This dark painting, by the French artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (c.1758-1823), re-creates the unnerving opening act of the sad myth of Io, a Naiad nymph fathered by the river god, Inachus. Io had the misfortune of crossing paths with Zeus (or Jupiter to Romans), 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. Io was, indeed, very wise to question Zeus’ intentions. Nevertheless, 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 inspired Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s painting. It shows the moment when Zeus shrouded Io in an obscuring cloud of darkness, giving the lecherous god cover in which to commit his assault. Unfortunately, this ordeal was only the beginning to Io’s long saga of mistreatment and suffering. In the next episodes of her unpleasant story, Io would become pregnant after the assault, then she was turned into a cow by Zeus to hide the evidence of his crime, and finally Io was forced to go into exile as an attempt to escape punishment from Zeus’ vengeful wife, Hera. It was only after Io had fled all the way from Greece to Egypt that the cow transformation was finally undone, allowing Io to attempt to regain a semblance of normal life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.