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The Importance of Io in Greek Mythology

If you only know about how Io was changed into a heifer, you only know half the story! Keep reading to find out why Io was actually one of the most important characters in Greek mythology!

One of the central themes of Greek mythology was that important people were fathered by the gods. Through the Olympians, particularly Zeus and Poseidon, nearly every king could claim divine heritage and every city could consider itself favored.

The children of the gods were central to Greek mythology. This meant that the stories of their mothers, who were usually princesses or queens of important cities, were as famous as those of the children.

The first human woman to become the mother of a god’s child was Io. A princess and priestess of Hera, she was the mother of the first demi-gods.

Io’s mythology is most famous for her attempts to escape both Zeus’s advances and Hera’s jealousy. Transformed into a cow, she fled throughout the world before eventually giving in to Zeus’s overtures.

Less well-known to many people is the story of what happened after Io’s children were born. While they are not famous today, Io and Zeus’s children played a major role in the development of human culture.

From Egypt to Thrace, the Greeks believed that every one of their neighboring cultures had been influenced by their own. This was all thanks to Io, whose descendants filled the roster of important people in Greek mythology.

The Mythological Role of Io

In Greek mythology, Io is well-known as one of the many mistresses of Zeus. According to most accounts, she was the first human woman that Zeus had an affair with.

Io was a priestess of Hera. To avoid arousing his wife’s suspicions, the king of the gods transformed the beautiful young woman into a white heifer.

Hera was still suspicious, however, and asked her husband to give her the cow. She assigned Argos Panoptes to watch over her captive.

Zeus sent Hermes to retake Io. His messenger killed the giant that guarded her and tried to lead her back to where Zeus was waiting.

Realizing what had happened, Hera sent a stinging gadfly to torment Io, who was still in the form of a cow. The unfortunate heifer fled from both the fly’s bites and Zeus’s advances.

Many sources make mention of the places around the known world that Io passed in her constant flight. In the play Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus included a scene in which the wandering Io came across the bound Titan in the mountains.

Io lamented the fact that she was trapped in the body of a cow and would never be able to rest. Prometheus, however, was able to offer her some consolation.

He knew that Io would be free once she consented to Zeus’s advances. He told her that she would be reverted to her natural form and be allowed to live out her life in peace if she accepted Zeus’s affections.

Io eventually stopped running when she reached Egypt. There, she became Zeus’s mistress and gave birth to two of his children, a daughter called Keroessa and a son named Epaphus.

According to some accounts, Io’s children were born before the flood of Deucalion. They were spared, however, and became some of the few people to survive the deluge.

The importance of Io in Greek mythology went far beyond her role as one of Zeus’s mistresses. Through her two children, she became a figure with world-wide reach.

Keroessa, according to some sources, was born in Thrace and raised there by nymphs. Others said that she, like her brother, was born in Egypt but eventually made her way to the East.

Like her mother, Keroessa was exceptionally beautiful. Also like her mother, this attracted the attention of a god.

She became a mistress of Poseidon and gave birth to one son. Byzas, as he was called, founded the city of Byzantium which still stands today as Istanbul.

In Egypt, Io married the local king. When he died, her son Epaphus took the throne.

Epaphus married a naiad called Memphis. He founded a new capital that he named after her.

The two had at least one daughter, Libya. She gave birth to Poseidon’s twin sons Belus and Agenor.

Agenor became the king of Tyre in Phoenicia. His son Cadmus returned to Greece and founded the city of Thebes while his daughter Europa was taken to Crete by Zeus to become the mother of its founding kings.

Belus, meanwhile, remained in Africa. His son Aegyptus inherited his throne and named their country after himself.

Aegyptus and his twin brother, Danaus, each had fifty children. When Aegyptus decreed that his sons should marry his brother’s daughters, Danaus instead chose to return to his ancestral homeland in Greece.

They were given sanctuary in Argos, where Io had been born. Danaus eventually won a contest to become the city’s king, although he was forced into exile after his fifty daughters killed their fathers.

Lynceus was the only one of Aegyptus’s sons to survive, and he eventually inherited his uncle and father-in-law’s throne in Argos. His great-granddaughter Danae became the mother of Perseus, who was himself the ancestor of many great heroes, kings, and queens.

Although Io is best remembered for her transformation into a cow, but her real importance was as the mother of Zeus’s children. She became the first in a long line of famous names of rulers, heroes, princesses, and even gods.

