Tag Archives: 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?”)


Who am I? What is this I that I perceive? The most essential thing in the universe or a pure illusion? Is it as solid as a metal beam or as evanescent as a candle in the wind?

Reflect, Grasshopper. Reflect on yourself, because your self is mere reflection. This shining I is a mere mirror, and even the mirror is not there when you – with your eye, your seeing part, which you may mistake for your I – look for it.

You look in the mirror, and you say, “I see.” And indeed I C spells the source of I: in Old English, I was ic, said sometimes as “eek” and sometimes as “each” – the two sides of the self, one of fear, withdrawing, the other of distribution, sharing, outgoing. It was sometimes after written ich. Make this capital: ICH. In a serif font, the formal way, an I is like a steel beam (an I-beam, in fact), reminiscent of an H on its side. Make it more like an H on its side and you have 工, the Chinese character for gong, “work.” But Chinese for “I” is wo – the self is only half of work, for action is the rest. The character for wo, however, is a slashing pattern of seven strokes, 我, half of which is a spear and the other half of which is said to be a hand, or grain, or another spear: fighting, action.

The self is the ready hand: the letter I began as an arm and hand, Phoenecian yod, which lost first the hand, then the elbow and wrist, and soon became the smallest of letters, a mere stroke, iota, ι, the famed jot of jot and tittle, the small wisp of Hebrew yod, י. You see the strong hand, but when you follow it, it vanishes into smoke, it is the merest small thing.

But I was not I then. In Hebrew, when you speak of yourself, you do not say an I, you say ani. In Greek, like English an Indo-European language, “I” the speaking first person was – is – ego, written in Greek letters εγο; in Latin, it is ego written first EGO (as we ever write our selves in our own minds). These little letters we love, e g o i etc., came about later, as scribes shrank them in brisk writing: the I became a little single stroke, at risk of being taken for one half of an n, one third of an m, so they added a dot, like a finger, a flag… a flame. We are a candle burning down. No, we are not: we are only the flame. We consume the wax, but the matter of the wax passes in other forms into the air; when it is burnt, however, the flame – which was only ever an ongoing reaction, not a discrete object – is gone. Ay, gone.

Ay. This is how we say I. This is not how we always said it. Our long vowels shifted half a millennium ago. Before that, the ich lost the fricative at the end and we said it “ee”: simply the narrowest opening at the tip of the tongue. Tighten the tongue a little more as you say it, and whisper as you do so, and you have German ich. But when “ah” became “ey” and “ey” became “ee” we needed this sound of I to be more distinctive, and so we swooped into it, starting at “ah” and narrowing down, like a hand swinging through the air and pointing at a spot.

In other languages it widens from the spot. In Scandinavian languages, you have jeg – the j a glide, like our y – or similar words. In Slavic languages, you have ja and similar words. In Romance languages, you have Spanish yo, Portuguese eu, Italian io, French je – this last has a fricative, but it was once a glide, too, as its first letter has descended from none other than I. Thereby hangs a tale: what we see now as j was first an ornamental i with a tail; when the glide sound came from the vowel, it was written the same way at first, but when we decided we needed a separate letter for the glide – or for the fricative or affricate it had become – we kept the j for that. If we needed another version still, we used y. And sometimes, in English, where the i seemed too small for the vowel, we wrote y instead. See that y: like an i and a j joined. In Dutch, words once written with y – such as the river Y – are now written with ij (and the river is het IJ). The self plain and the self fancy, extended: together you have branching, division, or you have dowsing, divination, depending on your direction. Widening or narrowing: your self is your choice. Which shall you do?

We aggrandized our little i. When we stopped saying ich we were left with a jot and a dot. It was not big enough; the I does not want to pass unnoticed. So it gained an infusion of capital. In other languages, politeness may dictate the upper case for the formal other person: Sie in German, U in Dutch (which, informally, says je for “you”). Honour may dictate it for royalty and deity: Your Grace, His grace. But we, we who see ourselves as the axis of all, we plant a flagpole at our north pole of the self: I. How we forget that when all rotates around a point, the point around which is rotates has no size, no dimension. It is a perfect nothing. Without it the action could not be happening, but it is only there as a result and part of the action. It itself does not move; it is still, there. And when the action stops it is not still there.

I is not the most common word in English; it sits, according to wordcount.org, at 11th place – ay, ay, 11. The most common pronoun, in eighth place, is it. The most frequent actual noun is in 66th place, after so many function words, pronouns, auxiliaries, and staple verbs. It is what the I exists in: time.

What does the I stand for? among other things, I stands for the heaviest element commonly used by living organisms, an element rare in many places but soluble in water and so concentrated in seawater: iodine. It stains and it stings, but we need it. Without it our thyroids underdevelop, with bad effect; iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation.

But our little candle, the small i, takes us to the root of this all. And if our self is defined in opposition – the spear against spear, the ego that opposes, the reversal seen in reflection, the inevitable entropy of the candle – then our self is a negative one. And the root of negative one is i: an imaginary number, not countable or accountable in the real world, but still usable for describing and calculating things in our lives. The square root of 1 is 1; the square root of –1 is i. One less than nothing, and reduced by one dimension.

This is your I, grasshopper: a useful illusion, a mere effect of and part of action. You see a line between yourself and the world, but I, the line, is all there is, and even that is nothing real.


