In art and modern retellings, the giant Argus is often called Hundred-Eyed. In ancient Greek vase painting, this often meant that he was shown with rows of eyes covering his entire body.
This gave Argus Panoptes, the All-Seeing, a monstrous appearance. In his legend, however, he was a faithful servant of the gods.
He was particularly loyal to Hera and, in his most well-known myth, was appointed by her to be a guard. His subject was a suspicious white cow that Hera thought might be one of Zeus’s lovers in disguise.
Hera was correct, and Zeus’s plan to free Io resulted in the death of Argus Panoptes. Hera commemorated her service by placing his hundred eyes in the tail of the peacock.
The idea of the hundred-eyed giant predated the use of the peacock as Hera’s symbol, however. And the earliest accounts of Argus Panoptes never mention how many eyes he had.
So how did Argus Panoptes come to be known as the hundred-eyed giant?
According to legend, Argus Panoptes was a giant in the service of Hera. He had always been a friend to the gods and had accomplished the great task of killing Echidna, the mother of monsters.
Argus was a watchful guardian and loyal to Zeus‘ wife. When Hera suspected that Zeus was having another affair, this time with a mortal woman, Hera used the giant’s watchfulness to her advantage.
Zeus had fallen in love with Io, a priestess of Hera. Knowing that his wife was watching him after his affairs with various goddesses, Zeus tried to hide the human woman from Hera’s sight.
To deflect suspicion, he turned Io into a white heifer. When Hera asked for the cow as a gift, however, Zeus had no choice but to give it to her or she would know he was lying.
Hera still did not trust her husband, so she had Io tied within her temple. She commanded Argus Panoptes to keep watch over the suspicious cow through the night.
Zeus could not rescue Io himself. If Argus Panoptes saw him, Hera would be furious with him.
Instead, he asked Hermes for help. The trickster god was a master thief, so Zeus knew he could find a way to free Io.
Hermes disguised himself as a shepherd who sought refuge in the temple for the night. He carried a small lyre, an instrument he had invented.
The messenger god talked with Argus for a time and then offered to play a song. His lyre was enchanted, though, so the music made Argus drift off to sleep.
When Argus closed his eyes, Hermes could have crept past. He worried, however, that when the music ended the giant would reawaken.
Rather than take this change, Hermes killed Argus Panoptes as he slept. He crushed his skull with a heavy stone, the first murder among the Olympian gods.
When Hera went to her temple in the morning, she found Io gone and her faithful servant dead. She immediately knew that her husband was to blame.
According to some versions of the story, Hera commemorated Argus Panoptes with her sacred bird.
The giant was so watchful because he had a hundred eyes. Even when some closed, others could always be on the lookout.
Hera placed the hundred eyes of Argus Panoptes in the tail of the peacock. The distinct pattern of the bird’s tail feathers preserved the hundred eyes of Argus Panoptes forever.
It is sometimes said that “hundred eyes” is a translation of the giant’s name. In truth, however, the original myths of Argus Panoptes made no mention of such a feature.
Panoptes meant “All-Seeing” in Greek. It was a common epithet that was applied to other gods as well.
Helios, for example, was often called Panoptes. From his position in the sky, the god of the sun could see everything that happened on earth and on Mount Olympus.
For Argus Panoptes, the epithet marked him as a watchful guardian. There was no implication that he had more eyes than normal, only that the ones he did have were keen and focused.
It became a tradition early on, however, to give Argos extra eyes. This did not begin with a hundred, however; Hesiod claimed that the giant had four eyes so that he could look in all directions at once.
The number of eyes that Argus Panoptes had was gradually increased through the ages. In the 5th century BC it became common to depict him with many, but it took time for the number to be set at a hundred.
This made the giant more monstrous, but it also made him a more effective watchman. The hundred eyes of Argus Panoptes were used to make the entire story of Io more dramatic.
In the earliest versions of the story, Hera had set a loyal guard to keep tabs on the heifer. With a hundred eyes, though, Argus became a more impressive and potentially dangerous figure.
This also made his death more dramatic.
If Argus was an ordinary giant, his murder may have seemed like an act of cowardice or cruelty on the part of Hermes. By giving him dozens of eyes, however, he became more monstrous and, thus, his death more justified.
It even made the magic of Hermes’ song more impressive. A simple spell could close two eyes, but a more powerful enchantment would be needed to lull one hundred eyes to sleep.
The latest addition to the story was likely the giant’s identification with the peacock.
Peacocks are native to India, and were thus virtually unknown in ancient Greece. While a few travelers may have seen them, they would not have been well-known enough to use as a symbol for an important goddess.
The association of peacocks with Hera did not occur until the Roman era. The empire opened up vast new trade routes and a new taste for exotic goods and animals.
By the time peacocks were made Hera’s sacred birds, the story of Argus Panoptes was already well-known. Even the idea of him having a hundred eyes was established before peacocks were well-known.
In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant who was a loyal friend to the Olympian gods. He was particularly faithful to Hera.
The all-seeing giant was appointed by the goddess to watch over Io in the form of a white heifer. Hera suspected that the cow was one of Zeus’s mistresses in disguise and hoped that the watchful giant could keep Zeus from stealing her back.
Hermes, the god of thieves, was up to the task of retrieving Io, however. He lulled Argus to sleep with an enchanted song and killed him to avoid being caught.
Later myths claimed that when Hera found the giant in the morning, she memorialized his hundred eyes. She placed them in the tail of the peacock, her sacred bird.
Early accounts of Argus Panoptes mentioned his watchfulness but did not say he had multiple eyes. Other gods who were called Panoptes were not shown in such a monstrous way, either.
Hesiod, however, claimed that Argus had four eyes so he could see in all directions. This was embellished through the 5th century, when the image of a hundred eyes became more or less standard.
The association with the peacock was added even later, likely not until the time of the Roman Empire. It was an example of when a form in nature reminded people of an existing story rather than a story being written to explain a known form.