Myths of the World Wiki
File:François Boucher 012.jpg

In Jupiter and Callisto by François Boucher, Zeus takes the form of Artemis/Diana (Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

In Greek mythology, Callisto or Kallisto (Template:Lang-el) was a nymph of Artemis. Transformed into a bear and set among the stars, she was the bear-mother of the Arcadians, through her son Arcas.


As a follower of Artemis, Callisto, who Hesiod said[1] was the daughter of Lycaon, king of Arcadia,[2] took a vow to remain a virgin, as did all the nymphs of Artemis. But to have her, Zeus disguised himself, Ovid says, as Artemis(Diana) herself, in order to lure her into his embrace and rape her. Callisto was then turned into a bear, as Hesiod had told it:

...but afterwards, when she was already with child, was seen bathing and so discovered. Upon this, the goddess was enraged and changed her into a beast. Thus she became a bear and gave birth to a son called Arcas.

Either Artemis "slew Kallisto with a shot of her silver bow,"[3] perhaps urged by the wrath of Hera,[4] or, later, Arcas, the eponym of Arcadia, nearly killed his bear-mother, when she had wandered into the forbidden precinct of Zeus. In every case, Zeus placed them both in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major, called Arktos (αρκτος), the "Bear", by Greeks, and Ursa Minor.

According to Ovid,[5] it was Jupiter (the Roman Zeus) who took the form of Artemis/Diana so that he might evade his wife Juno’s detection, forcing himself upon Callisto while she was separated from Diana and the other nymphs.[6] Her pregnant condition was discovered some months later while bathing with Diana and her fellow nymphs. Upon this, Diana was enraged and expelled Callisto from the group, and subsequently she gave birth to Arcas. Juno then took the opportunity to avenge her wounded pride and transformed the nymph into a bear. Sixteen years later Callisto, still a bear, encountered her son Arcas hunting in the forest. Just before Arcas killed his own mother with his javelin, Jupiter averted the tragedy by placing mother and son amongst the stars as Ursa Major and Minor, respectively. Juno, enraged that her attempt at revenge had been frustrated, appealed to Ocean that the two might never meet his waters, thus providing a poetic explanation as their circumpolar positions.

The stars of Ursa Major were all circumpolar in Athens of 400 BCE, and all but the stars in the Great Bear's left foot were circumpolar in Ovid's Rome, in the first century CE. Now, however, due to the precession of the equinoxes, the feet of the Great Bear constellation do sink below the horizon from Rome and especially from Athens — so Ursa Major gets to cool her feet and legs in the sea, in spite of Ovid; however, Ursa Minor (Arcas) does remain completely above the horizon, even from latitudes as far south as Honolulu and Hong Kong.

File:Tizian 015.jpg

Titian's Diana and Callisto (1559) portrays the moment when Callisto's pregnancy is discovered (National Gallery of Scotland).

Aeschylus' tragedy Callisto is lost.

Origin of the myth[]

The name Kalliste (Καλλίστη), "most beautiful", may be recognized as an epithet of the goddess herself, though none of the inscriptions at Athens that record priests of Artemis Kalliste (Άρτεμις Καλλίστη), date before the third century BCE.[7] Artemis Kalliste was worshipped in Athens in a shrine which lay outside the Dipylon gate, by the side of the road to the Academy.[8] W. S. Ferguson suggested[9] that Artemis Soteira and Artemis Kalliste were joined in a common cult administered by a single priest. The bearlike character of Artemis herself was a feature of the Brauronia.

The myth in Catasterismi may be derived from the fact that a set of constellations appear close together in the sky, in and near the Zodiac sign of Libra, namely Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Boötes, and Virgo.

The constellation Boötes, was explicitly identified in the Hesiodic Astronomia (Αστρονομία)[10] as Arcas, the "Bear-warden" (Arktophylax; Αρκτοφύλαξ):[11]

he is Arkas the son of Kallisto and Zeus, and he lived in the country about Lykaion. After Zeus had seduced Kallisto, Lykaon, pretending not to know of the matter, entertained Zeus, as Hesiod says, and set before him on the table the babe [Arkas] which he had cut up."[12]


  1. In his lost Astronomy, quoted in Catasterismi.
  2. Other writers gave her a mortal genealogy as the daughter of one or the other of Lycaon's sons: Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke.
  3. Homerica, The Contest of Homer and Hesiod, 316 ff (trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White).
  4. This was the version current in Greece when Pausanias visited in the second century CE (Pausanias, VIII.35.8).
  5. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book II, Lines 405-531; Ovid narrates the myth also in Fasti, book II.
  6. The transformation of Zeus, with its lesbian overtones, was rendered as comedy in a lost work by the Attic Amphis (Theoi Project - Kallisto).
  7. Daniel J. Geagan. "The Athenian Constitution After Sulla" (Hesperia Supplements 12 1967:72, 95).
  8. