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In the Stars: The Two Bears

Updated: Jan 1

For thousands of years, humanity has looked up into the sky and seen stories, joining the dots of the stars to make pictures of heroes and monsters and gods, with each culture adding their own tales to the world’s largest picture book.

Amongst these constellations are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, also known as the great bear and the lesser bear. Ursa Major is the third largest constellation, it is twenty-two stars and contains within it a famous asterism – the Big Dipper. The smaller constellation, Ursa Minor is also known as the Little Dipper.

According to Greek legend, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are mother and son, the thrown into the sky by Zeus to form the two constellations – though the precise details of how this came to be varies by legend.

The most prominent legend tells of Callisto, one of the hunters of Artemis, who swore to never take a husband, remaining chaste in the service of the goddess.

Unfortunately, she was very beautiful, and attracted the attention of Zeus who either seduced or raped her, depending on the legend. In some versions of the story, he even disguised himself as Artemis in order to get close to poor Callisto. Naturally, Callisto fell pregnant, something that she initially kept hidden. However, her pregnancy was noticed while she bathed, and an incensed Artemis exiled her for breaking her vow of chastity – regardless of whether Callisto did so willingly, or not.

As a result, Callisto was transformed into a bear – though who precisely was responsible for the transformation varies. In some legends, it is Artemis who transforms Callisto in her rage, in others it is Hera, wife of Zeus upon discovering that the woman was pregnant with her husband’s son, or even Zeus himself in an attempt to protect and hide Callisto from his wife’s rage.

Though Callisto was transformed, her infant son, Arcas, remained human and was spirited away by Zeus. For fifteen years, Callisto lived as a bear, wandering the woods alone. One day her son, Arcas, encountered her. Arcas had no idea that the bear was his mother, only thinking that defeating such a great creature would be a mighty feat indeed. As he readied himself to kill the bear, Zeus saw what was going on. Desperate to stop Arcas from accidentally slaying his mother, Zeus took them both and placed them into the sky – Callisto as Ursa Major, and Arcas as Ursa Minor.

It is said that when he did so, the tails of the two bears stretched, which is why the constellations have tails so unnaturally long, but this isn’t the only reason the tails are so important.

The tip of Ursa Minor’s tail contains Polaris – the North Star. The star, which appears fixed in the Northern sky, is easily identifiable as part of the prominent constellation and for centuries has guided sailors and travellers – though only for now. In a thousand years this will change, and it will be another star, and another constellation that takes on that important role.


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