“…and Hera, the Great Bear and the Smaller Bear”
The story of Zeus and Callisto is part of Greek mythology and involves Zeus, the king of the gods, and Callisto, a beautiful nymph and one of the companions of the Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the equivalent of Diana in Roman mythology. Zeus is the same king of the gods as the Roman god Jupiter. The story of Zeus and Callisto serves as a tale about the capricious nature of the gods in Greek mythology. One of the most well-known versions can be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.
According to the myth, Callisto was a devoted follower of Artemis (Diana) and like the other companion nymphs in the group of Artemis, Callisto also swore to remain a virgin for her entire life. They are hunting together, bathing together and were a great subject for painters throughout the centuries to depict a group of female nudes. With the exception of Vermeer, who portrayed Artemis and her nymphs in a very discreet and decent manner.
However, Zeus, known for his numerous affairs and infidelities, set his eyes on Callisto and decided to seduce her. Disguising himself as Artemis, Zeus approached Callisto and took advantage of her, resulting in Callisto becoming pregnant.
When the truth came to light, Callisto faced the wrath of Artemis, who was furious at her for breaking her vow of chastity. The goddess could not bear to look at Callisto anymore, and she banished her from her company. Callisto was devastated and left to live a life of solitude.
As her pregnancy progressed, Callisto’s appearance began to change and she now has a baby belly. Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of the gods, noticed these changes and grew suspicious of her husband’s involvement. Feeling betrayed and enraged, Hera sought revenge on Callisto. After the nymph gave birth to a son named Arcas, Hera transformed Callisto into a bear.
Arcas, son of Zeus and Callisto
In the meantime Arcas, the child of Zeus and Callisto, grew up and became a skilled hunter. He lived in a beautiful land and was chosen to be the king of that peaceful and pastoral area, called “Arcadia”, named after Arcas. Throughout history the name “Arcadia” has continued to be a symbol of an unspoiled and idyllic natural world.
As a bear, Callisto was forced to roam the wilderness, unable to communicate or return to her human form. Years passed, and one day, Arcas, now a young hunter, came across his mother-bear in the forest. Unaware that the bear was his own mother, he prepared to shoot it with his arrow. However, Zeus, who had been watching the events unfold, intervened to prevent a tragic outcome. To protect Callisto and her son, Zeus turned Arcas into a bear as well and placed them both among the stars, forming the constellations Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). In this way, they were immortalized in the night sky, and their bond was forever preserved.
Hera did not like this at all; too much honour for Callisto and Arcas to be in the sky as stars. So, Hera descended from heaven and arrives with her carriage drawn by peacocks on sea-level, to complain to her friends the god Oceanus and his wife Tethis, a sea-goddess. Hera tells them that, in punishment for having such honorable place at the sky, they should never let the Callisto and Arcas, as Great and Smaller Bear, touch their waters and be able to wash themselves. Hera therefore instructs the gods of the sea that they shall not let either constellation sink below the horizon, and passing into the waters of the ocean. Indeed neither Ursa Major nor Ursa Minor ever set below the horizon, viewed from most regions in the Northern hemisphere.
Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Smaller Bear)
The Big Bear constellation is also known as Ursa Major, which means “Great Bear” in Latin. The more popular term “Big Dipper” is actually a colloquial name for a prominent asterism within the Ursa Major constellation. The Big Dipper is a group of seven bright stars that form a distinctive shape resembling a ladle or a dipper. This shape is a well-known feature of the northern night sky. The Great Bear has served as a navigational tool for travellers to determine directions.
Polaris (North or Pole Star)
Polaris, commonly known as the North Star or Pole Star, is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). It holds a special place in the night sky because it appears very close to the celestial north pole, the point in the sky around which all other stars appear to rotate as Earth spins on its axis. This makes Polaris a valuable navigational reference point, especially for travellers in the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris appears relatively stationary in the sky while other stars appear to move in circles around it as the night progresses. This unique characteristic made Polaris an important celestial marker for ancient sailors, explorers, and navigators who used it to determine their northward direction. Polaris can be found by extending the two outer stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl (from the constellation Ursa Major) in a straight line. This extension leads you to Polaris, making it a helpful guide for finding true north in the night sky.
Greek and Roman Gods
The three gods involved in the story of Zeus and Callisto are:
- Zeus (Ζεύς) is the god of the sky and thunder, and king of the gods, married to Hera. His symbol is the eagle. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter, also knows as Jove. Read more about Zeus in The Twelve Olympians.
- Hera (Ήρα) is the goddess of marriage, women and family and the queen of gods, wife of Zeus. Her symbol is the peacock. The Roman equivalent is Juno. See Hera in The Twelve Olympians.
- Artemis (Ἄρτεμις) is the goddess of the hunt, and to be recognised by the moon crescent as tiara on her head. Her Roman equivalent is Diana. More about Artemis in The Twelve Olympians.