Here's the problem with characterizing Io: she's totally different depending on which version of her story you read.
In some versions, she's a Hera's priestess—that means she's betraying her mistress by sleeping with Zeus. If you go with this interpretation, then Io's time spent wandering the earth as a white cow while being stung by a gadfly doesn't seem quite as unfair. Sure, it's a little extreme, but at least she did something to be punished for.
But in the most popular versions of Io's story, she's is a river nymph who is totally seduced by Zeus. And in ancient texts, seduced sometimes actually meant raped. (Some translations of the story actually use the word rape.) So if Zeus is the guilty one here, why is Io the one who suffers? It just doesn't fit into the neat morality tales that we favor today.
We do feel a little bad for Io, but we're glad she had a happy ending over in Egypt.
Oh boy, everybody's favorite dirty-old-god is totally up to his usual tricks in this story.
The one thing the king of the gods liked more than bossing all the other gods around was seducing every pretty young thing he could lay his hands on. Seriously, in almost every story Zeus pops up in, he's changing into some weird form—a cloud, a swan, shower of gold—to seduce a girl. So yeah, Io is only one conquest in a long list of conquests. Leda, Europa, Alcmene, Danae, Leto—all these lovely ladies fell prey to the, um, charms of Zeus.
The fact that the Greek king of the gods is such an unrepentant philanderer is kind of interesting by the standards of many modern day religions. What does it say that the big guy in the sky, the dude in charge of everything, doesn't give two flips about stepping out on his wife, Hera? We have to remember that in ancient Greece, Zeus' philandering might just have been a reflection of what was seen as normal by the people who worshipped him.
Are we supposed to forgive Zeus by the end of the story? He does come around, after all, giving in to his wife and pleading on Io's behalf. He could have just gone his own way and forgotten completely about this poor nymph, but he comes to her rescue—even if it was his fault in the first place.
Want to hear more about the king of the gods? Check out his Shmoop files.
We're not surprised to see a grumpy Hera in the story of Io. After all, in almost every myth, the queen of the gods is not a happy camper. Mainly because her hubby Zeus is always sneaking off to sleep with some lovely nymph like Io (or whatever minor goddess or hot young mortal woman he can find). Usually, Hera comes off as a total villainess, whether or not it's her fault.
Hera is pretty rough on the heifer-formerly-know-as-Io. For starters, she has the cow-nymph imprisoned by her henchman, Argus. Then, once Io is free, Hera sics a gadfly on her no matter where she goes. In some versions of the story, Hera even sends the vicious Furies after Io, which is way way worse than a gadfly. (Want to know why? Check out their files.)
So yes, Hera does come off as kind of mean, but we can still see where she's coming from, right? Her husband stepped out with somebody else, after all. But why does Hera take it all out on Io and not punish Zeus for his infidelity?
P.S. Get the full scoop on the Hera in her Shmoop files.
Argus definitely gets the bum end of this deal. Not only does the hundred-eyed giant get stuck watching a white cow all day—which has got to be pretty boring—he also gets his head chopped off by Hermes. You have to wonder why exactly it was necessary to behead the poor guy. After all, he was just doing what his mistress Hera told him to do.
Before this little incident, Argus was actually being a hero. He even slayed some bandits and monsters. So what do you think? Did Argus deserve what he got?
Mountains of info on Argus can be found in our Shmoop files.