Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Tale of the Two Bears

Another in the series of blogs looking at some of the stories depicted in the night sky.  This is the story of  Arcas and Callisto or the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellations (which have featured in previous blogs) and the Tale of the Two Bears .


big bear and t little bear


Our story starts long ago in ancient Greece with the Nymph Callisto. For those of you who don’t know Nymphs were (and still are) the elemental sprits of nature taking the form of a slender beautiful maiden and would reside in the natural and beautiful places of the world. Callisto was a wood nymph, a tall pale skinned image of natural beauty with long nut brown hair and large chestnut eyes. Being a spirit of the woods Callisto had lived her life in solitude favouring the trees, plants, rivers and creatures over any of the usual temptations of mortals or gods. It was this that led Callisto taking her vow of chastity and solitude and forsaking the normal comforts of a husband or children.

Unfortunately for Callisto,  Zeus king of the gods had other ideas. Zeus had been watching Callisto from the heaven and had been transfixed by her beauty from the glimpses he had seen of her as she flitted through the woods. Zeus, being angry with his wife Hera,  appeared now to Callisto and proceeded to pursue her. Being the king of the gods Callisto was unable to fend off Zeus’s advances and soon had a son by him, Arcas.

Hera, hearing of this and the betrayal of Zeus, took her revenge on Callisto for entrancing her husband and took Callisto’s beauty and grace and  turned her into a huge slobbering bear.

For many years Callisto wandered the woods as a bear no longer enjoying the solitude she had once saught.  The transformation had changed the way she saw the woods  and her thoughts were constantly of her son Arcas whom she could no longer be a mother to. One day, as she was wondering the woods in the eternal rage and despair she had come to associate with the drudgery of life, she came upon a young hunter – the son of a god whom had roamed the forest striving to prove himself to his father- it was Arcas!  Upon seeing his mother in bear form and not realising who is was Arcas raised his spear ready to strike a death blow and win himself eternal glory. Not wanting to injure her son and miserable of her existence as a bear, Callisto refused to fight back and defend herself, choosing death rather than this pitiful existence as a bear.

Just as Arcas was about to strike his mother down, Zeus appeared in front of his son and Callisto in a dazzling flash of light,  blinding Arcas and stunning him. Zeus took his son in his hands and angry of his stupidity of trying to kill his mother threw him in to the night sky.  Where he was transformed in to a bear cub – Ursa Minor.  He then took Callisto a placed her next to her son as the big bear, Ursa Major, whom could now watch over and protect her son for all eternity.

Joe Philbin


Related posts