At the beginning of the climactic episode of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound,1 the maiden Io starts her speech, interrupting the hitherto sedate lamentations of the chained Titan Prometheus with the frenetic and garbled screaming of a young woman driven mad. The rest of the play, both before and after Io’s entry, unfolds as a sequence of dialogues between Prometheus, the chorus of Oceanids, and the few visitors who come to visit the desolate crag that forms the setting of the play. It is here that Prometheus has been chained and pierced through his chest with a pillar of stone: his punishment for the theft of fire—divine retribution for giving immortal power to mortals and transgressing the borders between mortal and divine. Io enters the story as a raving madwoman, wandering the furthermost borders of the earth (“γῆς ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτοις ὅροις”—“to the remotest boundary of land” PV 666)2, exiled from her country by her father at the command of the oracle of Apollo. Yet, as Prometheus describes, her wandering is destined to end, and a great future awaits her: she will found a glorious family line which will one day produce a great hero and Prometheus’ liberator: Hercules (PV 772). While the general narrative aligns well with the preceding tradition, one critical aspect of the portrayal of Io in Prometheus Bound deviates sharply from tradition and frustrates modern attempts at interpretation: her madness itself. In Hesiod, it is Hera who afflicts Io with both madness and her transformation into a heifer3 whereas Hyginus attributes the transformation to Zeus and the madness to Hera and yet the author of Prometheus Bound never unambiguously affirms identity of the agent of Io’s derangement.

           Mortals might look to Prometheus, a Titan whose name means ‘foresight’. Yet, while Prometheus does accuse Zeus of bringing about Io’s suffering, the evidence he proffers is only circumstantial: he affirms Zeus’ lechery, his immense power and the relative likelihood of his role in Io’s suffering. That said, even if Prometheus had relied less on circumstantial evidence, his role as a transgressor, both in the tradition and within the play, means that he cannot be considered a reliable narrator. In the dominant tradition of Hesiod, he is a deceitful, trickster figure.4 Within the play, he is the defeated enemy of Zeus, attempting to justify his actions and looking toward his rescue from punishment. His contribution to the play is riven with deceit and partiality (White 109). Further, Io’s own account of the origins of her madness does not align particularly well with Prometheus’. Where Prometheus accuses Zeus with no mention of any other god, Io directly mentions only Apollo and Hera. Thus, the play unfolds with very little textual evidence to anchor our interpretation of Io’s madness, as we are left relying on the words of a tortured god or the grievances of a madwoman-turned-cow. Finally, as D.J. Conacher notes, the problem of Io’s madness becomes all but impenetrable on the basis of traditional philological methods alone since the play departs almost completely from the preceding, Greek, literary tradition (26).

            Many classicists have turned to psychoanalysis when the genre of tragedy has brought up questions that defy explanation through traditional, philological means.5 Freud’s own practice of borrowing from tragedy in order to articulate psychoanalytic ideas—illustrated most famously in his development of the ‘Oedipus complex’—certainly commends a reciprocal borrowing on the part of scholars of Greek tragedy from psychoanalysis.6 E. Oliensis articulates the particular value of a psychoanalytic approach particularly well when she describes the approach as nothing more than an “orientation toward the unconscious” (3-4). Such an orientation has the potential to make all the difference because it allows us to approach the text in question in the terms most appropriate to the object of inquiry: since we are concerned with the roots of madness, it orients our investigation toward the unconscious forces that impact Io’s mind. Most importantly, instead of an obstacle to interpretation, psychoanalysis allows us to focus on key elements of the ambiguity of Io’s portrayal. For our purposes, it is Io’s own description of her dream that proves to be the most fruitful object of psychoanalytic investigation. As the spectre which haunts her nightly and which catalyzes the chain of events that lead to her exile, it is critical to understanding Io’s madness. At the same time, it is often ignored in philological study for its transgressions of syntax and meaning that, by means of psychoanalysis, are transformed into invaluable evidence for understanding Io’s madness.

            The writings of Jacques Lacan are particularly relevant to Io since, more than Freud himself, Lacan is interested in the descent into madness.7 In addition, his writings offer us a model that directly addresses Io’s status as maiden through his concept of the Imaginary. Widely considered to be his most significant contribution to psychoanalysis, this concept of Lacanian psychoanalysis corresponds to the subject’s first attempt in childhood to bridge the gap between the internal, psychological world and the world outside of the mind. It is in the Imaginary that we find the emergence of the ego—the structure that, among other things, creates the foundation for the subject’s experience of itself that in turn helps overcome formidable psychological obstacles for the transition into adulthood. Since the transition into adulthood is the most explicitly-stated source of anxiety in Io’s dream, the Imaginary is the most appropriate theoretical model to use in order to understand Io’s descent into madness. This paper explores how Io’s experience of the particular kind of tension that defines the Imaginary, amplified by the strength of her own unyielding attachment, finds expression in her dream.8 Moreover, I argue that the dream gives voice to anxiety of a transition which threatens to unveil the vanity of Io’s experience of herself as a subject through an encounter with what Lacan calls objet petit a. In short, psychoanalysis reveals that it is in the very logic of her dream that we can interpret Io’s transition at the core of her depiction as a transgressive figure.


            In its most positive dimension, Lacan situates the Imaginary within a tripartite psychological topology as the first order through which the subject establishes a connection between itself and the external world, wherein the subject is naturally ignorant of the existence of subjects outside of and separate from the self (E:S 4).9 The Imaginary first emerges in response to the primal experience of the self as a disordered and uncontrolled chaos. The Imaginary is, at this stage, a comfort to a child who is unable to understand his or her mind and body. In its most negative dimension, the Imaginary is the subject’s first comprehensive formulation of the structures that support and enforce repression (S.III, 166). As Lacan illustrates, “behaviour can be called Imaginary when its direction to an image, and its own value as an image… renders it displaceable out of the cycle within which a natural need is satisfied” (Lacan and Granoff 272).

           We see here that the Imaginary—and any activity understood to be imaginary—is directed toward an image, resulting in the subject’s detachment from satisfaction. It is this process by which the subject takes up a “direction to an image,” which Lacan refers to as identification. In his own words, identification is “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (E:S, 2). Therefore, identification is the process by which the subject comes to organize its conception of self by seeing itself in its own image. Beginning this process in the mirror stage, the subject is provided with such an experience of the self when it first catches sight of its reflection in a mirror. In effect, the subject recognizes in their reflection proof that, rather than being chaotic and uncontrolled, the subject is an ordered unity instead. Lacan’s reference to the mirror stage as manifesting “affective dynamism,” (E:S 18) reflects the idea that the human subject necessarily tends toward an image in order to counteract the chaos of the psyche, and yet Lacan is clear that this reflection—this image of the self as an ordered unity—cannot satisfy the role for which the subject needs it. All the same, this sets the stage for a more comprehensive identification in which, rather than using the image as proof of unity, the subject recognizes no distinction between itself and its image.

            The most complex product of this order is, in effect, simply a complex of images: the ego. For Lacan, the ego is a central figure of repression marking and, according to Richard Boothby, the furthest point of Lacan’s deviation from Freud. For Freud, the ego is, to a large degree, coextensive with consciousness; it is, in a fairly strong sense who we are, forming an integral part of the subject (Boothby 18). The Lacanian ego, on the other hand, is the sum aggregate of successive, imaginary identifications. As he explains: “The history of the subject develops in a more or less typical series of ideal identifications… And we conceive the ego to be nothing other than a central system of these formations” (E 178). The ego is an object of identification for Lacan, operating at its core, in the same way as the image of the mirror stage, but the ego is a far more complex. Although it is composed of a multitude of images, the ego is distinct from the image of the mirror stage because, rather than simply proof of unity, the subject identifies itself fully with the ego. In other words, the emergence of the ego represents an unconscious decision to recognize the ego—an external object—as coextensive with the subject. All actions, thoughts and desires become meaningful only insofar as they contribute to or are contextualized by the ego. Yet, since the ego is still only a complex of images, the subject filters itself, mediating its own experience through a vain, external and passive object.

            This lack of correspondence with the subject results in a lack of stability for the ego in the subject’s attempt to conceal the shortcomings of identification. The subject must therefore contend with that which it attempts to conceal: the thoughts and the drives that are the ego cannot be contextualized. This is the precise definition repression, i.e. the mechanism by which what is unaccounted for by the ego in the subject is concealed from conscious knowledge. Describing this experience of repression and its summary impact on the subject’s experience of self, Lacan states that “[t]he libidinal tension that shackles the subject to the constant pursuit of an illusory unity which is always luring him away from himself, is surely related to that agony of dereliction which is Man’s particular and tragic destiny” (“Some Reflections on the Ego” 16).

           Here we see the precise nature of this loss of access to the self: The belief that the self is an ordered unity, despite the fact that such unity is an illusion, drives the subject to pursue the satisfaction promised by that unity in what Lacan calls “an asymptotic movement”—a kind of agency that orbits the object of desire without ever actually attaining it (E:S 2). For Lacan, libidinal tension is the kind of tension that results from repression. In the process of misrecognizing the contours of the subject by identifying with the ego, the encounter with this external object cannot but fail to satisfy resulting either in the persistence of libidinal tension or in the erosion of confidence in the ego. The result is what Lacan describes as our tragic destiny, here referred to as the agony of dereliction. It is the misery that is experienced from the dissatisfaction of the encounter with the ego but also the necessity of the ego for the human psyche—a natural extension of the primal experience of the self as chaotic and uncontrolled. However, insofar as desire is asymptotic, the ego is constantly under the threat of annihilation as, time and again, the subject finds in the ego only lack. In this way, the primary insight of Lacanian psychoanalysis is the degree to which the conflict of necessity and impossibility operates as the organizing principle of the psyche—on one hand, the necessity of repression, and on the other, the impossibility of its success.


