The Tale of Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Bootes and Lupus

In the evening the moon rose from the forests of Arcadia; it was from there that the goddess Artemis began her journey as she drove the moon across the sky. During the day, while her brother Apollo carried the sun in his golden chariot, Artemis and her band of nymphs roamed the Arcadian mountains hunting the wild creatures who made the forests their home. But at night, when she loosened the reins on her black stallions and they rose above the earth carrying the moon high into the sky in her silver chariot, she watched the people far below and met them in their dreams.

"I'm so unhappy," the goddess overheard Callisto whisper in her sleep. "My father, King Lycaon of Arcadia, is a tyrant and my fifty brothers are cruel. I am Lycaon's only daughter and he and my brothers treat me like a slave. Men are horrible creatures. I can't trust any of them."

Besides being the daughter of evil King Lycaon, Callisto was also the granddaughter of the nymph Cyllene. Long before she left to raise a family, Cyllene had been one of Artemis' band of huntress nymphs. Remembering this, Artemis said, "Go to your granddaughter, she needs your advice." Cyllene, still obedient to Artemis' requests, went to her granddaughter's dream.

"My favorite grandchild," her grandmother said to Callisto, "you don't need to live in your father's home. Just as I am a nymph, you are one too. Instead of living with your father you may join the goddess Artemis and live freely as a nymph with her band in the Arcadian mountains."

"But how can I do this?" Callisto asked.

"Take my hand, my dear, and I will show you where you need to go," Cyllene reached out and held her granddaughter's hand. They flew over the mountains to an alpine meadow where a pool reflected the full moon. As they stepped down upon its north edge, in the middle of a grove of evergreen trees was a flat moss covered rock. "On the night of a full moon," Cyllene said to her granddaughter, "you must sit on this rock and wash your feet in the water of the pool. Then you must say 'I have looked into my heart and, forsaking all earthly passions, will commit my life to the goddess Artemis.' Soon she will appear and give you a bow and silver arrows and then you will be free to join the other nymphs."

"It sounds so easy, grandmother," Callisto said. "But what if Artemis doesn't come?" She didn't receive an answer, for she opened her eyes and found that she was in bed and her grandmother had disappeared. For the first time, Callisto felt a lightness in her heart. Now she had a plan!

On the night of the next full moon, Callisto silently crept out of her room, hiding in the shadows when she heard voices. As soon as the footsteps grew faint, she continued her escape into the chilly night air. The night felt fresh and free. Meteors shot across the sky as the band of the Milky Way spread out before her like a map. As she walked toward the mountains, the full moon lit a path of white pebbles along her trail. "Oo-how-oo. Oo-how-oo," called an owl as he punctuated the music of the crickets and frogs. The owl followed her as she walked and she felt protected by him.

She reached the crest of the mountain range and, looking down into the meadow, spied the pool where her grandmother had taken her. The mirror surface of the water reflected the golden moon, making it look as though the moon rested in the middle of the field. As she approached the north side, she saw the flat moss-covered rock within the grove of evergreen trees. She sat upon the rock, just as her grandmother said and, as she gazed into the clear deep water, the reflection that looked back at her had the moon as a halo around her head. Then, just as Cyllene told her, she said, "I have looked into my heart and, forsaking all earthly passions, will commit my life to the goddess Artemis." She wiggled her feet in the water, rippling its mirror surface. As the water ripples stopped and the calm surface of the pool returned, she was startled to see faces looking back at her. She turned her head.

Behind her stood a dozen nymphs. They were dressed in tunics and carried bows and quivers filled with silver arrows. They stepped aside as the goddess Artemis walked between them and stood next to Callisto. Artemis had skin the color of the glowing moon and her hair was in curls as black as the night sky. She was dressed in a silver tunic.

"Your reflection in the water has a golden halo. It means that you are one of us," Artemis said softly. As she spoke, a breeze whistled through the calm branches of the evergreens. "Your grandmother, Cyllene, told me you were coming to join us. It seems almost as if she is with us again, for your eyes look like hers. Tell me, are you like her? Will you regret not having a child?"

"No, goddess," Callisto said emphatically. "I want nothing to do with men. I wish only to be free and in your company."

Artemis smiled gently and handed the girl a bow and a quiver filled with silver arrows. Callisto, now one of the nymphs, joined Artemis and her band as they vanished into the night.

Years passed happily for Callisto as she roamed the forests while Artemis and her sister nymphs taught her its secrets. For the first time in her life she felt a sense of belonging. "How lucky I am," Callisto thought. Her cheerfulness raised the spirits of everyone around her, making her a favorite of the goddess. But Artemis was not the only Olympian fond of Callisto. As he looked out from Olympus, Zeus spied the lovely girl and fell in love with her charm and innocence.