My Modern Interpretation

Io’s status as the ancestress of so many of the famous characters of Greek mythology is extraordinary. It is almost impossible to believe that her story is anything but a complete work of the imagination.

In reality, though, many Greek myths have some basis in archaic history. Io’s flight to Egypt and the subsequent spread of her family may align with the relationships between ancient cultures.

Historians have long noted the similarities between Io and the Egyptian goddess Isis. Although Isis was a beautiful goddess, she was sometimes shown with the head of a cow.

White cows played an important role in Egyptian religion. One of the country’s most famous traditions was the veneration of the Apis Bull, which was said to be the incarnation of the god Ptah.

In fact, Io’s son Epaphus is called Apis in some sources. The story of Io in the form of a cow is obviously related to the veneration of cattle in Egyptian culture.

As Zeus’s first human mistress, the decision to place Io in Egypt may also have some historical significance. The Nile Valley was home to the first powerful and advanced civilization in the West, so it is a fitting place for the first demi-gods to be born.

From Egypt, legend said that Io’s descendants spread throughout the Mediterranean.

One branch of the family, for instance, settled in Phoenicia. Both Cadmus and Europa ended up leaving Phoenicia and traveling to Greece.

The Phoenicians had, in fact, been a major influence in the development of Greek culture. Traders and colonists from Tyre and other Phoenician cities brought their gods, their system of writing, and some of their artistic conventions to Greek.

Europa became the founding mother of Crete’s Minoan civilization while her brother established Thebes, a major site in Mycenaean Greece. Their legendary origin in Phoenicia reflects the actual influence this culture exerted on Greece in its early history.

With Io as a shared ancestor, the Greeks believed that virtually every civilization and city had a common origin. The most ancient cultures, such as Egypt and Phoenicia, could trace their lineage directly to the Greek princess.

Cities and states that were established later were still included in this great family tree. The descendants of Perseus, and later his own great-grandson Heracles, continued the tradition of founding new states and lands.

While the Greeks imagined the connections between ancient cultures as being the result of shared ancestry, historians know that the truth was far more complex. While some direct family ties likely existed, the connections between the cultures were more often the result of trade, settlement, and conquest.

The one major departure the Greeks made between their legend and history was in where the various cultures of the world originated.

Io’s mythology may have acknowledged that Greek culture was influenced by its neighbors in the past, but the Greeks still believed that theirs was the superior civilization. According to them, the other cultures of the Mediterranean were descended from their own.

This created a more complex narrative in which a Greek princess traveled throughout the world, influencing the places she visited. She eventually settled in Egypt and her descendants spread out from there, returning to Greece as their ancestral homeland.

In this way the Greeks both acknowledged the important links their culture had with others and maintained their own sense of superiority. The mythology of Io explained the ties between different civilizations while still maintaining that Greece was the cultural heart of the world.

In Summary

In Greek mythology, Io was the first of Zeus’s human mistresses. Although he attempted to hide her from Hera by turning her into a white cow, Zeus’s wife still suspected the affair.

To escape both Zeus’s lust and Hera’s wrath, Io ran around the world. When she arrived in Egypt she finally agreed to be Zeus’s lover and was reverted back to her human form.

While many people know only this aspect of Io’s mythology, the fate of her descendants was truly the most important part of her story.

Io’s descendants inherited the throne of Egypt and founded Phoenicia’s greatest city. Later generations moved on from there, returning to Greece to become the founding kings and queens of places like Crete and Thebes.

The descendants of Io remained influential for thousands of years. She was the ancestress of Perseus, Dionysus, Heracles, and many more famous characters in mythology.

There is some historical basis for the travels and relationships between Io’s descendants.

She and her son Epaphus were almost certainly linked to Egyptian mythology, particularly the goddess Isis and the veneration of the Apis Bull. Just as Io was from an early generation in Greek mythology, the Egyptians were the earliest great civilization to develop near the Mediterannean.

Her Phoenician descendants eventually returned to Greece. By establishing the greatest sites of both Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, they reflected the actual origins of many aspects of Greek culture.

Io’s mythology provided an explanation for the cultural connections that existed among Mediterranean civilizations. They also reflected some historical truths about how migration and conquest had spread these ideas.

The Greeks made sure, however, that their own country was the root of civilization in their mythology. While Io and her descendants traveled throughout the known world, the places they founded were ultimately influenced by her origins in Argos.

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Mike Greenberg, PhD

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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