When Io is transformed into a heifer, she writes her name in the sand with her hoof, in a desperate attempt to make herself known to her father. Though she loses the ability to speak, she retains the ability to write, as if animals can think and could even express their thoughts, if only they were able to form human sounds or find some alternative means. But of course Io is no ordinary animal. Her inner voice, her soul, has remained the same, even if she cannot anymore externalize that voice.

Medieval commentators on Ovid’s Metamorphoses represented her hoofprint as a written symbol, composed of the two letters of her name: the ‘O’ forms the outer rim of the hoof, inside of which the smaller ‘i’ is written, forming the inner cleft. I learned this from a footnote by Robert Hollander to Dante’s Inferno XXIV. Only then did I realise that Io ‘writes her name’ simply by making an imprint with her hoof in the sand. She just puts her hoof down, like any old cow, but she does it in order to try to convey her identity, to be recognised by her father.

I imagine there to be a different version in which she is transformed into a donkey, so that she brays her name: iiii-oooh. Either way, whether writing becomes stamping or speaking becomes braying, the only thing she can still express is her name, her self. The ‘i’ and the ‘o’ are the simplest shapes in the alphabet, a line and a circle. Even if it is a mere coincidence, it is fitting that together they mean I in Italian: to say ‘I’ is at once the most personal and the most empty gesture. It is me, I! Don’t you know who I am?

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage