Zeus and Io
Io was one of Zeus’s many lovers, but her own son was among her least famous descendants. Keep reading to find out how one woman’s transformation into a cow gave rise to dynasties and connected disparate cultures!
When Zeus sought to make Io his mistress, he transformed her into a white cow. Instead of hiding her from Hera, however, the disguise only made Zeus’s wife more suspicious.
Io was taken prisoner by Hera, but even after being freed by Hermes she tried to avoid becoming Zeus’s mistress. Still in the guise of a cow, she fled from both Hera’s torments and Zeus’s affections.
Io’s flight took her to every corner of the world until she eventually arrived in Egypt and succumbed to Zeus’s advances.
Io gave birth to his son, who became the king of Egypt, but her importance in Greek mythology went far beyond her role as a single king’s mother.
Io was the ancestress of nearly all the kings and heroes of Greece. It was believed that her descendants continued the link between Greece and the ancient culture of Egypt, with Zeus as the progenitor of both lines.
So how did Io bring together two cultures and found the world’s royal lines as a cow? Keep reading to learn more!
Io’s Flight From Zeus
The story of Io occurs early in the legends of the gods. Her father was said to have been the first king of Argos to worship Hera.
Io was a priestess in the goddess’s temple, but her connection to Hera did not stop Zeus from taking notice of the beautiful princess. She rejected him until her father, fearful of being involved in the affairs of the gods, banished her from his home.
Zeus found the princess alone in the forest and transformed her into a white cow to hide her from his wife.
Hera was already suspicious, however, and took notice when Zeus’s signature thunderbolts could be seen above the forest. She followed him and came across her husband and the cow.
Hera was suspicious enough that she asked Zeus to give her the animal as a gift. He could not refuse without giving away Io’s identity, so he acted disinterested in the cow and handed her over to Hera.
Io was taken back to Hera’s temple and placed under close guard. Argos, a hundred-eyed giant, was set to watch over her day and night.
Zeus sent Hermes to retrieve his would-be mistress, hoping that the messenger god’s combination of speed and cunning would allow him to get past the watchful giant. Hermes disguised himself as a simple shepherd and enchanted Argos with panpipe music before using his staff to put him into a magical sleep.
Hermes then struck the giant in the head, killing him as he slept. This was the first death among the gods of Olympus.
The messenger quickly brought Io back to Zeus, still in the form of a cow, but not before Hera realized that the white heifer was missing. More convinced than ever of her husband’s scheming, she sent a gadfly to sting the poor Io.
Io ran away, both to escape the gadfly and to escape Zeus’s advances. She ran around the world, chased by both.
The Bosphorus Sea takes its modern name from the Greek for “ox crossing” in memory of Io’s flight. She ran to the ends of the earth where, according to the playwright Aeschylus, she met the chained Titan Prometheus.
Prometheus, who had the gift of foresight, advised Io that her flight was in vain. Zeus would eventually catch her.
This, however, would restore her to human form and she would become the ancestress of many heroes and kings. Furthermore, one of her direct descendants would one day free Prometheus from his chains.
Io stopped when she reached Egypt and allowed Zeus to catch up to her. She was made human again and bore him a son named Epaphus.
Io remained in Eqypt and married the king there. Her son with Zeus would inherit the throne from his stepfather, establishing a Greek god as the ancestor of the Egyptian rulers.
Soon afterward, Io and her son were among the only survivors of the Bronze Age of Greece. When Zeus sent a flood to destroy the wicked and heretical people of the world, Io and Epaphus survived in Egypt.
As Prometheus predicted, Io became the ancestress of many generations of heroes, kings, and even gods. By the time the Titan’s rescuer, Heracles, her family line included nearly every king and queen of Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Libya.
My Modern Interpretation
The story of Zeus and Io did not just link the Greek gods and heroes to the ancient culture of Egypt. It also brought Egyptian legend into Greek lore.
The religion of ancient Greece is known to have adopted aspects of many other ancient faiths. Aphrodite has a Phoenician origin, Athena was likely Minoan, and the story of Heracles was inspired by Gilgamesh.
One of the cultures the Greeks came into contact with was that of Egypt, whose religion and cultural practices were already ancient by the time of Homer.
The Greeks believed that their own religion was accurate, but recognized that the gods of Egypt were just as old and powerful as their own. They reasoned that the Egyptian beliefs and those of the Greek people must have the same origins.
The story of Io’s flight into Egypt is one of many that connects the Greek gods to those of Egypt. In another tale, the gods fled to Egypt during and attack by the Giants and established their religion there.
While the gods went to Egypt early in their rule, the arrival of Io in that country drew parallels between the cultural practices of the two lands.
White animals, particularly cattle and horses, were often associated with Zeus in Greek mythology. They had an older link to the region in the ancient Minoan culture.
They were also important in Egypt, however. The Apis Bull was a famous divine symbol and the center of a ritual that the Greeks felt must be connected to the worship of Zeus.
Io went to Greece as a white cow, explaining how similar symbolism came to be used in that country. Her son Epaphus was sometimes called Apis, giving the Egyptian cultural practice a Greek origin.
One of Io’s grandsons eventually returned to Greece to reclaim land there. To the Greeks, this explained how their culture could be the “correct” one even though that of Egypt was known to be older.
Io herself came to be identified with an Egyptian goddess, even though she had been human in her legends.
Later in the Greek era and into that of Rome, cults were established in Europe to the Egyptian mother goddess Isis. In some stories of Isis that are unique to Greco-Roman belief, her name is used interchangeably with that of Io.
The implication was that Io had been a mortal princess of Greece but had been elevated to the pantheon of Egypt. She was not only the mother of the kings and heroes of both countries, but also of the Egyptian gods.
The association between Greek and Egyptian cultures can still be seen on maps today. Epaphus married a local woman called Memphis and their daughter Libya established a kingdom of her own.
Io was a princess and priestess of Hera who was aggressively pursued by Zeus. To avoid suspicion from Hera he turned his would-be mistress into a white heifer.
Hera was not fooled, though, and asked that the cow be brought to her temple. She tied Io up and made the hundred-eyed giant Argos her guard.
Hermes gained entry to the temple and freed the cow, killing Argos in the process. In retaliation, Hera sent a stinging gadfly to torment the white cow.
Io fled from both Hera’s fly and Zeus’s advances. She eventually ended up in Egypt where she allowed Zeus to restore her to human form and make her his lover.
Io’s son became the king of Egypt and the two were among the few mortals to survive the Flood of Deucalion. Their descendants became kings of Egypt and the neighboring countries and eventually returned to Argos to retake their ancestral homelands.
Io thus became the ancestress of a broad family tree that included most of Greece’s kings, heroes, and even a few gods. Her family continued to rule in Africa as well, forming a link between the Greek kings and their foreign counterparts.
The Greeks believed that the gods of Egypt were different aspects of their own Olympians, and the stories of Io helped to further the connections between the cultures. When the cult of Isis was introduced to Greece, the people recognized their ancient queen in the mother goddess of Egypt.