Hera & the Argive Heraion

The Argolid (the region of the northeast Peloponnese named from Argos) did not hold entirely happy associations for Hera. True, it was here that she was first wooed by her brother, Zeus (though some set the scene at Knossos). After overcoming Cronus and seizing Mount Olympus, Zeus found Hera on Mount Thornax, east of Argos, and amorously pressed his suit. But Hera was unwilling and rebuffed him. Then, in a thunderstorm, she found above the bay at Hermione a cuckoo, trembling, dishevelled, its feathers dull; and gently lifting it, she cradled it inside her dress against her breasts. In an ardent flash, the cuckoo transformed into Zeus and raped her. Shamed, Hera accepted the inevitable. She married Zeus, but every year renewed her virginity by bathing in a spring at Nauplion.

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Even at the Argive Heraion, her sanctuary near Argos, Zeus could cause Hera distress. As was his wont, he became infatuated with a local girl: Hera’s priestess, Io, the daughter of the river-god Inachus. Io soon succumbed, and, when Hera learned of the affair, Zeus tried to conceal his misdemenour: he turned the now-pregnant Io into a cow. But Hera was not deceived. Claiming the cow as her own, she took it to her sanctuary, tethered it beneath an olive tree and set a guard over it: Argos Panoptes (‘Who Sees All’), an earth-born giant with a hundred eyes, which took it in turn to close. Even when Panoptes slept, some stayed open, watching.

Zeus was loath to leave Io to her bovine fate, so he sent Hermes to abduct her. Disguised as a goatherd, Hermes ingratiated himself with Panoptes, serenading him on shepherd’s pipes. So soothing and hypnotic was the melody that Panoptes’ eyes began to close until, for the first time ever, not one remained open. Hermes seized the moment, lopped off Panoptes’ head and untied the halter around Io’s neck.

Hermes slays the hundred-eyed Argos Panoptes, guardian of Io whom Hera has transformed into a cow. (Fifth-century BC Attic red figure vase.)

Hera saw it all and unleashed a gadfly, which attacked poor Io and drove her, bucking, off. After many years Io reached Egypt, where Zeus restored her to her womanly form. Here at last she gave birth to Zeus’ son, married the king and (so the Greeks claimed) was later worshipped as Isis. As for Argos Panoptes, Hera named her land from him, removed his hundred eyes and set them in the tail of her favourite bird, the peacock, where they have kept watch ever since. Many Greek guard dogs (including Odysseus’ on Ithaca) were called Argos after him

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