This landscape painting, dominated by dark and chilling colors, was created by the Dutch artist, Johannes Glauber (c. 1646–1726). The scene re-creates the beginning of the myth of Io—a Naiad nymph fathered by the river god, Inachus. Io had the misfortune of crossing paths with Zeus (or Jupiter), the ever-lustful, and often unrestrained, high-god of the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities. Zeus offered to escort the nymph wherever she wanted to go, but as soon as he revealed his identity to her, Io became defensive. She had evidently heard of Zeus’ assaultive nature regarding women, and she wanted nothing to do with him. Unfortunately, when Zeus had his lecherous mind set, he was not one to give up the chase, regardless of consent. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), skillfully described the uncomfortable scene:
“[Zeus said] If you are afraid to enter the wild beasts’ lair on your own,
you’ll be safe with a god to guide you into the forest’s secret
recesses—no ordinary god, but I who wield in my mighty
hand the sceptre of heaven and hurl the volatile lightning.’
She started to flee. ‘Don’t run from me now!’ Already she’d left
the pastures of Lerna and woody Lyrcéan country behind her,
when Jupiter, throwing a mantle of darkness over the wide earth,
halted the flight of the runaway nymph and stealthily raped her”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.593-600)
Such is the sad tale that is unfolding in the dimly-lit painting above by Johannes Glauber. Unfortunately, Io’s tale did not end with her assault. According to the story, Zeus would go on to turn Io into a cow to hide her from Hera—Zeus’s vengeful wife, who was as (or more) hostile to her husband’s victims as she was scornful to Zeus. Hera, suspicious about the affection that Zeus was showing to his mysterious animal, seized the cow-nymph and had her guarded. In response, the god Hermes was sent, on Zeus’ orders, to free the bovine Io from her captivity. Yet, as soon as cow-Io was sprung from her pasture, Hera felt her suspicions were confirmed, and therefore she sent demon-like entities to haunt Io. In cattle form, Io wandered the earth while being chased by her demons, eventually reaching Egypt. Fortunately, Zeus had been slowly but steadily placating Hera’s wrath behind the scenes, and Io was eventually allowed to be reverted back to her humanoid shape.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.