the heifer as a present, which, having no reason to refuse, he did. Hera then sent Argus Panoptes, who had 100 eyes, to watch Io and prevent Zeus from visiting her, and so Zeus sent Hermes to distract and eventually slay Argus. According to Ovid, he did so by first lulling him to sleep by playing the panpipes and telling stories.[17] Zeus freed Io, still in the form of a heifer.

In order to exact her revenge, Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io continuously, driving her to wander the world without rest. 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, who had been chained on Mt. Caucasus by Zeus. Prometheus 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.

Paris Bordone - Zeus and Io - Kunstmuseum, Göteborg

The myth of Io must have been well known to Homer, who often calls Hermes Argeiphontes, meaning "Argus-slayer." Walter Burkert[18] 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 ancients connected Io with the Moon,[19] 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 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 a god's romantic advances. Despite confirming her return for Wrath of the Titans in September 2010, Arterton did not reprise her role for unknown reasons. Instead, it is revealed that Io died shortly after Persus's battle with Medusa but later resurrected by zeus, but later died before the beginning in Wraith of the Titans, as Perseus is seen placing stones on her grave.

Australian writer Ursula Dubosarsky's play The Girl Who Was Turned Into A Cow, first published in the NSW School Magazine, is based on the myth of Io.[20]

In Persona 3, Io is the starting persona of Yukari Takeba.


  1. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 590
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.1.3
  3. Herodotus, Histories, 1.1
  4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.583
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Hammond, edited by N. G. L.; Scullard, H. H. (1970). The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2d ed.). Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press. p. 549. ISBN 0198691173. 
  6. Pausanius, Description of Greece, 2.1.6
  7. Scholia on Euripides' Orestes, 932
  8. Catalogue of Women. fr. 124
  9. Acusilaus, fr.12
  10. M.L. West, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins (Oxford, 1985) 77
  11. Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.1.3
  12. Hyginus, Fabulae, 124.
  13. Hesychius of Alexandria s. v. Ὶὼ Καλλιθύεσσα
  14. Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.1.3
  15. 15.0 15.1 Howatson, M.C. L.; Chivers, I. (1993). The Oxford Concise Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press. pp. 288–9. ISBN 0192827081. 
  16. Aeschylus, Suppliant Women, 291
  17. Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.650-730
  18. Burkert, Homo Necans (1974) 1983:164 note 14, giving bibliography.
  19. Eustathius of Thessalonica commentary on Dionysius Periegetes, 92; the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda s.v. "Io", Hesychius, s.v. "Io".

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