            The recognition of the contradiction of desire appears, according to Lacan, in the dream-work through objet petit a.10 At its most basic level, objet petit a is always related to the idea of lack which we have already encountered in the asymptotic movement of the subject toward itself. Explaining the connection between the subject, lack, and objet petit a, Lacan says, that “[t]he objet [petit] a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off…[and which] serves as a symbol of the lack…” (FFC 103). Objet petit a is, in essence, the representation—the symbol of that which is lost in identification—and it is in this sense a non-thing or, more accurately, that which the ego cannot contextualize.11 Žižek explains how Lacan understands the appearance of objet petit a in the dream:

[E]very manifest dream content, contains at least one ingredient that functions as a stopgap, as a filler holding the place of what is necessarily lacking in it….[The dream] effectively holds within it the place of what this imaginary scene must “repress,” exclude, force out, in order to constitute itself. It is a kind of umbilical cord tying the imaginary structure to the “repressed” process of its structuration. (Žižek, 1991: 35)

           We see here that the dream, as expressed in the terms of the Imaginary, is bound up in the processes of repression, of maintaining the fiction of identification, and objet petit a appears in the dream in order to conceal a lack. At the same time, in covering over lack, objet petit a must appear at the very site of repression, the result of which is that it may perform the opposite function of pointing to and revealing, lack, rather than concealing it. In addition, any preoccupation with repression, emerging from either the extent of or circumstantial necessity for repression, can cause the subject to be drawn toward an encounter with objet petit a. Such an encounter is the very definition of primal terror in which the recognition of the vanity of the ego takes place and, as a result, the potential for the ego’s dissolution. Unable to fully break with the ego—that which has hitherto organized the subject’s experience—the subject is thrown into complete, psychological turmoil. In other words, it is through the encounter with the object petit a that the subject descends into madness.


Always, nightly visions (ὄψεις ἔννυχοι) came, darting to and fro,

into my maiden chambers (παρθενῶνας τοὺς ἐμοὺς), addressing me with smooth words, “Oh greatly blessed girl!

Why do you linger in maidenhood when, for you, the highest union (γάμου)

is chanced upon? For Zeus by a bolt of longing (ἱμέρου βέλει)

for you, is struck, and to join in love with you

he wishes. Oh, child, would that you not spurn the bed of Zeus,

but go forth to the deep meadow (βαθὺν λειμῶνα) of Lerna:

to the flocks and ox-stalls (ποίμνας βουστάσεις τε) of your father,

so that the eye of Zeus may be given rest from its yearning (λωφήσῃ πόθου).

                                                                 (Prometheus Bound 645-654)

           Io describes her dream in this passage, and it is here that we now turn, armed with Lacan’s concepts. The dream relates, in explicit terms, Io’s sense of herself as a maiden and her impending transition into adulthood. I argue that Io’s descent into madness can be understood, on the basis of this dream, as a consequence of the combined necessity and impossibility of both her status as a maiden and her transition into adulthood. Further, the anxiety of this contradiction brings about the encounter with objet petit a, represented by the eye of Zeus.

            To begin with the question of Io’s relationship with her status as maiden as purely a function of her age, one may assume that Io’s psychological life is dominated by the Imaginary, since the term ‘maiden,’ at the very least, does not refer to a self-sufficient adult. At the same time, it is not yet clear how to identify the idea of maidenhood psychoanalytically. On several levels, it is clear that maidenhood offers Io a sense of a unified self, which may induce us to see maidenhood as the image. We can see, at the very least, a marked expression of dependence on the physical location of maidenhood, suggesting a corresponding dependence on maidenhood as a point of self-understanding. We see this in Io’s emphatic use of the possessive pronoun when she says “παρθενῶνας τοὺς ἐμοὺς” (“my maiden’s chambers” PV 646).12 In addition she describes her ordeal, immediately prior to the above quoted passage, as a “διαφθορὰν μορφῆς” (“marring of appearance/form”), a choice of words which has a distinct resonance with Lacan’s emphasis on the visual character of image (PV 643-4; E:S 196). Maidenhood, moreover, is not simply an internalized visual unity but a more complex, culturally inflected identity. While it is certainly the product of successive imaginary identifications, maidenhood is not represented by the ego since it is neither unique to Io nor does it designate all that she is. We may take maidenhood to be related to both image and ego. That is to say that it is ego insofar as it clearly forms an important part in the constitution of her ego. For the purposes of this analysis, it is Io’s identification with maidenhood that is undermined in her dream and which is at the root of her anxieties.

