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George Poulos

IONIAN - origin of the word from mythology

IONIAN - origin of the word from mythology - Detail of a Greek red-figure stamnos  the cow Io, Hermes, and Argus. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo  Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY

Detail of a Greek red-figure stamnos: the cow Io, Hermes, and Argus. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

The name Ionian dates back at least to the 6th century BC, but confusingly has nothing to do with ancient Ionia in Asia Minor, which was named after Apollo's son Ion, the mythical founder of the Ionian race.

It was Aeschylus who explained the difference: the Ionian sea and islands were named after the beautiful priestess Io, who caught the philandering eye of Zeus. When Zeus' wife Hera was about to catch the couple in flagrante delicto, the god changed the girl into a white cow, but Hera was not to be fooled.

She asked Zeus to give her the cow as a present, and ordered the sleepless hundred-eyed monster Argus to watch over her. When Hermes, working for Zeus, charmed Argus to sleep and killed him, Io the cow escaped, only to be pursued by a terrible stinging gad-fly sent by Hera.

The first place Io fled to took her name, the Ionian Sea, before she ended he bovine swimming marathon in Egypt, where Zeus restored the girl to her rightful form.

As for the unfortunate Argus, Hera collected his hundred eyes and stuck them on the peacock's tail.

Dana Facaros.

Corfu and the Ionians. 1994, 1999.

Cadogan Guides.
27-29 Berwick Street
London WIV 3RF

[email protected]



The Bosporus Straight, or... ’cow’s ford’, is also named after Io.

Longer version of the Io myth from:


The Heifer-Maiden

The story of Io is one of the most touching dramas in Greek Mythology. This story goes back to the early days on Olympus. Zeus was new to the throne of eternity and his treatment of Io was nothing less than pernicious.

Io was the beautiful daughter of Inachus of Argos. She began having strange dreams with voices and visions telling her to leave her bed and go into a field where Zeus could ’see’ her. She told her father of the dreams and he sought advice of the oracles at Pytho and Dodona but they could offer no help. Finally, he sent an embassy to Loxias. For the oracles of Loxias, the meaning was crystal clear. They advised Inachus to disown his daughter, cast her into the streets and drive her from his country. If this was not done, the oracles warned, Zeus would eradicate Inachus and his people without mercy. With heavy heart, Inachus obeyed the oracles and forced his young daughter, Io, from his house.

Hera had not missed the drama unfolding in Argos. She was angered by Zeus’ (attempted) infidelity so she punished Zeus by punishing Io. As Io fled in tears from her father’s house, she began to change. Horns popped out on her head and, as she ran, she completely transformed into a black and white heifer. A gad-fly began to sting and pester her, forcing her to run farther and farther from her home and happiness.

Hera wanted to be sure that her husband, Zeus, could not be alone with his new infatuation so she set the herdsman, Argos to follow the heifer-girl. Argos was called Argos Panoptes, meaning ’all seeing’ because he had one hundred eyes placed all over his body. Io was terrified of Argos and she fled from him as much as she did from the sting of the ever present gad-fly.

Zeus was inflamed. With Argos on guard he couldn’t secretly meet with the lovely Io. He instructed his son, Hermes, to kill Argos. To this day, Hermes is often called Argeiphontes, ’the slayer of Argos’. He lulled the herdsman to sleep with sweet music and then beheaded the sleeping watchman before he could defend himself. Io was now free of the all seeing Argos.

The punishment was not over yet. The gad-fly was still goading the heifer-girl to the ends of the earth. As Io fled through the Caucasus mountains she saw Prometheus bound to the stony crag. Prometheus was a Titan who had angered Zeus with his reckless affection for the lowly mortals who populated the earth below Olympus. Prometheus was chained, spread-eagle to the pitiless rockface by the plan of Zeus and by the hand of Hepheistos. Prometheus had been left to suffer in solitude and misery until Zeus’ fury subsided.

Io’s conversation with Prometheus (in Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus) is quite moving. She told him of her sorrowful past, how she can never sleep in the same place two nights in succession because of the insistent gad-fly. She begged the Titan for his prediction of her future. The name ’Prometheus’ means ’forethought’. She wanted to know: when will her suffering end? Even in his tortured condition, Prometheus tried to spare her feelings. She asked why he would not be forthright. He replied that he was afraid that if he told her the depth and duration of her suffering, the knowledge might break her spirit. She wanted to hear it all, no matter how dismal her future may be, she wanted to hear it all.

Prometheus told her of her long, lonely road. He advised her on which way to travel and where she might find help along the way. He told her to be strong because she would eventually be freed from the curse of Hera. Her journey would end in Egypt. He told her that she would be restored to her original beauty and have a glorious son named Epaphos. Prometheus also foresaw the ironic fact that one of her descendants would, after thirteen generations, come back to that lonely mountain and cut the bonds that made him famous.

The predictions of Prometheus came true. Io’s flight took her East towards Asia, South to the land of the Amazons and, after years of tortuous wandering, she came to Egypt. When the hand of Zeus reached out and touched Io, Hera’s curse was lifted. Io was restored to her youthful beauty and was allowed to live out her mortal life in peace.

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