By Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When you look up at the twinkling stars in the velvet sky, what constellation is it you look for to orientate yourself? It is almost always the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellation duo – or as some (me) prefer to call them, the ‘saucepan set.’
This starry collection has been known by many names, including the Plough, Big/Little Dipper, Wagon/Oxherd, respectively, but most importantly, the Greater and Lesser Bears. Our focus today is on the Ursa Major; in the northern hemisphere, the constellation never sets below the horizon and reaches its’ zenith in the night sky at midnight in March.
Seven bright stars are indicating Ursa Major. (Image: ESA Science & Technology)
Ancient Greek Astronomy?
This easily identifiable set of stars is the third largest constellation in the sky out of the 88 officially recognized constellations according to the International Astronomical Union – a pretty impressive feat. Most of these accepted groups have been documented since 150 A.D, by Ptolemy in his The Almagest.
But that doesn’t mean Ptolemy was the first to study the sky. It was during the 6th century BC that Greece absorbed the astronomy and mythology of their cultural neighbors: Mesopotamians, Persians, and Egyptians. Then, around the 4th century B.C, they adopted the Zodiac from the Babylonians. Indeed, the Greeks were quite late to the party, as the Mesopotamians had most of their constellations recorded between 1300 – 1000 B.C.
Ptolemy with an armillary sphere model, by Joos van Ghent and Pedro Berruguete, 1476, Louvre, Paris
Mapping the stars and their movements likely developed alongside lunar monitoring. The skies were not only used for navigation and tracking time but also for inspiring awe and sparking the imagination. The star clusters became associated with mythic figures, legendary tales or, simply, aspects of daily life. The astral mythology that is most commonly known today had its canon unintentionally cemented by Eratosthenes in a work that is now, tragically, lost to us.
However, that does not mean we are without insight into ancient astral mythology!
Astral Mythology: Zeus and his childhood
Both of the earliest Greek sources, Hesiod and Homer (8th century B.C), mention the Great Bear constellation, but throughout Greek and Latin history, the mythos became muddled, and with the loss of essential works, it’s not possible to determine an ‘original.’
There is the claim that the duo of the Ursa Major and Minor constellations are the nymph nurses of Zeus, Helike and Cynosura, who raised him after he avoided getting eaten by his father, the Titan Cronos. Zeus then rewarded their help by placing them in the sky.
Showing the Bear image of the Constellation. (Image: Little Astronomy)
Another variation claims that Helike was a Cretan born worthy of heavenly placement, and it was just Cynosura who had been his nurse. Meanwhile yet another myth claims that the Ursa constellations are his bear-morphed nurses, and Zeus transformed himself into the constellation Draco to hide from Cronos, his baby-eating father.
However, these myths are much less common and recounted than the tale of Zeus and Callisto.
Zeus and one of his unfortunate lovers, Callisto
Callisto was a nymph huntress in service to the goddess Artemis, and as such, committed a vow of chastity. In some versions, she is the daughter of Lycaon, ruler of Arcadia, though her service to Artemis remains the same.
One day, the young maiden is seduced (again, variation dependent and also with questionable consent) by Zeus and is impregnated by the encounter. Artemis noticed the growing baby bump and banished Callisto. For a goddess connected with childbirth, you would have expected a little more leniency before banishment, but that isn’t the Olympian way…
Callisto’s transformation into a bear varies per tale. One states that Artemis caused the change as she banished the girl. Another places the morphing magic in Hera’s jealous hands, another in Zeus’ after being afraid he would get caught. Either way, Callisto birthed Arcas while in bear form.
Diana and Callisto by Rubens, c. 1635
The babe grew old and raised in Arcadia. One variation claims that Callisto, hearing his voice in the forest, rushed to Arcas, who knocked his hunting bow instinctively, unknowingly seconds from matricide. Another two sources state Hera encourages Artemis to hunt the bear; in one, Artemis kills the bear with no issues, whereas the other sees her spare the bear upon realizing its’ identity.
A differing source claims that Zeus raped Callisto when he was in the form of Artemis, causing the girl to claim the goddess was the cause of her misfortune, and thus Artemis punished the maiden for the miscommunication by changing her into a bear. Meanwhile, Arcas grew older and became a hunter and when the bear was brought to the city, Arcas naturally went to hunt her, his mother. However, Zeus interrupted the accidental attempted matricide, and feeling sorry for Callisto due to their bond, placed her in the heavens. It seems being hunted by your son is worth eternal twinkling in the sky.
Callisto and Arcas by Hendrik Goltzius (1590) (Image: The British Museum)
Versions differ in retelling Callisto’s rise to the heavens. Some claim it’s after her death, some before, sometimes by Zeus and sometimes by Artemis. In another, Arcas grows to be the ancestor of the Arcadians, and in yet another, Callisto is the daughter of Arcadian ruler Lycaon and Arcas grows old as a hunter. The mythos is obviously ancient, complicated and has become confused over time. One even claims that her name was, in fact, Megisto, daughter of Ceteus, the ‘Kneeler’ constellation. Another name variation originates from Creten verses, which also indicates just how old this tale was within Greek culture;
“And thou, born of the transformed Lycaean nymph,
Who, snatched from the frozen heights of Arcadia,
Was forbidden by Tethys from ever bathing in the ocean,
For daring to consort with the husband of her foster-child.” (Mythical Tales 177, Callisto)
As seen in the Cretan verses, the Titaness Tethys, wife of the Ocean had banned the Great Bear from ever bathing, or setting below the horizon, due to her involvement with Zeus’ infidelity.
It seems complicated
There is no doubt this tale is old and that the variations are confusing. But the most common mythos that the ancients understood to be connected to the Ursa Major constellation was bear-focused, and mostly centered around the myth of Callisto and Zeus, albeit with many variations. While we may never know the ‘real’ story of the Ursa Major, we can continue to marvel as its twinkling lights and imagine, as the ancients did, how they got there.
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Gibbon, W. B, (1964). Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major. The Journal of American Folklore, 77(305), pp.236-250.
Graves, R. (2012). The Greek myths. New York: Penguin Books.
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Ruggles, C. (2005). Ancient Astronomy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, pp.378-380.