This painting, by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (c. 1622-1654), was inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman myth of Mercury (aka Hermes), Argus and Io. The mythological tale in question began when Io—a Naiad nymph fathered by the river god, Inachus—was unfortunate enough to cross paths with Zeus (or Jupiter), the ever-lustful and often unrestrained high-god of the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities. Io evidently knew of Zeus’ reputation and wanted nothing to do with him, but Zeus, with his lecherous mindset, was not one to give up the chase, regardless of consent. Zeus, sadly, pursued and assaulted Io, and then he curiously decided to transform the unfortunate nymph into a cow to hide the crime from his jealous wife, Hera. She, however, knew her husband well and suspected there was something odd about the suspicious animal. Noticing Zeus’ defensiveness and anxiety over the cow, Hera felt that her suspicions about the creature were well founded, and she ultimately demanded that the cow 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.
By this point, Zeus was evidently feeling guilty about the predicament that he had put poor Io in. Transitioning himself from rapist to rescuer, Zeus decided to launch a counter-attack against his wife’s scheme by sending the messenger-god, Hermes (or the Roman Mercury), to free Io from the watchful eyes of Argus. As told in the entertaining account of the myth by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), Hermes was able to defeat Argus through the means of a unique tactic—bland and boring storytelling. According to the tale, Hermes 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 then 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 myth that inspired Carel Fabritius’ painting. If the two figures (dressed here in clothing much more in line with the artist’s own time instead of ancient fashion) really are meant to be Argus and Mercury/Hermes, then the sleeping man is doomed, as Hermes made his attack after he realized his target had fallen asleep. As for Io, she was allowed to flee from the scene (albeit still in cow shape), yet Hera soon sent creatures to haunt and harass her during her wandering. In this horrible state, Io was said to have traveled all the way to Egypt, by which time Zeus had finally appeased Hera’s wrath concerning Io, allowing the poor nymph 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.