Callisto's name means "most beautiful," and that's definitely not false advertising. This nymph is one of prettiest of all of Artemis's flock. Of course, her beauty definitely doesn't turn out to be a particularly good thing for her, since it's her good looks that perk the interest of Zeus. After the dirty old god seduces and impregnates her in the form of her beloved goddess, we're guessing Callisto might've wished her name meant "kind of plain."
Unlike a lot of figures in Greek mythology, Callisto doesn't do anything—seriously, nothing—to deserve all of the bad stuff that happens to her. Sure, she sleeps with Zeus, breaking her vow of chastity, but she thinks she's being seduced by the very goddess to whom she swore the vow. Shouldn't that cancel it out or something?
What do you think, then? Is it unfair when Artemis turns Callisto into a bear as punishment?
In the end, Callisto finally catches a break—kind of. When her son, Arcas, is about to shoot her, thinking she's a wild bear (which she is, we guess), Zeus steps in and transforms them into the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. So even though Callisto really gets a bum deal in this story, at least she's spared a totally tragic ending. Being a constellation is a big honor, after all.
Yep, Shmoopers—he's at it again. Everybody's favorite dirty old god is up to his usual tricks in this story.
The one thing the king of the gods likes more than bossing all the other gods around is seducing every pretty young thing he can lay his hands on. Seriously, Zeus is always changing into some weird form—a cloud, a swan, a shower of gold—to seduce a girl. Callisto is only one in a long, line of conquests. Leda, Europa, Alcmene, Danae, Leto… the list goes on.
The fact that the Greek king of the gods is such an unrepentant philanderer is kind of interesting by the standards of many modern day religions. What does it say that the big guy in the sky, the dude in charge of everything, doesn't give two flips about stepping out on his wife, Hera? But we have to remember that in ancient Greece, Zeus's cheating might not have been so scandalous.
In the end, Zeus does help out poor Callisto, though it definitely takes him a while to get around to it. He doesn't do diddly-squat to help when she's transformed her into a bear, but he steps in to stop their son, Arcas, from unknowingly skewering his mom with a spear. Apparently that would be too messed up even for Zeus, who usually has a pretty iron clad conscious when in comes to the typically horrible fates of his romantic conquests.
So does Zeus redeem himself? What do you think?
P.S. For tons more on Zeus, check out Shmoop's files on the big guy.
Artemis, goddess of the wilderness, takes virginity seriously. Like really seriously. A sworn virgin herself, the huntress goddess also makes all of her nymph followers take vows of chastity. So when Callisto's pregnancy is revealed, her patron goddess totally flips out. Even when Callisto tries to explain that Zeus seduced her in the form of the Artemis herself, the goddess doesn't have any pity for her.
In some versions of the story the goddess's punishment is even harsher than just turning Callisto into a bear; on top of that, she also shoots the nymph with an arrow. (Yikes.) No doubt about it—in the story of Callisto, we definitely see a harsher side of this nature goddess.
For the softer side, check out Shmoop's guide to Artemis.