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Long, long ago, on a glittering spring day, the mighty god Zeus looked down from his Olympian heights and spied the lovely Callisto dashing through the woods. Callisto was the daughter of Lycaeon, king of Arcadia and enemy of Zeus. Zeus so despised Lycaeon that he had turned the man into a wolf. When he saw the beautiful Callisto, he decided he must pursue her.
Callisto was a swift and agile hunter, priestess of the goddess Artemis. On this spring day, as she gave chase in the forest, Zeus disguised himself as a bear and began to run after her.
Callisto was fast, but Zeus was more powerful than any mortal, and he caught her. Many months later Callisto gave birth to Zeus’ child. She named the boy Arcas, which means bear. She loved Arcas with all her heart.
When Zeus’s wife, Hera, learned of her husband’s betrayal, she was furious with poor Callisto and went at once to confront her. When Hera appeared before Callisto, the poor maiden bent down on her knees to beg forgiveness. “Queen of Heaven,” she began, “I am not to blame.”
Callisto began to tell the story of Zeus’ chase, but Hera would not listen to her words. While Callisto pleaded, Hera worked her magic. As Callisto spoke, her fingers turned to claws, shaggy hair covered her limbs, her lips grew into a long snout and she dropped onto all fours. Hera had transformed Callisto into a great bear.
Callisto sniffed at little Arcas, but fearing she might harm the poor child, she turned away and shambled off into the woods, leaving him to the care of the centaurs, creatures that were half-man and half-horse.
The centaurs raised the child, and when he reached the age of reason, he went off to seek his fortune. He was a brave, strong and wise boy, and he became a great man who ruled the land named in his honor, Arcadia.
Years passed, but Hera’s memory was long. She was not finished with Callisto’s punishment. One morning in early spring, she sent Arcas into the woods with his hounds. Before long the hounds cornered a bear against a mountainside. Though Arcas did not know his mother, Callisto at once recognized her son, and she knew what Hera had planned. The goddess hoped Arcas would kill his own mother.
Grumbling, Callisto stood up from her long winter’s sleep. She stared hard at Arcas, hoping against hope he might recognize her. Behind her, a huge waterfall tumbled and roared. The hounds began to yip and whine with excitement, urging their master to take the bear.
Arcas and the bear stood face to face. He thought for a moment the bear might be growling, for her lips trembled. Alas, he could not hear the sound that came from Callisto’s mouth, for the waterfall’s roar drowned out every sound. He stepped closer, and the bear tilted her head to one side, cocking her soft, brown ears in Arcas’ direction. Arcas was surprised, for now he saw that the bear’s eyes were filled with water, as if she might weep.
Callisto began to wave her forepaws, sweeping them inward with a clawing gesture. She seemed to wish to embrace Arcas, and so, holding his breath, he stepped closer still, stretching out his hand toward her. To protect himself against danger, he tightly clutched his spear in his right hand, ready to strike if need be.
The bear took a step closer, and Arcas, his heart pounding, lifted his spear, ready to hurl it at the creature. As he did, the bear shook her head and tears ran down her snout.
Then an extraordinary thing happened. Zeus looked down and saw what Arcas might do. He snatched the bear away. Arcas stood and stared as the bear turned and leaped into the waterfall, dissolving into its mists.
That night when the people looked into the sky, they saw a new constellation in the northernmost quarter of heaven. Many call this constellation the Big Dipper, but others knew this new constellation was Callisto, and so they named her the Great Bear.
Arcas was moved by the constellation, though he did not know the reason for this. At last Zeus, feeling compassion for mother and child, also turned Arcas into a constellation, and this he placed beside the Great Bear. The people called the new constellation the Lesser Bear.
When Hera saw the stars, she was enraged at the honor the God of Heaven had given Callisto and Arcas. She persuaded Poseidon, the God of the Sea, to forbid the Bears to descend into the ocean, as did the other stars. And so it is that Arcas and Callisto, the Great Bear and the Lesser Bear, alone among all constellations never set below the sky’s horizon, but remain forever together in the sky.
by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson
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Jamaican Medium Contributing Author