Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 60

“Foot-feather’d Mercury appear’d sublime
Beyond the tall tree tops; and in less time
Than shoots the slanted hail-storm, down he dropt
Towards the ground; but rested not, nor stopt
One moment from his home; only the sward
He with his wand light touch’d, and heavenward
Swifter than sight was gone.”

Mercury was not only the messenger of the gods, but was also appointed god of eloquence, commerce, rain, wind, and the special patron of travelers, shepherds, cheats, and thieves.

Story of Io.

Jupiter often intrusted to Mercury messages of a delicate nature, and always found him an invaluable ally; but the faithful messenger was never so much needed or so deeply appreciated as during Jupiter’s courtship of Io, the peerless daughter of the river god Inachus.

[135] To avoid Juno’s recriminations, Jupiter had carried on this affair with even more than his usual secrecy, visiting his beloved only when quite certain that his wife was asleep, and taking the further precaution of spreading a cloud over the spot where he generally met her, to shield her from all chance of being seen from Olympus.

One fine afternoon, all conditions being favorable, Jupiter hastened down to earth to see Io, and began to stroll with her up and down the river edge. They heeded not the noonday heat, for the cloud over their heads screened them from the sun’s too ardent rays.

From some cause Juno’s slumbers were less protracted than usual, and she soon arose from her couch to look about her realm, the atmosphere, and convince herself that all was well. Her attention was soon attracted by an opaque, immovable cloud near the earth,—a cloud which had no business there, for had she not bidden them all lie still on the blue until she awoke? Her suspicions being aroused by the presence of this cloud, she sought her husband in Olympus, and, not finding him, flew down to earth, brushing the cloud aside in her haste.

Jupiter, thus warned of her coming, had but time to change the maiden beside him into a heifer, ere his wife alighted and inquired what he was doing there. Carelessly the god pointed to the heifer, and declared he had been whiling away the time by creating it; but the explanation failed to satisfy Juno, who, seeing no other living creature near, suspected that her spouse had been engaged in a clandestine flirtation, and had screened its fair object from her wrath only by a sudden transformation.

Dissimulating these suspicions with care, Juno begged her husband to give her his new creation, which request he could not refuse, but granted most reluctantly, thus adding further confirmation to her jealous fears. The Queen of Heaven then departed, taking Io with her, and placed her under the surveillance of Argus, one of her servants, who possessed myriad eyes, but one half of which he closed at a time.

[136] “The eyes of Argus, sentinel of Heaven:
Those thousand eyes that watch alternate kept,
Nor all o’er all his body waked or slept.”
Statius (Elton’s tr.).
Argus’ watch.

She bade him watch the heifer closely, and report anything unusual in its actions. One day, therefore, as he was watching his charge pasture by the river, Argus heard her relate to her father, Inachus, the story of her transformation, and immediately imparted his discovery to Juno, who, advising still closer watchfulness, sent him back to his post.

Jupiter, in the mean while, was in despair; for days had passed without his being able to exchange a word with Io, or deliver her from her imprisonment. Finally he called Mercury to his aid, and bade him devise some plan to rescue her. Armed with a handful of poppies, Mercury approached Argus, and offered to while away the time by telling him tales.

As Mercury was the prince of story-tellers, this offer was not to be despised, and Argus joyfully accepted; but instead of exerting himself to be entertaining, Mercury droned out such lengthy, uninteresting stories, that Argus soon closed half his eyes in profound sleep. Still talking in the same monotonous way, Mercury softly shook the poppies over the giant’s head, until one by one the remaining eyelids closed, and Argus was wrapped in complete slumber.

Then Mercury seized the giant’s sword, and with one well-directed blow severed his head from the huge trunk. Only one half of the task was successfully accomplished; and while Mercury was driving the heifer away, Juno discovered his attempt, and promptly sent an enormous gadfly to torment the poor beast, who, goaded to madness by its cruel stings, fled wildly from one country to another, forded streams, and finally plunged into the sea, since called Ionian. After swimming across it, she took refuge in Egypt, where Jupiter restored her to all her girlish loveliness, and where her son Epaphus was born, to be the first king and the founder of Memphis.

[137] “In coming time that hollow of the sea
Shall bear the name Ionian, and present
A monument of Io’s passage through,
Unto all mortals.”
E. B. Browning.

Juno mourned the loss of her faithful Argus most bitterly, and, gathering up his myriad eyes, scattered them over the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock, to have some memento of her faithful servant ever near her.

“From Argus slain a painted peacock grew,
Fluttering his feathers stain’d with various hue.”

This story also is an allegory. Io personifies the moon, restlessly wandering from place to place; Argus, the heavens, whose starry eyes keep ceaseless watch over the moon’s every movement; Mercury is the rain, whose advent blots out the stars one by one, thus killing Argus, who else was never known to close all his eyes at once.

Mercury’s offices and worship.