Prometheus and Io

The materials for this story are taken from two poets, the Greek Aeschylus and the Roman Ovid, separated from each other by four hundred and fifty years and still more by their gifts and temperaments. They are the best sources for the tale. It is easy to distinguish the parts told by each, Aeschylus grave and direct, Ovid light and amusing. The touch about lovers’ lies is characteristic of Ovid, as also the little story about Syrinx.

In those days when Prometheus had just given fire to men and when he was first bound to the rocky peak on Caucasus, he had a strange visitor. A distracted fleeing creature came clambering awkwardly up over the cliffs and crags to where he lay. It looked like a heifer, but talked like a girl who seemed mad with misery. The sight of Prometheus stopped her short. She cried,

This that I see—
A form storm-beaten,
Bound to the rock.
Did you do wrong?
Is this your punishment?
Where am I?
Speak to a wretched wanderer.
Enough—I have been tried enough—
My wandering—long wandering.
Yet I have found nowhere
To leave my misery.
I am a girl who speak to you,
But horns are on my head.

Prometheus recognized her. He knew her story and he spoke her name.

I know you, girl, Inachus’ daughter, Io.
You made the god’s heart hot with love
And Hera hates you. She it is
Who drives you on this flight that never ends.

Wonder checked Io’s frenzy. She stood still, all amazed. Her name—spoken by this strange being in this strange, lonely place! She begged,

Who are you, sufferer, that speak the truth
To one who suffers?

And he answered,

You see Prometheus who gave mortals fire.

She knew him, then, and his story.

You—he who succored the whole race of men?
You, that Prometheus, the daring, the enduring?

They talked freely to each other. He told her how Zeus had treated him, and she told him that Zeus was the reason why she, once a princess and a happy girl, had been changed into

A beast, a starving beast,
That frenzied runs with clumsy leaps and bounds.
Oh, shame…

Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, was the direct cause of her misfortunes, but back of them all was Zeus himself. He fell in love with her, and sent

Ever to my maiden chamber
Visions of the night
Persuading me with gentle words:
“O happy, happy girl,
Why are you all too long a maid?
The arrow of desire has pierced Zeus.
For you he is on fire.
With you it is his will to capture love.”
Always, each night, such dreams possessed me.

But still greater than Zeus’s love was his fear of Hera’s jealousy. He acted, however, with very little wisdom for the Father of Gods and Men when he tried to hide Io and himself by wrapping the earth in a cloud so thick and dark that a sudden night seemed to drive the clear daylight away. Hera knew perfectly well that there was a reason for this odd occurrence, and instantly suspected her husband. When she could not find him anywhere in heaven she glided swiftly down to the earth and ordered the cloud off. But Zeus too had been quick. As she caught sight of him he was standing beside a most lovely white heifer—Io, of course. He swore that he had never seen her until just now when she had sprung forth, newborn, from the earth. And this, Ovid says, shows that the lies lovers tell do not anger the gods. However, it also shows that they are not very useful, for Hera did not believe a word of it. She said the heifer was very pretty and would Zeus please make her a present of it. Sorry as he was, he saw at once that to refuse would give the whole thing away. What excuse could he make? An insignificant little cow… He turned Io reluctantly over to his wife and Hera knew very well how to keep her away from him.

She gave her into the charge of Argus, an excellent arrangement for Hera’s purpose, since Argus had a hundred eyes. Before such a watchman, who could sleep with some of the eyes and keep on guard with the rest, Zeus seemed helpless. He watched Io’s misery, turned into a beast, driven from her home; he dared not come to her help. At last, however, he went to his son Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and told him he must find a way to kill Argus. There was no god cleverer than Hermes. As soon as he had sprung to earth from heaven he laid aside everything that marked him as a god and approached Argus like a country fellow, playing very sweetly upon a pipe of reeds. Argus was pleased at the sound and called to the musician to come nearer. “You might as well sit by me on this rock,” he said, “you see it’s shady—just right for shepherds.” Nothing could have been better for Hermes’ plan, and yet nothing happened. He played and then he talked on and on, as drowsily and monotonously as he could; some of the hundred eyes would go to sleep, but some were always awake. At last, however, one story was successful—about the god Pan, how he loved a nymph named Syrinx who fled from him and just as he was about to seize her was turned into a tuft of reeds by her sister nymphs. Pan said, “Still you shall be mine,” and he made from what she had become

A shepherd’s pipe
Of reeds with beeswax joined.

The little story does not seem especially tiresome, as such stories go, but Argus found it so. All of his eyes went to sleep. Hermes killed him at once, of course, but Hera took the eyes and set them in the tail of the peacock, her favorite bird.

It seemed then that Io was free, but no; Hera at once turned on her again. She sent a gad-fly to plague her, which stung her to madness. Io told Prometheus,

He drives me all along the long sea strand.
I may not stop for food or drink.
He will not let me sleep.

Prometheus tried to comfort her, but he could point her only to the distant future. What lay immediately before her was still more wandering and in fearsome lands. To be sure, the part of the sea she first ran along in her frenzy would be called Ionian after her, and the Bosphorus, which means the Ford of the Cow, would preserve the memory of when she went through it, but her real consolation must be that at long last she would reach the Nile, where Zeus would restore her to her human form. She would bear him a son named Epaphus, and live forever after happy and honored. And

Know this, that from your race will spring
One glorious with the bow, bold-hearted,
And he shall set me free.

Io’s descendant would be Hercules, greatest of heroes, than whom hardly the gods were greater, and to whom Prometheus would owe his freedom.