In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes. He was a perfect guard because, even when some of his eyes drifted off to sleep, others would open up and continue his vigil. According to the poems of Apollodorus, Argus slew Echidna, the fearsome half-woman, half-snake, who gave birth to most of the monsters in the Greek pantheon (although more eminent writers have described Echidna as an eternal being). Whatever his status as a monster-slayer, Argus was singularly unfortunate in that he served Hera, whose henchmen always got bumped off horribly (like the villain’s dim-witted flunkies in a James Bond movie).
Argus’ end was singularly pathetic. Hera assigned him to guard a beautiful heifer. This comely cow was in reality Io, once a lovely priestess to Hera. Zeus had “fallen in love with” Io, but, just as the king of the gods had begun his courtship in earnest, the couple was accosted by Hera. To disguise what he was up to, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer (and himself into a cloud). Hera was not fooled and she tethered Io to a sacred olive tree in her grove and set Argus as a guard.
Guarding a cow was dull work for the giant. After a while, the trickster Hermes came into the grove. Hermes told long dull circular stories until Argus was completely enervated, then the messenger god pulled out his pipes and began to play a repetitive lullaby. One by one, Argus’ eyes were lulled to sleep by the magically soporific music. When Argus’ every eye was shut, Hermes murdered the sleeping shepherd with a rock and freed Io (from the tether, not from being a cow). Hera sent a gadfly to pursue the bovine Io, whose desperate attempt to escape the cruel insect took her eventually to Egypt and to other adventures.
Hera regretted losing Argus, however to make sure he was not forgotten, she set his eyes on the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock. Thus ends the tale of a hapless lackey, casually crushed by the capricious affairs of his betters. Even his end was bad–he was essentially bored to death. I can never help think of the poor giant on days at the office when there just isn’t enough coffee. Fortunately the peacocks and allied members of the pheasant family are spectacular. Beyond the familiar Indian peafowl, there is even an Argus pheasant (or “great argus”), whose color is less spectacular, but whose feather “eyes” are even more beautiful. Hopefully everyone out there, being lured to sleep (and crushed) by the stupid affairs of our superiors can take some comfort in this splendid fowl as well as in the peacock at the top of the post. For additional visual interest here is a very splendid painting by Jacopo Amigoni which shows Hermes helping Hera to pull the eyes from Argus’ dead head in order to set them in the peacock’s tail.