One day, tired from the hunt, Callisto left the other nymphs and stopped by a stream to take a nap. She found a quiet spot upon the bank where the grass was thick and made a soft mat. She put down her bow and, using her quiver as a pillow, she fell fast asleep.

Zeus' wife, Hera, was away and the god of heaven had spent the day watching Callisto. When he saw her fall asleep, he hurried to the stream where Callisto lay. "How can I get near her?" Zeus asked himself. "With all her time in the woods, she runs fast as a deer and will escape me." But Zeus was a master of disguises and decided to take the form of his daughter Artemis to trick the unsuspecting girl. He used his magic and turned his long white hair to black curls, his face and body became just like his daughter's, and his white robes became a short silver tunic. He paid attention to the smallest of details, for his wrist even had the crease that Artemis had developed after years of wearing the silver archer's guard.

Looking just like Artemis, he kneeled down and placed Callisto's head in his lap. He stroked her forehead and asked in his daughter's voice, "Where has my favorite one been hunting today?"

Callisto opened her eyes slowly and smiled as she saw Artemis. "Oh my goddess, I was hunting in the far north woods and I am very tired. You are so sensitive and kind to be concerned about me. I'm certain that your empathy has made you wiser than even your father, Zeus."

"She is such a sweet and foolish girl," thought Zeus. Her naiveté amused him and made the king of the gods desire her even more. He bent over and kissed the drowsy girl and, as he did, his disguise disappeared.

"Let me alone," Callisto screamed and tried to jump away from her attacker. It was no use, for Zeus grabbed her tightly, holding her down. She struggled and cried, but she couldn't get away. In her terror, she fainted.

As Callisto regained consciousness she heard a voice say, "Where has my favorite one been hunting today?" and she saw Artemis bending over her. She gathered the torn tunic around her and dug her heels into the ground, pushing herself away from the bent figure. Her fear disappeared as she heard the laughter and approaching steps of her sister nymphs. Although her eyes were red and swollen from tears and her tunic was torn, Artemis and the nymphs were too naive to suspect that anything was wrong. Ashamed and afraid, Callisto never told them.

Days passed after the attack. They soon turned into weeks and then into months. Callisto could not concentrate. Beginning each morning with nausea, her mind daily relived the painful attack. Her smile was gone. She lost her sense of playful freedom. Nervous whenever she was alone, she became silent and withdrawn. It was then that she began to notice changes in her body. Her belly was growing and her feet were swollen and painful, but in spite of the changes that affected every part of her, she was surprised that none of her companions noticed. To their eyes, her tunic hid the changes; but their lack of awareness made her feel lonelier still.

Her secret was discovered one hot afternoon for, as the nymphs rested upon a river bank, Artemis called them for a swim. "Let's bathe here," the goddess said. "The water is cool and lovely." The nymphs threw off their tunics and jumped into the stream, joining the goddess. Only Callisto remained upon the bank. "Join us, Callisto," Artemis said. Callisto stood nervously upon the bank, her eyes downcast.

"What's the matter, Callisto," yelled one of the nymphs, "don't you bathe anymore?" Callisto looked out to the stream. All the nymphs were pointing at her and laughing. She unfastened her tunic, and as it fell to the ground showing her round belly, she heard horrified gasps from her companions.

"You're pregnant!" exclaimed Artemis. Tears streamed down Callisto's cheeks. She sat down upon the grassy bank with her arms tight around her. Faulting her, Artemis said sternly, "You're not one of us anymore. You must leave."

"Please, dear goddess. Please," Callisto begged, "I have nowhere else to go."

"I'm sorry. You cannot stay with us." Artemis said as she and the nymphs climbed out of the water, dressed themselves and disappeared, leaving Callisto alone in the forest. In a thicket of blackberry bushes growing along the bank, Callisto made a nest of pine needles and dried grass. There she curled up and cried herself to sleep.

As Artemis' black stallions lunged forward under the weight of the moon, Callisto awoke with a tingling in her head. Deep within her she felt a knot, like a fist tightening. When it was so hard and tight she felt she would break, it released and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come. She relaxed and began to return to sleep, only to be jarred awake with another pain like the last one. Water passed from her body and wet the grass beneath her. "Oh, I am dying," Callisto cried.

"No," answered Artemis as she watched from her silver chariot, "you are giving birth and the moon will soon pull another body out of yours. Help her," Artemis commanded the wind and, as the next pain came to Callisto, the wind blew hard and gradually subsided to stillness as the pain ceased.

"Do as I do," said the wind to Callisto. "Breathe with me. Puff hard as I blow, then relax when I do."

