You know a story's a good one when it's been around forever. That's absolutely the case with the tale of Io—people were telling this story back before people were even writing stories down. Like most other myths, Io's got its start orally. But eventually someone was like, "Man, that's a good one. Why don't I try out this fancy new written language thing and record the tale for later generations to ooh and ahh over." Io's story starts out in Argos, where she was sometimes worshipped, so a lot of folks think these word of mouth legends sprang up there.
You can find hints and fragments of the story of Io in the writings of super ancient writers like Homer, Hesiod, and Herodotus. But some of the oldest full versions come from the playwright, Aeschylus, the granddaddy of all Greek tragedians.
In Aeschylus' play, The Suppliants, Io's descendant, Danaus, shows up in Argos with his fifty daughters, begging sanctuary. See, they peaced out of Egypt because the pharaoh was trying to force Danaus' daughters to marry the pharaoh's sons. To try to convince the folks in Argos to help, Danaus reminds them that his granny Io came from Argos. He and his daughters retell Io's whole sad story—yep, the story at hand—and win the hearts of the Argives. (Yay for family reunions.)
Io also has an extended cameo in Aeschylus' play, Prometheus Bound, where the gadfly-tortured heifer happens upon Prometheus who is, well, bound. (He's been chained to a rock for all eternity by Zeus for giving man fire.) Prometheus is all tied up, so he's got nothing better to do than listen to Io dish out a super long monologue, telling her whole sad story. Everybody wins here. Prometheus gets some entertainment. Io gets to vent. And we get to hear Io's story straight from the horse's—or, um, cow's mouth.
Io's tale stayed super popular for a long time and tons of later writers took a stab at retelling it. And check this out, they all had kind of funny names: Ovid, Hyginus, Nonnus, Diodorus Siculus, and Valerius Flaccus.
Out of the bunch, the Roman poet Ovid gets the award most famous version of Io's story. In his massive collection of mythological poems, The Metamorphoses, Ovid goes off for a long time on the tale of Io. It's really no wonder that Ovid decided to tackles Io's tale in his epic work. When you've got story about a nymph who gets transformed into a cow and back again, you kind of have to include it in a book about metamorphoses, right? Right.
Don't go thinking that Io has totally retired from the public eye. She had a guest spot of Xena: Warrior Princess (Hey, that's cool to some people.) And most recently, she made a high profile Hollywood debut in the big-budget remake of Clash of the Titans.
In the Clash of the Titans version, she doesn't say anything about having ever been a cow. Instead, she's been made immortal for refusing Zeus, and she helps Perseus on his quest for Medusa. Yeah, so this doesn't have a whole lot to do with the original myth, but hey, it's cool she show's up. Is it time for Io to have a movie all to herself? Absolutely. Did you hear that, Hollywood? Shmoop hath spoken.
Io's story kicks off in the area around the Greek city-state of Argos. Back in the day, Argos was one of the powers-that-be in ancient Greece; they were constantly rivaling Sparta for control of the Peloponnese, the big old peninsula that wiggles its toes at the bottom of Greece. The legend of Io was a big deal back in ancient Argos, where it was part of the bundle of stories that made up the city-state's founding myths.
A bunch of the figures in the story got a whole lot of love from the Argives. For starters, Hera was a patron goddess of the city. The folks of Argos just couldn't get enough of the queen of the gods, so they built a temple called the Heraion for her, the ruins of which you can still check out today. In some versions of the story, Io is actually the first priestess of the Heraion. Io was worshipped alongside Hera in Argos, and Io's father Inachus was said to be the first king of the city-state.
So there you go. Io and Argos were like peas in a pod.
After Io is done wandering all over the place, she eventually ends up in Egypt, where Hera allows the gadfly to buzz off and Zeus transforms her back into a nymph. To Io, the land of pyramids and pharaohs is the Promised Land. She finally escapes her sufferings and settles down of banks of the Nile. Yay, for happy endings.
In some tellings of the tale, Io ends up becoming a major goddess in Egypt, where she is worshipped as the goddess Isis. This would've been a pretty serious honor to say the least. Isis was a majorly important goddess in ancient Egypt, and her cult actually ended spreading all through the Roman Empire. Some say that the part about Io becoming Isis came from the fact that both lovely ladies were sometimes depicted as women with the horns of a cow.
More on the Io-Isis connection in "Parallel Myths."
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
The story of Io doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:
Yep, our heroine totally starts out in this phase of the Hero's journey. To the lovely naiad, "ordinary" is splashing in waters of her father, the river god Inachus, all day. She never even gets pruney fingers. That's just one of the many benefits of being a water nymph.
Io hits this phase when Zeus approaches her in the woods and tries to seduce her for the first time. This is a wee bit different than a lot of other heroes' journeys. It's not like Io is being called on to do anything all that positive. Helping Zeus cheat on his wife definitely won't win her any medals.
Being the good little naiad she is, Io totally refuses the call. She's like, "No way Zeus! I heard about how you treat the ladies, so get on back to Olympus." Too bad Zeus doesn't know how to no for an answer.