Herewith, to mark the ten thousandth view of Sesquiotica, I present an epistolary correspondence between Ion Orzabal and Muriel Wan.

Muriel, I wan to woo you.

There are wan ways to do that. Wan, my name, one of the old hundred Chinese surnames, means “ten thousand.” So it is one hundred times the hundred. Square me away with some poetry.

You, Wan, are Han (Chinese); I am Basque. May I bask in your glory? Muriel, for you I will make merry with a myriad of means – myriad being “ten thousand” but rooting in the Greek murios, “countless.” Any Tennyson? Let’s try this:

Sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
and murmuring of innumerable bees.

You have connected! You speak of innumerable bees and moaning birds, surely the source of the countless many things – in Chinese, wan wu: the “ten thousand things.” Everything. As often mentioned in the Tao Te Ching – let me quote the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.


The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.

I do like the water images. After all, Muriel comes from Scots Gaelic Muireall, “bright sea.”

If water is music to your ears, I can Handel it. But then let me Aeschylate matters. Who stole the fire from the gods and put them in your eyes? Why, Prometheus, of course, and he is bound to be relevant. He is quoted speaking of the “Myriad laughter of the ocean waves.” A cheat, though, I declare: the original Greek is pontion te kumaton anérithmon gelasma, no murios in sight until lines later (where it is murieté)… Here is David Grene’s translation of the lines:

Bright lights, swift-winged winds, springs of the rivers, numberless
laughter of the sea’s waves, earth, mother of all, and the all-seeing
circle of the sun: I call upon you to see what I, a God, suffer
at the hands of Gods –
see with what kind of torture
worn down I shall wrestle ten thousand
years of time –

And indeed, Muriel, I wrestle a myriad of yearning tortures for you. Let me, IO, quote Io from Prometheus Bound, stung by the gadfly, goaded by Argos, the ten-thousand-eyed (muriópon) herdsman. In Greek, “Io, io, popoi! Poi de m’agousi téleplagtoi planai.” In English, “O, O, O, Where are you bringing me, my far-wandering wanderings?” Do my wanderings take me back? Do I strive pointlessly?

Ah, earth, the mother of all, again. You have named it! But there it is: you begin from the myth and you take it to the myriad in the moment, an instance of hierophany – Mircea Eliade’s “eternal return.” We create the sacred space when we connect with the myth, and the time now becomes the time of the myth for the moment. In every countless moment we may return. But again I am jonesing for the tao:

Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things are born of being.
Being is born of not being.

Ah, all is wan and wan is one. I know another eternal return: the idea that, given an infinite amount of time, all arrangements of matter in the universe will recur. But I eternally return to you, Ion after eons. Will you yield?

And the universe, too, returns, from big bang to big crunch, every breath a myriad of eons. But is this yield you desire the yield of a cookie recipe? I hope it is not a mere yield of a myriad. Myriad matches miscellaneously: ways, problems, forms, details, issues. Do you make merry or do you make as to marry? I do not marry ad hoc; Muriel does not marry all who ask. Wan will have but one.

Well, when all is Wan, Wan is all. I will be a rock and will not roll. If you wish a stairway to heaven, let us physically manifest the sacred. But let me speak of what I believe; I will shout and let it all out, my tears and fears. You speak of Mircea Eliade, and I hope my words are not Greek to you; I seek no Iliad, and I wish theodicy, not the Odyssey. Have mercy. Let my hierophany be Coleridge’s “Hymn to the Earth”:

Say, mysterious Earth! O say, great mother and goddess,
Was it not well with thee then, when first thy lap was ungirdled,
Thy lap to the genial Heaven, the day that he woo’d thee and won thee!
Fair was thy blush, the fairest and first of the blushes of morning!
Deep was the shudder, O Earth! the throe of thy self-retention:
Inly thou strovest to flee, and didst seek thyself at thy centre!
Mightier far was the joy of thy sudden resilience; and forthwith
Myriad myriads of lives teem’d forth from the mighty embracement.
Thousand-fold tribes of dwellers, impell’d by thousand-fold instincts,
Fill’d, as a dream, the wide waters; the rivers sang on their channels;
Laugh’d on their shores the hoarse seas; the yearning ocean swell’d upward;
Young life low’d through the meadows, the woods, and the echoing mountains,
Wander’d bleating in valleys, and warbled on blossoming branches.

The myriad myriads – noun and adjective, the universe in verse – will teem forth from our embracement. Let me be the genial Heaven that woo’d and won Wan! The rivers will sing in their channels, and the hoarse seas will laugh – countlessly; the yearning ocean will swell upward.

Oh, let me Marvell at your beauty! To be exact, Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Ah, thirty thousand – san man. Mister San Man, you bring me a dream. The wingèd chariot may be your father’s, for you are Ion, son of Apollo, who drives the sun. I hope you will not run. You are myriad-minded, to borrow a word Coleridge applied to Shakespeare: Greek murionous. I am in mind of Bronson Alcott, from “Ion: A Monody”:

Early through field and wood each Spring we sped,
Young Ion leading o’er the reedy pass;

For endless Being’s myriad-minded race
Had in his thought their registry and place

But for your harbinger, let me end with a line from Edmund Charles Blunden’s Harbingers:

And wed me with the myriad-minded man.

Then let us be happily myriad!