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Io, Cow Girl Ancestor of the Greeks

Io is so important that the Ionian sea is named after her. The Bosporus is believed to be a reference to her crossing from Europe to Asia as a heifer. She was the ancestor of the Danae according to Aeschylus in “The Suppliants”.

The name ‘Io’ is unusual to say the least. But the meaning of this name may be available. Most of the ancient Greek women seem to have names made up of two words and many have names relating to their stories. This suggests that the name ‘Io’ is composed of two separate Indo-European words ‘i’ and ‘o’. Oddly enough these words exist. The word ‘i’ relates to the word in the Indo-European language that became our pronoun ‘I’. The word ‘o-‘ is the word that changed to the word ‘omen’ and means to announce. So the name ‘Io’ seems to mean ‘I am an omen’. This name seems to have some consistency with the story of Io.

The Geneology of Io is in doubt but Aeschylus tells of her father Inachus and “the meadow land of Lerna, where (her) father’s pastures lie. In “The Suppliants” it is said “Io was priestess once of Hera’s temple.”

Inachus was the first king of Argos and the ofspring of the deities Oceanus and Tethys. Danaus is the thirteenth king of Argos after Inachus with 21 more kings before the Trojan war. So the story of Io occurs hundreds of years befor the Trojan War.

In “Prometheus Bound” Io describes a dream “O sweet-favored girl, why cherish long your maiden loneliness, when celestial love calls? You are fair and Zeus on his throne throbs with desire for you. Sweet child do not deny him. Go to the meadowland of Lerna, where your father’s pastures lie and the sleek cattle browse. There recline in the grass and yield your body to sooth the passion in his Sovereign’s eye.” This dream repeated and drove her to tell her father who consulted with the Oracle of Delphi among others. All that returned was dark and finally a clear statement came that he must thrust his beautiful daughter out of the house and off his land. Then, as “The Suppliants” relates “By Hera’s will a heifer she became.” But Zeus still planned to love her in the form of a Bull. So Hera “One myriad-eyed(Argus) she set as the heifer’s guard. Zeus’ response: “Argus, the child of earth, whom Hermes slew.” When Zeus accomplish this Hera “..wrought a gadfly with a goading sting.” The gadfly kept her roaming. A number of locations are mentioned where she passed: Cenchreae and the Lernean Well, Scythia, The Euxine, Chalybees, The Caucasus, Themiscyra on the Themodon, The Cimmerian isthmus, Maeotic strait, the Bosporus. Finally at Canopus and Memphis ‘Zeus with a touch, a mystic breath, made mother (of Io)” in Egypt.

Io runs

Io, with her cow head, runs goaded by a fly

What is to be made of this tale? Much in fact. Such myths have many sources and touch upon many generalities still applicable. In Prometheus Bound Io refers to herself as ‘.. the virgin wearing these horns of a heifer…’ Later she says, ‘Straightway my form this strange distortion knew, with horns here on my front; and madly stung by this insatiate fly, with antic bounds I sped away …’ What she describes applies very much to art of the Minoan culture:

Minoan seal of Potnia Theron

It is as though the Greeks applied the tale to an image familiar to them. The image is of the Minoan Potnia Theron dancing while the tale adopts that image to fit the story of Io turned into a heifer being goaded by a fly.

Potnia Theron is more associated with Artemis and one wonders why Aeschylus describes Io as a priest of Hera. In Homer Hera and Artemis conflict just as the matron is at odds with the virgin maid. Io would make a better priestess ofArtemis because she seems to desire to stay chaste. Notice that it is Artemis that usually calls for a sacrifice. At Aulis it was Artemis that demanded the sacrifice of the maiden Iphigenia in what was truely a false marriage ceremony. What Zeus is suggesting is a fairly primitive marriage ceremony where whe beauty queen is married to the winner of the race warrior. The sacrifice is not the virgin but the virginity. The virgin is gone but the matron is born at that ceremony. What Io’s father must do is thrust Io out of the house. This is another form of sacrifice. The maiden must give up her parents home for the home of her husband. One form of marriage is described as a rape because, as in Sparta, the husband must steal the bride away from her parents.