            The second reference to maidenhood, a question posed by a disembodied voice, demonstrates this when it alludes to the necessary instability of maidenhood, asking, “why do you linger in maidenhood when, for you, there is the chance for the highest union? (PV 648)” The very possibility of leaving maidenhood behind undermines the possibility of sustaining maidenhood as an object of identification in its own right. Insofar as maidenhood is prior to womanhood, it presupposes its own termination, and so Io becomes aware that she has identified with that which, in its impermanence, is inherently incomplete and thus in painful conflict with primal idealization of the visual Gestalt. The subsequent mention of “the highest union” should be interpreted in the context of the idealization of the visual Gestalt and the consequent asymptotic movement toward illusory unity—the perfect mate standing in for the perfect satisfaction of desires. By locating access to satisfaction just beyond maidenhood, it is implied that it is specifically the identification with maidenhood that frustrates the satisfaction of desire. In this way, the dream replaces maidenhood and the transition into adulthood seems not only necessary but highly desirable. And yet, simply providing Io with new identification would grant her no more than a more complex repression. Moreover, several elements of the dream indicate a profound attachment to the Imaginary and demonstrate clearly the impossibility for Io to effect the requisite transition.

            The domination of the Imaginary of Io’s mind means that she perceives the transition into adulthood as nothing less than the impending annihilation of the ego. We must remember that the Imaginary subject is narcissistic and almost incapable of recognizing the existence of subjects and ‘consciousnesses’ distinct and separate from itself. In this sense, the necessity that Io replace maidenhood with an object of identification with which she has not spontaneously identified, but is instead externally imposed, is effectively outside of what she understands identification to be. This is reflected in the dream’s marked absence of coherent, visual elements, which is represented as a visual confusion corresponding to the larger confusion and resulting from the domination of the Imaginary about which I will now explain. I mention above the fact that the dream features a disembodied voice and it is the short speech of this voice that occupies the majority of Io’s account of the dream. George Devreux remarks on this absence of a clearly-identified speaker, insofar as it is in stark contrast with all other dream-narratives from the extant corpus (33-6). Io says merely that she was visited by “nightly visions (PV 645)”. If we compare Io’s dream to a dream from Homer’s Odyssey—that of the Phaeacian princess and maiden Nausicaawe see clearly how impossible Io’s transition from maidenhood seems to be. In Nausicaa’s dream, she is visited by the goddess Athena, and just as with Io, she is accused of lingering in maidenhood (“οὔ τοι ἔτι δὴν παρθένος ἔσσεαι”—“You will not be a maiden much longer!” Homer 6.33). However, the content and result of Nausicaa’s dream are wholly different: she is enjoined to oversee the washing of her family’s clothes and is told that taking up such a concrete role in the household will make her a desirable candidate for marriage to worthy men (Homer 6.20-40). What we might see in Nausicaa’s dream as a late, Imaginary stage of more responsible maidenhood leading into womanhood, is entirely absent from Io’s dream. Instead, Io is set above the kind of path laid out for most maidens and which we find in Nausicaa’s dream. Indeed, the very first words of the dream-voice explicitly establish Io’s worth, prior to her fulfilling any specific role, by saying: “Oh greatly blessed girl! (PV 647)” Further, where Nausicaa is told that taking up a concrete role will make her desirable, Io’s desirability is not only affirmed but is set beyond questioning. For Io, the highest union possible already awaits her in the king of the gods himself. In short, where Nausicaa’s dream offers a practical plan and a sense of her own role in the movement toward the fulfillment of her maidenhood, Io’s dream requires nothing of her—at least nothing related to the impending transition. For Io, the conditions necessary for the fulfillment of her maidenhood have already been met—an idealization in direct conflict with the sense of the inadequacy of maidenhood, which as we have seen underlies the dream. As such, we may interpret the marked absence of visual coherence of the addressing voice in Io’s dream as a sympathetic mirror to Io’s inability to comprehend the nature of her impending transition into adulthood. In this way, the first three lines of the Io’s account of her dream set the stage for her encounter with objet petit a. On one hand, through the challenge to her identification with maidenhood, Io is presented with the necessity of effecting a new identification, of transitioning into adulthood by means of an image of herself that is capable of contextualizing adult experience. At the same time, this new identification is made impossible because of her narcissistic inability to see beyond the Imaginary. In this, the stage is set for the conflict of necessity and impossibility that will ultimately expose the vanity of identification itself.