This phase only works if you think of Zeus as a seriously twisted mentor. Most of the time, the mentor figure helps the hero or heroine along in some way. Instead, Zeus traps Io in a bunch of clouds and either seduces her or forces himself on her, depending on the version of the story you read.
The threshold has been thoroughly crossed by the time Zeus's wife Hera busts onto the scene. When Zeus transforms Io into a white cow to hide her from his suspicious wife, there's no doubt that the Io is being forced to kiss the ordinary world she began in goodbye.
Io's journey totally lines up with this step of the Hero's Journey. Hera gives the white cow to her henchman, Argus Panoptes, to guard. Sounds like it's pretty safe to say that that they fall in the enemy category. Zeus, however, helps her out by sending Hermes to lop off Argus' head. And there's your ally. Well, Zeus got her into this mess to begin with, so maybe he's kind of an enemy at the same time.
The story of Io skips over this step. Instead of showing Io trying to rev up to some big challenge, the myth just jumps right to it.
Io faces her worst ordeal after Argus' death. (Wow, thanks a lot, Zeus and Hermes.) Hera is so ticked off that she sends a gadfly—or the Furies, depending on the version—to torment Io wherever she roams. The poor white cow stampedes all over the earth being constantly tortured.
Eventually, Io's suffering comes to an end. She gets to Egypt and moos so sadly about her fate that Zeus finally steps in. The king of the gods convinces his wife to chill out with the torture. Often in this stage, there's a transformation of some kind; the story of Io totally fits the bill when Zeus transforms her back into the lovely naiad.
Nope, Io never returns to the ordinary world to face more dangers like some heroes do. Instead, she chills in Egypt.
This is supposed to be the place where the hero or heroine faces their biggest danger, but Io has already done all that.
Though Io never returns home, she does get a reward in the end. Not only does she get to stay in her beautiful naiad form, she eventually becomes worshipped in Egypt as the goddess, Isis. Later on, though, her descendants Cadmus and Danaus do return to Greece, so you might say that they complete this part of Io's hero's journey on her behalf.
Back in day, a bunch of people—you know, ancient writers—used to say that the Greek Io was the same goddess as the Egyptian Isis. Why? Well, both were often shown as beautiful young women with the horns of a cow. (How long till this look shows up on the runway in Fashion Week? Actually, it probably already did and we missed it.)
On the other hand, there are folks that say that the Greeks made up all this stuff and that Io and Isis don't really have a whole lot do with each other. Or at least that the Greek's got Io's look from Isis and not the other way around. Word on the street is that Isis actually got her headgear from a super ancient cow goddess named Hathor, who chilled in the sky with the golden disk of the sun blazing between her horns. (Must've gotten hot.) As Isis got more and more popular, she took over Hathor's duties and her headgear.
So, who copied whom? Did Io turn into Isis? Did Io just copy Isis' style? Or did they all just take a page from Hathor's fashion book? It's hard to know any of this for sure, since this stuff happened a seriously long time ago, but there's no doubt these goddesses all kicked the same cow-horned style. (OMG, it would be so awkward if they showed up at the same party.)
Is anybody else wondering why Zeus decides to turn Io into a cow to hide her from Hera? Like, he has the power to turn her into anything he wants—a flower, a butterfly, a candy bar wrapper. So why out of all the things in the universe, a lot of which would've been much less conspicuous, does he choose to transform his hot, young lover into a big, white heifer?
To make sense of it, we did a little digging on the symbolism of cows in general. Turns out, cows were pretty important symbols in lots of ancient religions (and are still sacred to Hindus today). Tons of ancient societies were totally dependent on cattle; the bovines helped plow the fields, provided meat and dairy products, and their poop was great for fertilizer and making fires with (stinky fires, but whatevs). Given all this, it's no wonder ancient people started thinking of bovines as totally divine.
More specifically, cows were often the symbols and sacred animals of mother goddesses like—wait for it—Hera. Ding, ding, ding! Oh, this is totally starting to make sense. So Zeus turns Io into a heifer to try to appease Hera with an animal that's sacred to and symbolic of her. It also makes sense on a larger symbolic level, since Io was a bit of a mother goddess herself, who according to some was associated with big time Egyptian goddess, Isis.
You remember the part in the story where heifer-Io is tortured by Hera's gadfly, right? Well, in case you aren't up to date on your mythological bugs, a gadfly is a stinging insect (kind of like a horsefly) that likes to buzz around bug the crap out of livestock. (Nasty, huh?) These days, though, you can use the word "gadfly" to describe more than just an annoying bug. The word can also be used to describe an annoying person, especially someone who annoys with lots of constant "stinging" criticism.
We should also point out that this isn't the only time that gadflies pop up in Greek mythology. Hera also sic-ed one on Heracles when he was stealing the cattle of Geryon, and Zeus sent one to sting Pegasus when Bellerophon was trying to ride the flying horse up to Olympus. So you could say that throughout Greek mythology, gadflies symbolize the wrath of the gods and the power they have to punish mortals who get too big for their britches.
Insects symbolize the anger of the gods in other religions as well. Just check out the nasty plague of locusts that the Judeo-Christian God sends in to torture the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. Yikes. That sounds way worse than one annoying gadfly.