The Mycenaeans had established trade with many lands to the east and west of Greece. Then these connections were lost and re-established during the archaic period. The travels of Io seem a reflection of the travels of other Greeks, during the heroic age or later. Greeks did have contact with Egypt as is documented in the archaeology of Egypt. But what can be made of the fact that some Greeks remained in Egypt and returned after many generations is another matter. the Philistines are said to have come from Crete. But their dates put them more in line with the Trojan War than the travels of Io.

Since The Egyptian goddess Isis is pictured with cows horns on her head Isis and Io are identified. But there seems little to connect their myths. This association may even be Hellenic.

Phoenicians first brought peafowl from India to what is now Syria and Egypt about 3000 years ago. So the story that Hera rewarded Argus by putting his eyes on the tail of the peacock is quite late. But the purpose of the eyes of Argus is alertness. Why did the Ancient GReeks think many eyes were important for this? There are other stories of watchful eyes. Perseus has to doeal with the Graiai who share and eye and there is the snake that watches over the golden fleece. Is the peacock particularly alert? It may be that the notion of the evil eye is a work here. When you are alone in the wild the eyes of the predator must be considered. When the predator is looking at you, you may be the next meal. So you have to be considering the eyes. Likewise when you are stalking prey when the prey’s eyes find you they are gone.

Sometimes Io is described as having the appearence of a female cow while at other times she is a maiden with horns coming out of her head. It seems most likely that in the drama “Prometheus Bound” she is the latter. In the ancient Greek theater masks were worn and it would be easy to fit an actor with a mask of a cow face with horns to portray Io. The ancient Greek use of masks surely predates the Greek Theater as many primitive cultures employ masks in religious rituals. The use the mask would have been more of an inspiration to the theater rather than the other way around. In fact a festival to Hera might have involved a woman with a cow mask. And this may have inspired the story of Io. An interesting comparison might be made between the image of Io and the Minotaur. IO is half girl and half heifer while the Minotaur is half man half bull. Both images seem related to the Minoan religion as found by Evans.

Io finally became pregnant with a touch of the hand of Zeus. This seems a prelude to a ‘sleeping beauty’ story. Zeus arranges for the cow to be kissed by a prince and she becomes the bride of the prince. But Zeus gets the credit because everyone want to claim descent from Zeus.

The dream that Io has must be common enough among young girls. But what is the meaning of such dreams. Even the Greeks felt that they were precursors of the future. In the Iliad dreams are delivered to Agamemnon by ‘Dream’. Specifically he says “seeing that a dream too is of Zeus.” But the dream delivered to Agamemnon is not a vision of the future but a call to action. Likewise the dream for Io is a call to an action, but not one she is persuaded to do.

The story of Io may also relate to a fertility tale. This interpretation of the story starts with an interpretation of the name of her father ‘Inachus”. The Indo-European roots seem to be ‘i̯eu-ni-, or i̯ou-ni-‘, ‘the right place/way’ and ‘1. k̑eu-, k̑eu̯ə- : k̑ū-, k̑u̯ā-‘, ‘to swell’. The association of Inachus with a river suggests the translation of this name is something like ‘the place of flooding’, The child of a place of flooding is a fertile field which is what Io may personify. Zeus as the thunder god regards the fertile field as desirable for his rain so the grass will grow. Through the intervention of Hera the grass turns into a cow, probably by being eaten. The child of Io, Epaphus, fits into this picture. The Indo-European roots of this name are ‘epi, opi, pi’, ‘at, near, epi-‘ and ‘bheu-, bheu̯ə-, bhu̯ā-, bhu̯ē- : bhō̆u- : bhū-‘, ‘to be, exist; grow, prosper’. So the name means ‘growth’. It stands to reason that growth would result from rain on a fertile field. The gadfly is actually a symbol of the sexual passion that is needed to make the crops grow. The word for the regular cyle of ovulation and sexual excitement in mamals other than humans and some apes is based on the Greek word for gadfly.