The whole story of Callisto is really all just one big whopping explanation of the origins of the constellations, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (a.k.a. Great Bear and Lesser Bear). Kind of a convoluted story to get there, huh? The Greeks looked up in the sky, saw a cluster of stars that kind of reminded them of some bears, and then somebody was like, "Ah, dude, I bet I know where they came from." Thousands of years later, we're sitting here thinking about that story—crazy.
That tale of Callisto's seduction by Zeus and her subsequent transformations into a bear and then a constellation has been around for a super long time. In fact, it was around even before people bothered to write stories down at all. Eventually, though, some famous poets took a stab a telling the tale on paper—er, papyrus? One of the earliest versions that we know about was a tragedy by Aeschylus called Callisto, but unfortunately it's been lost. The most complete versions that we still have today are in Hesiod's Astronomica and Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Unfortunately, nobody's ever bothered to make a movie or TV show about Callisto's downfall. (At least not that we know of.) Seriously, TV-movie people, don't you see how juicy this story is? Regardless, Callisto's name has been borrowed for some other popular characters, though. One of Xena's worst enemies was named Callisto on Xena: Warrior Princess, and there's a tough-as-nails mutant named Callisto in the world of X-Men. Would Callisto be proud of her no-joke namesakes? We say, yes. Yes, indeed.
The mountainous region of Arcadia was known for being wild and full of untouched nature. So it's no wonder that Artemis, goddess of the wilderness, and her flock of forest-loving nymphs (Callisto included) all love to hang out there. The woodlands of Arcadia provide plenty of opportunity to hunt, frolic, and skinny dip to their heart's content.
All the way through to the Renaissance, the region of Arcadia was associated with natural beauty and was seen as a place where people could chill out and get back to a simple, pastoral way of living.
Just watch out, or you might get turned into a she-bear.
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
The story of Callisto doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Callisto is living a good and chaste life as a virginal follower of Artemis. The beautiful nymph is totally content and everything is cool.
When Zeus seduces Callisto in the form of Artemis, the nymph is tricked into breaking her vow of chastity.
In some versions, Callisto tries to fight off Zeus when she figures out what's going on, but the king of the gods is too powerful for the nymph.
You could see Zeus as a mentor figure in a kind of a gross way. After all, he is the guy who gets Callisto started on the painful road she's about to walk down. Callisto's real mentor, however, is Artemis, whom she loves and respects.
When Artemis discovers that Callisto is pregnant, the nymph's old mentor punishes her by transforming her into a bear. Callisto has now been given the boot from her old life.
It seems like Callisto doesn't really have any friends at all. Everybody's either seducing her under false pretenses or punishing her for stuff that's not really her fault. After some hunters take her son Arcas away, the poor nymph-turned-she-bear has no one around at all.
Callisto doesn't even know that she's approaching the inmost cave when it's going down. She's just been wondering around the woods being a bear for years, when one day she unknowingly wanders near her son, Arcas, who's out for a hunt.
Zeus steps in before Callisto's ordeal can go down. Instead of letting her be killed by their unwitting son, the god transforms them both into constellations.
We guess being turned into a constellation is kind of a reward. However, we have a feeling Callisto would've preferred to stay a beautiful nymph forever and never have been turned into anything at all.
Sorry, myth's over! No road back for Callisto.
We told you, it's done.
Seriously, that's it.
If you've ever bothered to look up into the night sky—like ever—then you've seen the constellation Ursa Major. You really can't miss it, as it's one of brightest and most distinctive constellations in the sky. While the story of Callisto is the Greek story of Ursa Major, which translates from Latin to "Great Bear," pretty much every other culture on Earth (and possibly Mars) has their own myth or way of describing this not-to-be-missed constellation.
In America, the brightest stars in Ursa Major are called the Big Dipper, because, well, they look like a big dipper. You know, like one of big spoon-y things you dip into a punch bowl.
Some say that the reason the Big Dipper came to be called that in America is because slaves once called the constellation the Drinking Gourd. The star pattern totally looks like one of the hollowed-out gourds that were once used to scoop out water.
The brightest star in the constellation, Polaris (a.k.a. the North Star), was used by runaway slaves to make their way north to freedom. Many slaves knew that, as long as they were "following the gourd," they were heading in the direction of freedom.
In the United Kingdom, Ursa Major is called the Plough—probably because it looks like a plow. In Ireland, it's sometimes called the Starry Plough, and it's used as a symbol by Irish Republican movements who want Ireland to be free from English rule. Talk about a loaded constellation.
To Hindus, the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major are the Saptarishi, or the Seven Sages. According to Hindu and Vedic tradition, these seven wise men became practically immortal because of their penance and awesome Yogic power.
The Greeks weren't the only ones who saw a big bear in the sky. The Native American Iroquois tribe also called the brightest stars of Ursa Major the Great Bear. According to one legend, the four stars that some see as the handle of the Big Dipper are actually four brave hunters tracking the giant bear (the dipper part) eternally across the sky.
Get this: the bear was a sacred animal to Artemis. So most likely, the detail of Callisto's bear-y transformation is there because the she-bear is generally associated with the goddess. In some cults of Artemis, young girls used to actually dress up as bears as a part of certain rituals.
So before we go on, we'd just like to ask: if she really wanted to punish her, why didn't Artemis turn the nymph into a she-slug or something? Just saying.
At the end of the story, the she-bear, Callisto, and her son, Arcas, are transformed into the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the big bear and little bear). Why? Have you ever wondered why people decided to make up these crazy stories about the constellations?
Well, back in the day, knowing your constellations was super important. If you knew what you were looking at, you could tell the time of night, year, and which direction you were going by the movement and placement of the stars.
The trouble is that when you first start scoping out the night sky, it looks like a big old mess of stars. Once you start dividing them up and grouping them, though, the whole sky reads like a book. Finding shapes and patterns in the stars is really useful for helping to remember what's up there. By connecting the dots into characters and making up stories to go along with them, it's way easier to remember what's going on in the night sky.
And there you have it: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. P.S. In the States, we like to call them the Big and Little Dipper, but that's another story…