This painting, created by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck (c. 1615-1660), was inspired by the myth of the nymph, Io. The beginning of her story, as with many of the tales about the much-abused nymphs, did not have a pleasant start—Io was pursued and assaulted by the lusty god, Zeus (or the Roman Jupiter), who then transformed the victimized nymph into a cow to hide the crime from his wrathful wife, Hera/Juno. Nevertheless, Zeus’ lecherous ways were well-known to his spouse, and therefore the queen of the gods looked on with suspicion at her husband and his mysteriously acquired cow. Noticing Zeus’ defensiveness and anxiety over the cow, Hera demanded that the creature be handed over to her as a gift. This was done, and Hera, in turn, tasked a deity named Argus, who conveniently had one hundred eyes, to watch over the cow’s every move. Zeus, however, launched a counter-attack through the means of the messenger-god, Hermes (or the Roman Mercury). As depicted in the painting above, Hermes was sent to free Io from Argus. He succeeded in his task, and, according to the account of the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), the messenger-god used a unique tactic to win the day. As the story goes, Hermes/Mercury blandly narrated for Argus the myth about the nymph, Syrinx, being chased by the god Pan—a chase that ultimately resulted in Syrinx transforming into marsh reeds to escape the god’s clutches. Argus fell asleep mid-tale, and Hermes/Mercury fatally punished the sleeping figure for his rude inattentiveness. Ovid described the event:
“When he saw that his enemy’s drowsy eyes had all succumbed
and were shrouded in sleep…[a]t once he stopped talking and stroked the sentry’s
drooping lids with his magic wand to make sure he was out.
Then he rapidly struck with his sickle-shaped sword at his nodding victim
Just where the head comes close to the neck…”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.714-717)
Such is the present and future of the scene painted by Govert Flinck. Although Hermes freed Io of her captivity under Argus, the messenger-god could not spare the nymph from the increasingly suspicious Hera. The queen of the gods eventually sent demon-like entities to haunt the escaped cow, and restless Io was said to have wandered under her supernatural duress all the way to Egypt. Fortunately, around the time that she reached the Nile, Zeus was said to have been able to finally appease Hera’s wrath, allowing Io to at last return to a humanoid shape.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.