After Apollo’s attempt to rape Daphne, who metamorphosed into the laurel, Ovid tells us no less than three myths with four metamorphoses, ingeniously embedded into a single story. Ovid leads us into this by establishing that, just as Daphne was the daughter of the river god Peneus, so Io was the daughter of the river god Inachus.
The outermost story consists of Jupiter’s rape of Io, who he then transforms into a white cow for safe keeping. This leads to the embedded story of Mercury murdering Argus, whose hundred eyes are then used to transform the peacock. Within that story, Mercury tells Argus the story of Pan’s attempt to rape Syrinx. Finally, Io is transformed back to human form, and leads us onto Ovid’s next myth (mercifully covered in the next article in this series).
Jupiter meets Io when she is out walking, and taking a fancy to her, offers to lead her safely through the hazards of the forest – a pretext for leading her there to rape her. Io flees from him, but Jupiter brings her to a halt:
For while he spoke she fled,
and swiftly left behind the pasture fields
of Lerna, and Lyrcea’s arbours, where
the trees are planted thickly. But the God
called forth a heavy shadow which involved
the wide extended earth, and stopped her flight
and ravished in that cloud her chastity.
Juno, watching from the heavens, suspects that her husband is up to no good again, so she descends to earth and dispels the clouds which he had used to stop Io’s flight and conceal his rape of her. Jupiter, knowing that his wife is on his trail, quickly transforms Io into a white cow. Juno is immediately suspicious, and asks to be given the cow.
Trapped, Jupiter has no option but to make a gift of Io, the cow, to his wife, who then entrusts the cow to the care of the ever-watchful Argus:
Juno regardful of Jove’s cunning art,
lest he might change her to her human form,
gave the unhappy heifer to the charge
of Argus, Aristorides, whose head
was circled with a hundred glowing eyes;
of which but two did slumber in their turn
whilst all the others kept on watch and guard.
Io’s life as a cow comes as a shock, and is miserable for her. She manages to communicate her name to her father by scratching it out with a hoof, but Argus then removes her to a mountain to graze. Jupiter takes pity on Io, and devises a way of getting her back, by killing Argus. He therefore calls Mercury to murder Argus.
Mercury’s first task is to lull Argus to sleep. He tries playing his reed (‘Pan’) pipes, but then resorts to telling Argus the story of Pan and Syrinx, another myth like that of Apollo and Daphne, in which Pan lusts after the beautiful Naiad Syrinx. Part way through this story, Mercury has already put Argus to sleep, but Ovid completes the story of Pan and Syrinx for the benefit of the reader.
When Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx has almost succeeded, Syrinx implores her sisters to transform her. Just as Daphne before, when Pan reaches her, she has been changed into reeds:
but she despised the prayers of Pan, and fled
through pathless wilds until she had arrived
the placid Ladon’s sandy stream, whose waves
prevented her escape. There she implored
her sister Nymphs to change her form: and Pan,
believing he had caught her, held instead
some marsh reeds for the body of the Nymph;
and while he sighed the moving winds began
to utter plaintive music in the reeds,
so sweet and voice like that poor Pan exclaimed;
“Forever this discovery shall remain
a sweet communion binding thee to me.”—
and this explains why reeds of different length,
when joined together by cementing wax,
derive the name of Syrinx from the maid.
Returning to the story of Mercury and Argus, once his victim is sound asleep, Mercury beheads him and throws his head from a cliff, ending his watch over Io the cow:
Such words the bright god Mercury would say;
but now perceiving Argus’ eyes were dimmed
in languorous doze, he hushed his voice and touched
the drooping eyelids with his magic wand,
compelling slumber. Then without delay
he struck the sleeper with his crescent sword,
where neck and head unite, and hurled his head,
blood dripping, down the rocks and rugged cliff.
Low lies Argus: dark is the light of all
his hundred eyes, his many orbed lights
extinguished in the universal gloom
that night surrounds; but Saturn’s daughter spread
their glister on the feathers of her bird,
emblazoning its tail with starry gems.
This brings us to the third transformation, that of the hundred eyes of the dead Argus into the eyes on the feathers of Juno’s peacocks.