As her next pain began, the girl breathed with the wind, then relaxed as the pain subsided. As the wind came up again, Callisto puffed and relaxed once again as the wind grew calm. Through the hours, as the moon rose to the treetops and the stars glistened overhead, Callisto calmed herself with the rhythm of the wind. She watched the moon cross the sky and, as the hours passed, the wind blew faster and lasted longer. Callisto quietly followed the rhythm.

Cradled in her nest of pine needles and grass and with her head against the ground, Callisto heard the earth speak to her. "Your baby has moved," said the earth, "I can feel it. It is positioned to come out and now you must push."

"Pushhh. Pushhh," said the wind. "Pushhh. Pushhh." Callisto obeyed her. "Pushhh. Pushhh." Against the dark screen of night, colors appeared; a spot of yellow lit the bark of a tree and a spot of red glowed upon a rock. "Pushhh. Pushhh." A green light illuminated a branch overhead and seconds later was joined by blue and purple. The spots overlaid one another until they illuminated every direction and the woods glowed with color and light. As Artemis' black steeds set foot once again upon the earth and Apollo's golden stallions stamped restlessly at Dawn's gate, a boy child emerged from the dark den in his mother's body, into the light. He cried out and awakened the day.

"What was that?" Hera said awakening with a start. "Ah, so Callisto has finally had her child. I will not tolerate it," Hera said as she indignantly crossed her arms and watched jealously while the new mother held her baby and placed him at her breast. "I will not have it!" she screamed and her screams echoed throughout the Arcadian mountains.

"What was that?" Callisto said to her son as she heard the distant rumble. "I will protect you from whatever dangers are in this world, my darling," she said and kissed his forehead. As she looked at him quietly nursing, she noticed that his body was snuggled against a mat of black fur. Then she noticed that upon the arm that held his tiny body, shaggy black fur was also growing. "What is happening to me?" she cried. She raised an arm to heaven. "Zeus, please, this is your son. Help me." But no help came as her fingers grew into claws and her hands became paws. "Help me Zeus," she cried as her lips turned into a broad hairy jaw. "Help me!" she begged as her voice turned to a deep growl. Then Hera played the cruelest trick of all, for though Callisto's body changed into a bear, her heart remained human and, as the bear cried, her tears fell upon her baby's head.

"What can I do?" she sobbed. "I can't take care of you," she rubbed her wet furry cheek against his face. "You must be raised with humans. I will take you to my father's home," she thought. "Since you are a boy you will probably be treated better than I was. I think you will be safe there." She licked his body and nudged him onto her tunic, rolling him until he was wrapped tightly. Then she gathered the folds of cloth in her mouth and carried her child to her father's door.

The old cook saw a remarkable sight as she was preparing the evening meal. A mother bear came out of the woods carrying a parcel in her mouth which she laid down gently at the kitchen door. She licked something inside, then growled and ran back to the woods. When the cook came to the door and looked down, she spied a baby silently looking back at her. She took the boy to King Lycaon and told him the story. "We will call you Arcas," the king said as he held him, "for it means 'child of the bear.'" Through the years the king grew fond of the boy, but he never recognized him as his grandson.

Zeus had been watching Lycaon through these growing years. "I'm not sure he's treating my son well," thought Zeus. "I'll visit the palace and see for myself." Zeus critically looked at his own hands. "These don't look like the hands of a field worker," he thought as he turned them rough and callused. Next he turned his white robe into a brown and torn one held together with an old dirty piece of rope. His beautiful white hair and beard became a filthy mess streaked with brown and gray. The skin on his face turned weather-worn with etched wrinkles. "Now I'm ready," he said as he descended to Arcadia.

"Your majesty," the servant said to King Lycaon, "there is a laborer at the door who is asking for food and lodging. I told him that we do not open our doors to field workers, but he insisted that I tell you directly."

Lycaon greeted the news with suspicion. He had heard that gods occasionally arrived unannounced to test their mortal hosts. That could be why the stranger had demanded that he be told. "What should I do?" he asked his eldest son, Maenalus, who sat with him as the news arrived.

"Invite him in," responded his son. "If he really is a god, you don't want to offend him."

"Show him in," Lycaon instructed his servant. "Prepare a room for him to sleep, draw a bath and tell him he will be our guest for dinner." The servant left to do what he was told. Turning back to his son, Lycaon said, "How can we know if he is a god?"

"Gods should know what foods they are served," Maenalus said. "Make a pie of human meat. We can call it a sacrificial offering to the gods. If our guest identifies what's in the pie, we will know he's a god."

"A logical solution," Lycaon said. "What human meat should we use?"

Maenalus glanced about the room. His eyes came to rest upon little Arcas, playing in the corner. "How about him?" he asked his father.