            The subsequent three lines of the dream are similarly organized around a gradual drawing near to objet petit a, but rather than reflecting this through indistinct images, the conflict of necessity and impossibility is established as a conflict of images. Remembering the connection between objet petit a and asymptotic agency, it should not be surprising that these lines are concerned chiefly with desire, emphasizing the aggressive and perverse as a shorthand for conflict. The first appears in the metaphoric mention of the desire of Zeus’ in the reference to the “ἱμέρου βέλος” (“bolt of longing” PV 649). While phallic resonances are surely not absent, the more distinct meaning of βέλος (bolt) communicates aggression and attack. Demonstrating this, “βέλος” is used in the Odyssey to describe the rock that the Cyclops Polyphemus throws at Odysseus (Homer, Odyssey 9.495). Another example comes from Herodotus, a contemporary of Aeschylus, who uses the term with reference to Zeus himself, describing how he destroys a man’s home with his lightning-bolt (4.79.2-3). Plato also makes use of the term but does so metaphorically, describing verbal “missiles” cast against one’s opponent in argumentation (23b). Thus, rather than signifying a specific type of weapon, each example generally describes projectiles thrown in attack.

            The term’s resonance with attack and aggressiveness is particularly striking because it is immediately preceded by a reference to marriage, which, as an ideal marriage, is meant to challenge Io’s lingering into maidenhood. It may be that the union, as the dream presents it, is defined by conflict. That said, we have already noted how the degree to which Zeus’s role in the dream as a kind of ideal suitor demonstrates the vast gulf between Nausicaa’s responsible maidenhood and Io’s inability to effect identification with a more adult ego. In this sense, the resonance with attack could be seen to merely intensify Io’s already superlative aspirations for what the fulfillment of her maidenhood will be. At the same time, this particular idealization of the fulfillment of maidenhood takes on a strongly negative color when we recognize the connection between this ideal union and attack that is communicated metrically. At the end of subsequent lines, “γάμος” (“union”) and “βέλος” (“bolt”) are made into equivalent terms through parallel emphasis. This contradictory union of violence is thrown into a more sinister light when the dream explicitly recognizes Io’s youth in the following line (PV 646), addressing her as “child” and exhorting this child not to spurn the bed of Zeus. On one hand, this may be meant to resonate with Zeus’ abduction of the boy Ganymede, whom he made Olympian cupbearer.13 Yet Zeus took Ganymede up into Olympus, conferring immortality and divinity on the boy, whereas in Io’s dream, the exalted status of Ganymede is reversed by locating the metaphorical bed of Zeus not only on earth, but in fields described as deep: a total reversal of the common epithet of “highest Olympus.14 Thus, rather than heroizing the possibility of her union with Zeus, any potential resonance with the Ganymede story transforms the address of Io in this passage as “child” into a recognition of her lack of preparation for sex.

            In Lacanian terms, this composite, contradictory image of union and attack, of the perversion of divine abduction leading downward rather than upward and the consequent image of the child as sexual object, is the critical moment of imaginary rupture in the dream. In contrast with the first lines of the dream’s speech, the image itself becomes fragmented and contradictory. Further, each image has important consequences for the satisfaction of desire, which is here frustrated by a contradiction of form. In the image of union and attack, union is made impossible if it is, at its core, dominated by the image of attack. In the image of divine abduction, the idealized suitor is made perverse, hidden away in the depths, rather than exalted on the heights of Olympus.15 In precisely the same way that imaginary identification results in an orientation toward mediation, rather than direct desire, these images of union express Io’s profound anxiety about the potential for new, imaginary identification to satisfy her desire.


            The final two lines of Io’s account of her dream express the aporia to which Io is reduced as a result of the conflicts wrought by Imaginary identification, and it is here that Io encounters objet petit a. The former is expressed through what amounts to a plan to return to a stage of psychological development prior to imaginary identification, which we find represented by the deep meadow of Io’s father, and the latter appears in the eye of Zeus.

            Beginning with the meadows of Lerna, they are described as the fields of Io’s father. The reference to her father is significant because it offers a solution to the contradictions we saw represented in the body of the dream’s speech. Specifically, this is the case insofar as the fertility or generative sense of these lines is connected to a pre-identified state, i.e. a psychological state prior to identification and the ego. In short, these lines seem to suggest the possibility of access to primal, unmediated desire.16

            In view of the contradictions we saw represented in the body of the dream’s speech, this reference to primal desire—desire unmediated by imaginary identification—is meant to resolve those contradictions. That Io must follow the path put forward for the resolution of contradiction is clear from this line’s structural relationship with those preceding it. As the opposing statement to the unsettling injunction for the child not to spurn the bed of Zeus, it offers what appears to be the only alternative to contradiction. This we can see in the tension between the proposed solution and what we know to be the outcome of Io’s experience of the dream.