Juno expresses her anger at Io the cow, eventually driving her as far as the river Nile in Egypt. Jupiter and Juno then make peace, and the king of the gods promises his wife that Io will trouble her no more, as Io is transformed back into human form:
And now imperial Juno, pacified,
permitted Io to resume her form,—
at once the hair fell from her snowy sides;
the horns absorbed, her dilate orbs decreased;
the opening of her jaws contracted; hands
appeared and shoulders; and each transformed hoof
became five nails. And every mark or form
that gave the semblance of a heifer changed,
except her fair white skin; and the glad Nymph
was raised erect and stood upon her feet.
But long the very thought of speech, that she
might bellow as a heifer, filled her mind
with terror, till the words so long forgot
for some sufficient cause were tried once more.
This provides Ovid with the lead-in to the next myth, which I will cover in my next article:
and since that time, the linen wearing throng
of Egypt have adored her as a God;
for they believe the seed of Jove prevailed;
and when her time was due she bore to him
a son called Epaphus; who also dwells
in temples with his mother in that land.
These three inter-related myths have inevitably proved too complex to capture in a single painting, but have provided a rich series of images from many different artists.
Correggio took on the challenge of depicting Jupiter raping Io, and came up with a subtle approach in his Jupiter and Io (1520-40). This departs from Ovid’s account, in that Jupiter has actually become part of the clouds which he used to cloak his adultery, and re-interprets the rape as a seduction.
John Hoppner’s much later Jupiter and Io (1785) takes a similar approach, but does not really innovate from the original.
Less well-known but in many ways the most remarkable depiction of Ovid’s complex stories, Bartolomeo di Giovanni’s panel The Myth of Io (c 1490) is believed to have had a companion which told the first part of the story using a similar multiplex narrative technique.
This wonderful surviving panel tells the second part, after Io has been transformed into a cow, although he shows her as being light brown. At the left, Jupiter (in the clouds) directs Mercury (carrying his caduceus) to free Io the cow from the watchful eyes of Argus (shown with a red cloak). Mercury takes a flock up the hill to Argus, where he sits with Argus and puts him to sleep. Once asleep (centre), Mercury beheads Argus, and gives Juno his head to place its eyes on her peacocks (bottom centre).
Io the cow is then driven by three naked Furies to the River Nile, at the right, where Io is returned to human form and flees under the sight of Jupiter and Juno making peace with one another.
The most popular scene in the stories is that of Mercury lulling Argus to sleep. However, hardly any painters depict Argus having the hundred eyes specified in the text. Abraham Bloemaert is an exception, in his carefully composed Mercury, Argus and Io (c 1592). Mercury is playing his flute at the left, as Argus falls asleep in front of him, his additional eyes visible over the surface of his head. In the distance at the right is Io as a white cow.
The far figure on a green hill may be another instance of multiplex narrative, as it could represent Mercury holding the head of Argus aloft after he had murdered him; unfortunately this is difficult to be certain about.
The story of Pan and Syrinx has also proved quite popular. François Boucher seems to have painted it many times, and his Pan and Syrinx from 1743 is probably his finest version, even though it alludes to Syrinx’s transformation rather than showing it.
Rubens’ late oil sketch of Pan and Syrinx (c 1636) is one of the few paintings which attempts to show Syrinx undergoing metamorphosis, and he makes Pan appear thoroughly lecherous.
Perhaps the most famous painting of Mercury and Argus is that of Velázquez, made in about 1659, the year before he died. The two figures are shown in contemporary dress, with Mercury just about to raise his sword and decapitate the sleeping Argus (who has no evidence of any supernumerary eyes). Behind them is Io, not white but tan in colour.
Rubens painted several versions of Mercury about to kill Argus which are very skilful, but omit Argus’ extra eyes. His other superb painting of this story is Juno and Argus (c 1611), which shows the conclusion of the story of Mercury and Argus. Juno, wearing the red dress and coronet, is receiving eyes which have been removed from Argus’ head, and is placing them on the tail feathers of her peacocks. The headless corpse of Argus lies contorted in the foreground.
Rubens has taken the opportunity of introducing a visual joke, in which Juno’s left hand appears to be cupped under the breasts of the woman behind. This also emphasises the plentiful arcs throughout his composition.
Sadly, Ovid’s triple story with multiple metamorphoses seems to have been largely ignored by the great narrative painters of the nineteenth century. In this case, the older works are the best.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.