This painting, by the Italian artist Salvator Rosa (c. 1615-1673), features an ancient myth involving the messenger god Hermes (or Mercury) and the giant watchman, Argus. As the story goes, the clash of Mercury and Argus was a proxy war between the ever-feuding divine couple, Zeus (or Jupiter) and Hera (or Juno). As a prelude to the scene unfolding in the painting above, Argus had been tasked by Hera with watching over a special cow. This bovine prisoner, however, was actually the nymph, Io, who had been sexually assaulted by Zeus and then transformed into a cow to hide the crime. Suspicious Hera rightfully believed there was more to the cow than met the eye, and that was why she placed the nymph-animal under Argus’ watch. Zeus, feeling sorry about the trouble he had caused his victim, called up the messenger-god Hermes and sent him on a mission to free the transformed nymph at all costs. Hermes would succeed 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. Hermes was said to have 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. Due to the messenger-god’s dull narration, Argus could not help but fall asleep mid-tale. Hermes 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 Salvator Rosa. 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.