Io

This word is not lo, as in “Lo, behold a cow-horned maiden.” It’s a capital I and a small o. In English, the spelling and pronunciation of this name sound the same: I-o, like “I owe,” as in “I owe one of my greatest stage memories to Io,” and perhaps sort of like “hi-ho,” as in “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s on the stage I go.”

Actually, though, it comes from Greek, and its pronunciation there is like “ee-o” – not exactly like “yo,” as in “Yo, check out the cow-horned maiden,” which would be oy backwards, as in “Oy, this gadfly is making my life hell” – although in classical Greek, the word io was also a lamentation meaning “oy” or “alas”. When faced with Io in a classical context, one is hard pressed to decide which way to say it, and might in vacillation say “ee-ay-ee-ay-o”, as in “Old Inachus had a farm, e-i-e-i-o, and on that farm he had a cow, e-i-e-i-o.”

At the same time, Io presents distinctly digital associations – likely what my mainframer brother would see in it first. It’s not just that I/O stands for input/output, it’s that IO looks like a 1 and a 0, the binary digits, a.k.a. bits (and also the international symbols for “on” and “off”, since 1 is something and 0 is nothing). In binary, 10 is equal to 2 in decimal (the joke goes that there are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who don’t).

So is Io number 2? No – in terms of size, it’s number 4. By which I mean that the moon of Jupiter called Io is the fourth-largest moon in our solar system, behind Titan (which orbits Saturn) and Ganymede and Callisto (which orbit Jupiter), and just ahead of Earth’s Moon and of its fellow moon of Jupiter, Europa. But, oh, though Io, Europa, and our Moon are of similar size, they’re like fire and ice and cold stone. Actually, they’re not just like them: Io is very volcanically active, while Europa is covered in ice and our Moon is dry and inert.

Io and Europa, like Ganymede and Callisto, got their names – the moons, I mean – because their namesakes were all lovers of Zeus, the god also known as Jupiter. Well, perhaps I should say they were all seduced by Zeus. Actually, with Io, it’s not even quite that. Zeus saw this maiden and came to her and night and whispered to her, and though she resisted, her father (Inachus) finally turfed her out, fearing trouble, and Zeus came down and had his way with her. Zeus’s wife, Hera, came snooping, so Zeus turned Io into a cow to conceal her. But Hera knew what was up and asked for Io as a gift. Then she tied her to a tree and set a guard on her. But Zeus got her loose, and then Hera send a gadly after her… Anyway, Io wandered around quite a bit, and in her travels she stopped by Prometheus, who was bound to a rock. Many years later, one of Io’s descendants (yes, she had a baby by Zeus, after she got turned back into a human) – Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) – would free Prometheus. (Meanwhile, on the moon Io, there’s a volcano called Prometheus. The moon Io has no horns but it sure has a complexion problem.)

Now, mind you, the Greek myths have various variations depending on the source. They don’t provide completely fixed, reliable, and consistent narratives; they practically invite new inputs and outputs. And a classical work such as Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, when performed in Canada in the modern era – an age where 1 and 0 are much better known than Io – will unavoidably have modern perspectives and modern inputs and outputs. Or postmodern – why pretend there’s a reliable metanarrative to adhere to? Mix and match and see what you can get. Flip from English to classical Greek in the middle of the play, for instance.

That’s just what Philip McCoy did when he directed Prometheus Bound at the University of Calgary in 1987. And I got the best bit: to the sound of Philip Glass’s funeral march from Akhnaten, I entered – in full classical Greek costume, including sandals, robe, and complete head mask – and recited, in a classical Greek dramatic style – keening, emotional, undilute, all-or-nothing – the monologue of Io, in classical Greek. It was a moment – indeed, a good two minutes – handed on a silver platter, from τίς γῆ; τί γένος; Tis gé? Ti genos? (“What land? What people?”) through ἰὼ ἰὼ πόποι, ποῖ μ᾽ ἄγουσι τηλέπλαγκτοι πλάναι; Io io popoi, poi m’agousi téleplanktoi planai (“Ah, ah, alas, where are you taking me, my far-wandering wanderings?”) to the final cry, κλύεις φθέγμα τᾶς βούκερω παρθένου; Klueis phthegma tas boukero parthenou? (“Do you hear the cry of the cow-horned maid?”)

5 responses to “Io

  1. Pingback: Europe | Sesquiotica

  2. 😀 😀 The last paragraph is GREEK to me!

    The Greek myth related to Io just adduces to ( or reinforces) the image I had of Zeus all along.

    Io is new to me and all I knew hitherto was IO as in Input-Output stream.

  3. Io, as an interjection, is still with us as the exclamation mark ! representing an I over an o. Similarly, the question mark ? is a Q over an o, short for the Latin quaestio.

  4. Astonishing ! Tachybaptus, it never occurred to me! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Saturnalia | Sesquiotica

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