Without a thought they murdered Arcas, cut him into pieces and made a "sacrificial meal" which they offered to their guest. Word had spread among Lycaon's sons about the special dish that would be served that evening. They all sat around the room, watching the stranger as he was presented with his dinner.

Zeus knew something was wrong when he looked at the pie. He quickly glanced around the room, studying all the eyes that were watching him intently. He jumped to his feet in anger, suddenly transforming himself back into the white haired god of Olympus standing tall and stern before them in his white robes embroidered in gold. His eyes narrowed into slits as thunderbolts appeared in his raised hands. The king and all his sons recognized the stranger, just as Zeus hurled his angry bolts against them and they fell upon the floor. Like harpoons, Zeus' thunderbolts pierced their hearts, their clothes smoldering where the lightning bolts had struck, burning into the bodies of the king and his sons. Lycaon and forty-nine of his fifty sons lay dead, stacked like cords of wood. The youngest son, Nyctimus, was spared only because Mother Earth grabbed Zeus' right hand as he was about to hurl the final thunderbolt. "Don't kill the entire family," she said quietly. "This one has done nothing. Please spare him." Zeus put down the bolt and it disappeared as Nyctimus ran away crying with relief that his life had been saved.

"My poor son," Zeus said as he gathered the pieces of Arcas. "I will take care of you now." As he kissed each part, they grew together again. Arcas looked up at his father and smiled as though nothing had happened. "Let me take you to your new home," Zeus said as he gently took his son's little hand. "It will be a happy place for a growing boy." With that Zeus carried him to the home of Maia, where she raised him as she had her own son Hermes so many years before. Zeus also restored Lycaon to life again, but changed him from a human into a wolf. "You will roam alone through the forests of Arcadia," Zeus commanded, "and be hated as the scavenger you are."

Many years later, when Arcas was fourteen years old, he decided one day to go hunting in the forests of Arcadia. "This forest must have excellent hunting or Artemis and her nymphs wouldn't stay here," he thought. He had seen rabbits and quail, but he wished to test himself on bigger game. He wandered through the forest all morning before coming to a meadow where birch trees shimmered as the breeze rustled their leaves. Remembering that Maia had taught him the landmarks of the forest when he was young, he said, "This must be the Temple of Zeus."

He also remembered her warning, "You must never enter the Temple of Zeus. Zeus built it for his rests when he travels through the forest," she continued, "and anyone who goes there surely will die." He approached cautiously but soon was distracted when he heard a rustle in the bushes to his right. Crouching behind a tree, he carefully surveyed his surroundings. Then he saw it! A huge black female bear was leaning against a large moss-covered rock. She cocked her head and fixed her eyes upon him. The bear made no move to run or to attack, but gazed peacefully into his eyes as though he were familiar. "How odd," he thought, "I have never seen a bear do that before." She took a few steps into the open and hesitated. Then again she came toward him until she was so close that he could see a tear fall from her eye.

"No bear has ever watched me like that before," he thought nervously. "She could attack at any moment." He picked up his bow and drew an arrow from the quiver.

The bear was his mother, Callisto. "He doesn't recognize me," she thought sadly. "Oh why can't I talk to him?" Then she had an idea. "I will go to his father's temple. He will not kill me there and perhaps Zeus will take pity on me and give him a sign that I am his mother."

Callisto moved slowly toward the temple as Arcas followed, still holding the bow tightly in his hand. He paid no attention to where they were going and, when the bear entered the temple, the hunter followed.

Arcas drew his arrow and, just as he was ready to let it go and pierce his mother's heart, Zeus froze him. "Those who enter my temple must die," Zeus said as he lifted the bear and her son into his hands and placed both of them in heaven. "You will be Ursa Major, the big bear," he said to Callisto as he made her stars bright and spread them wide across the sky. "You, my son, I will place twice by your mother," he said to Arcas. To allow her to be with a son, Zeus gave her Ursa Minor, her own little bear and to recognize the trials that had driven her through life, he placed Arcas as Bootes, or Arctophylax, the bear driver. Together with them, to ensure that cruelty and arrogance do not go unpunished, he placed Lycaon as Lupus, the wolf.

As Hera saw the new stars light the sky she again felt a jealous rage. Of all the stars in heaven, the bear was the highest and brightest in the sky, holding a place of honor. "You shame me," Hera screamed at Zeus. "Everyone will know of your infidelity. Well, I will do something about this! I'll talk with Tethys."

Tethys had been Hera's nurse and was the wife of Ocean. "It's disgraceful how Zeus placed that bear in the sky," Hera snidely said to Tethys, "you must never receive her as a guest or all husbands will think infidelity is acceptable. I just can't have it!" To keep peace, Tethys agreed; and to this day, when other stars are received into the Ocean, Ursa Major is not allowed to come there but must always remain outside, visible in the sky.

Myth Index

Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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