            Conacher notes that it was well-recognized among even the earliest scholiasts17 that the main verb in the sentence “μὴ ᾽πολακτίσῃς λέχος τὸ Ζηνός” (“would that you not spurn the bed of Zeus” PV 651) has strong animal or bestial connotations. Specifically, the words, “μὴ ᾽πολακτίσῃς,” (“do not spurn”) are almost exclusively found with reference to a farm animal kicking or shaking off its yoke (Conacher 59). Such bestial connotations no doubt resonate with Io’s transformation into a cow, to which she refers when she mentions the “marring of form” (“διαφθοὰν μορφῆς,” 644,) prior to her account of the dream. In this sense, the subsequent command to go to the deep meadow of Lerna may be seen to implicitly offer an alternative condition to that to which Io has already been reduced at the time she narrates the dream. However, this resonance is complicated in the alternative to spurning Zeus’ bed in which she is enjoined to go to the “flocks and ox-stalls” (“βουστάσεις”) of her father since it seems to suggest that a bovine life awaits her no matter what she does. And yet, the complicated imagery of this passage clearly marks the fields and ox-stalls of her father with a pre-Imaginary state.

           The Greek word used here for “ox-stalls” (βουστάσις PV 644) is a strange term because, as a term generally used to refer to the structures in which oxen are housed, it has particular resonance with the extremely common practice among the Greeks of referring to fields, beasts of burden and generally anything related to agriculture as a metonym for reproduction. A particularly salient connection is that between the word for ox-stalls and the technical term for the groin (“βούβαστις”).18 Each word is a compound of the term for ox (βοῦς) and, in the case of ox-stalls, a word with meanings ranging from a place to stand to civil war (στάσις) and, in the case of groin, a word related to the holding together or carrying of objects, the productivity of the land and the lifting of a new bride’s veil (βαστάζω). The strength of the connection between these two words (στάσις and βαστάζω) comes from the verb of which στάσις, a noun, is derived (ἵστημι) and which means, on the one hand, “to stand,” but is also, in effect, a homonym for βαστάζω, sharing almost all the same meanings. This is not to suggest that the term for ox-stalls is meant to literally express the same meaning as the word for groin. Instead, it is merely to demonstrate their close, semantic similarities. And so, in combination with the common analogical use of agricultural language to refer to reproduction, this similarity leads us to see the meadows of Lerna and the flocks and ox-stalls of the father as a kind of periphrasis of the parental, generative organ. That is to say that the dream offers, as a solution to Io’s experience of imaginary identification, now riven with the contradiction of form and content, a return to her father’s genitals, from whence, for the highly patriarchal Greeks, she came.

            It is at this point that the objet petit a appears, when the only solution to the unending succession of imaginary identifications is to refuse identification and regress to a stage prior to identification. As Slavoj Žižek describes, the objet petit a is “in its most terrifying, imaginary dimension… the primordial abyss that swallows everything, dissolving all identities” (19-20). This is the eye of Zeus, the representative of that which “is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction” or, as we have been describing it, the manifestation of the inexpressible lack which results from asymptotic agency (FFC 197-8). The connection of the eye itself and, in particular, sexual desire, is well-attested in the scholarship of Greek culture. For example, Devreux notes the many examples of a connection between blinding and sexual transgression in Greek literature. He also notes the specific, generative association of the eye which is found in Aeschylus’ use of the eye in Persians to refer to one’s children—the fruits of one’s loins, as it were (Devreux 33-36). Outside of literature, the representations of the eye are often mixed with apotropaic phallic imagery in the form of ritual phalloi with eyes, such as that found on the Kolonettenkrater in Berlin’s Altes Museum, which depicts a Dionysiac woman carrying a large phallus with eyes. The argument has been made that the eyed phallus collapses gender or, at the very least, invokes male as well as female genitals, advancing that the eye was meant to signify not only vision and its association with generative powers, but the vulva as well (Johns 66). While this last point is difficult to prove without anything in the way of textual evidence, it is at least clear that the eye and the phallus have a strong, symbolic connection for the Greeks and we must therefore recognize this connection as operative in Io’s dream and thereby indicative of the eye’s relationship with desire.

