The Bears in the Sky
Jupiter and Callisto
Jupiter was the head of the deitic pantheon, and his infidelity in marriage to Juno was well known. For all that they were gods, they were also given to many mortal failings. This was one of them. So it came to pass that Jupiter took a liking to Callisto. He appeared to her and they made wild, passionate love. It was from this union that Callisto conceived a child, whom she named Arcas.
The birth of the child brought Juno to the realization that her husband had been unfaithful to her, and in blind anger, brought down divine wrath upon the poor nymph. She decreed that the woman should forever be cursed to be a bear, to wander the wilds as an animal to symbolize the beastliness of the act that she and Jupiter had committed. Callisto’s hands twisted into massive paws, and her body became covered with fur. She bloated and grew fat, and her face pressed out into a shorte ned muzzle. The beautiful woman had become a great and terrible bear. Arcas was devastated at the disappearance of his mother for he did not realize that she had been cursed, and Juno went to great lengths to make certain that he did not discover this.
For many years, Callisto wandered the forests and plains. She was terrified when the night came, because she did not know how to be a bear. She had been a young nymph all of her life, and now the sounds and smells of this new world filled her with dread and fear. Even the other bears and animals of the wood scared her. This was not the worst of her troubles, either, because she was a magnificent specimen of bearhood. Many, many hunters sought to capture her and to claim her hide.
Arcas, too, grew up to be a powerful hunter. There are those who would say that he was the greatest hunter in the world. He spent many hours a day in the wilderness, hunting deer and other animals. It was only natural that he would decide that he should try to claim the prize of this great bear’s hide. One day, while Arcas was hunting, he came upon a great bear. It was drinking water from a stream, and was completely unaware of his presence. Unaware that the animal was his mother, Arcas nocked an arrow and waited for the best moment to fire.
If Arcas were to release that arrow, he would have slain his own mother. Jupiter, who normally paid little or no attention to his cast-off lovers, took pity on the pair. Seeing that Arcas was about to loose his arrow, Jupiter changed him too into a bear and hauled the two of them into the sky by their tails. It is for this reason that both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are seen to have long tails. Now, they are frozen there in space, Arcas the bear still holding his bow in clumsy paws.
The punishment was not yet over, though, for Juno was still filled with anger. She sought out Oceanus and Tethys, the controllers of the sea, and made a request. She asked that the two bears never be allowed to sink below the sea and rest as the other inhabitants of the sky can. Now, you can see as they circle the sky, that they slowly sink nearer the horizon but never sink below it.