            We may, at first, be tempted to read the connection between the eye and the phallus as an even stronger indication of the same function we observed in the meadows of Io’s father. That is, as representative of a more forceful injunction to return to a pre-imaginary psychological stage. In some sense this is a reasonable interpretation, particularly in view of the common epithet of Zeus as the father of gods and men. However, that the dream-voice states that Io must go to her father’s meadows “so that the eye of Zeus may be given rest from its yearning, (PV 654)” compels us to firmly recognize the eye as objet petit a. This is because the specific kind of yearning, referred to in the Greek (“πόθος”), is closer in its sense to mourning than it is, strictly speaking, to desire. Herodotus provides us with an example of this when he uses the term with reference to the desire for the return to life of one who has died (Hdt. 3.67). In Aeschylus’ Persians, the word appears twice in a few, referring to the specific kind of yearning that fills the empty beds of the wives of dead soldiers (Aesch. Pers. 135-39). Plato makes a striking reference to the mixture of pain and pleasure that this kind of yearning produces amid mourning (Plat. Phileb. 47e-48a). And so, in contrast with the earlier reference to the “bolt of longing,” the yearning which the dream is meant to convince Io to go and satisfy is, in the strict language of the original Greek, precisely the kind of yearning which cannot be satisfied. It is instead a yearning for that which is lost, for that which one lacks. And so, combined with the manifest sexual content of the rest of the dream, all of which is organized around Io’s anxiety over her transition from maidenhood into adulthood, we can interpret the eye of Zeus as the representative figure of this unsatisfiable yearning and as the cause of Io’s madness. The eye as objet petit a recalls the possibility of the fulfillment of Io’s maidenhood, but as a fragmented image of it: the disembodied organ of the ideal suitor. It recalls the generative organs of the father and, by extension, the hope for return to a psychological state prior to imaginary alienation and prior to asymptotic agency. And yet, in doing so, the eye of Zeus confronts Io with the impossibility of this return, of the immediate access to subjective desire by describing desire in the language of its impossibility. Io, trapped between necessity and impossibility, is thereby driven mad.

Tristan Wicks
Western University
  1. I have elected to bracket the question of the authorship of Prometheus Bound, since the question of authorship is not relevant to this study. For the arguments against Aeschylaean authorship, see West (1979). For a more balanced view, see Herinton (1970).
  2. All translations, unless otherwise stated, are my own.
  3. Evidence for the development and content of the myth of Io is extremely sparse prior to Prometheus Bound. Hesiod’s fragmentary and potentially spurious Aegimius Frag 5 is the only evidence, if indirect, for the source of Io’s transformation and madness. Regardless of whichever god the tradition depicts as the source of Io’s madness, my intent is to emphasize what I interpret as an intentional silence on the matter on Aeschylus’ part.
  4. For a treatment of Hesiod’s dominant voice in the literary (sc. oral, bardic) tradition along with Homer, see Hunter (2014).
  5. For examples of the use of Lacanian psychoanalysis in the classics, cf. Miller (2004) who applies Lacan to the study of Latin elegy, Porter and Buchan (2004) who make a more general argument for the possibilities of the psychoanalytic approach and Oliensis(2009) who, among other subjects, applies psychoanalysis to the epic, Latin tradition.
  6. On Freud and Greek tragedy, see Bowlby (2007). Devreux’s work in ethno-psychoanalysis of Greek tragedy is particularly extensive and thought-provoking. See especially Träume in der griechischen Tragödie: eine ethnopsychoanalytische Untersuchung, 1982. Alford (1992) provides a broader overview of psychoanalytic approaches to tragedy.
  7. Richard Boothby (2009) emphasizes this dimension of Lacan, particularly with reference to what Lacan called the Real. He says, “The real is sheer, wholly undifferentiated and unsymbolized force or impact. It is an experience of the real, therefore, that lies at the heart of trauma” (19).
  8. I have chosen not to treat the second Lacanian order, the Symbolic, since it is my view that Io’s madness is a function of her inability to effect her transition into the Symbolic. That said, Lacan’s conception of the Symbolic has important implications for my interpretation, particularly with respect to Io’s ability to communicate with Prometheus, which may reflect Lacan’s view of the close relationship between the Symbolic and language. Ultimately, we should not over-emphasize the rigidity of Lacan’s order since it is impossible to point to a firm dividing line at which the Imaginary ends and the Symbolic begins. We must keep in mind the degree to which Lacan saw the orders as useful for focusing our attention on how the self is experienced and, for our purposes; this focus is directed toward the experience of narcissistic childhood.
  9. All references to the works of Lacan use the standard abbreviations used by the majority of Lacan scholars. The abbreviations are bracketed following the title of the corresponding text in its corresponding, bibliographic entry.
  10. Objet petit a appears in various, differing and distinct ways. Here we are concerned only with its imaginary dimension, specifically what Lacan refers to as lamella. I do not use this term since the distinction is not relevant to our exclusive treatment of the Imaginary. Also, Lacan does not always use the adjective petit. I have done so for the sake of clarity.
  11. Lacan refers to the encounter with objet petit a in its imaginary dimension as lamella. Since we will only be treating it in the context of the Imaginary, explaining the reasons for the distinction that such a term is meant to convey is unnecessary. For treatment of objet petit a more broadly, see Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981).
  12. The possessive pronoun is rare in Greek poetry because context was usually thought to have sufficed.
  13. See Iliad 20.232; Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, Fr. 102, HH 5.203; Diodorus Siculus 4.75.3 for principal sources of this myth.
  14. This epithet is particularly common in Hesiod’s Theogony.
  15. The view of Greek religion as organized around the polis and its focus on the Olympian, rather than Cthonic deities, indicates the degree to which there existed a degree of anxiety toward that which was hidden and dark. Although Tragedy was performed at Athens for the festival of Dionysos, a god with markedly Cthonic associations, drama was nonetheless deeply implicated in the political process and, even in its darker moments, is generally thought to have operated in support of the status quo rather than as a challenge to it. For the polis-religion thesis, see Sourvinou-Inwood (1990), and for an assessment of its shortcomings and present status, see Kindt (2009). For the role of Athenian drama (both Comedy and Tragedy), see Redfield (1990).
  16. The Lacanian idea of Le Nom-du-Père, connected with the Lacanian order of the Symbolic, is of particular interest here. However, this figure is associated more properly with the Symbolic. While our focus is on Io and the Imaginary, further study of the role of Le Nom-du-Père in this passage might emphasize its presence as a function of the audience’s experience of the play and the author’s inclusion of concepts which correspond to this idea, rather than simply in terms of Io’s experience. For a detailed treatment of this concept in Lacan, see Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre III, Les Psychoses. Full citation in bibliography.
  17. Ancient commentators and invaluable sources for added information about the content and meaning of ancient texts.
  18. See, for example, Aetius’ Medici Graeci Contractae ex Veteribus Medicinae. 4.21.

Aeschylus. “Prometheus Vinctus”. Tragoediae, Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis. Ed. Gilbert Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937. Print.

Alford, C. Fred. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. Print.

Boothby, Richard. Death and Desire: Psychoanalytic Theory in Lacans Return to Freud. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Bowlby, Rachel. Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedy and Modern Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Conacher, D.J. AeschylusPrometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1980. Print.

Devreux, George. Träume in der griechischen Tragödie: eine ethnopsychoanalytische Untersuchung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982. Print.

—. Dreams in Greek Tragedy: An Ethno-Psycho-Analytical Study. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976. Print.

Herington, C.J. The Author of Prometheus Bound. Austin, USA: University of Texas Press, 1970. Print.

Herodotus, Herodoti Historiae, I, libros I–IV. Ed.Haiim B. Rosén. Leipzig: Teubner, 1987. Print.

Homer. Homeri Opera: Tomus III. Ed. T.W. Allen. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1922. Print.

Hunter, Richard. Hesiodic Voices: Studies in the Ancient Reception of Hesiods Works and DaysCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

Johns, Catherine. Sex or Symbol?: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Kindt, Julia. “Polis Religion—A Critical Appreciation”. Kernos 22. (2009): 9-34. Print.

Lacan, Jacques and Wladimir Granoff, “Fetishism: The Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real,” in Perversions: Psychodynamics and Psychotherapy, Ed. S. Lorand and M. Balint. New York: Gramercy Press, 1956. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits (E). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966. Print.

—. Écrits: A Selection (E:S). Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1997. Print.

—. Le Séminaire, Livre III, Les Psychoses (S III). Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981. Print.

—. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (FFC). Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981. Print.

Laplanche, Jean and Serge Leclaire. “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality”. Ed. Ricardo Steiner, London: Karnac Books, 2003. Print.

Laplanche, Jean. “The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytical Study,” Ed. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies 48, 1972. Print.

Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York, USA: Vintage Books, 1974. Print.

Neill, Calum. Lacanian Ethics and the Assumption of Subjectivity. UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Print.

Oliensis, E. Freuds Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Plato, Platonis Opera: Tomus I. Ed. E. A. Duke et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. Print.

Pontalis, J.-B. “On Death-Work in Freud, in the Self, in Culture”. Psychoanalysis, Creativity, and Literature.Ed. Alan Roland. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Print.

Redfield, James. “Drama and Community: Aristophanes and Some of His Rivals,” Nothing to Do With Dionysos?: Athenian Drama in its Social Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Print.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print.

Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. Studies in GirlsTransitions: Aspects of the Arkteia and Age Representations in Attic Iconography. Athens: Kardamitsa, 1998. Print.

—. “What is Polis Religion?” in The Greek City From Homer to Alexander. Ed. Oswyn Murray and Simon Price. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Print.

West, M. L. “The Prometheus Trilogy.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 99. (1979): pp. 130-148. Print.

White, Stephen. “Io’s World: Intimations of Theodicy in Prometheus Bound”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 121. (2001): 107-140. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007. Kindle Edition.

—. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Leave a Reply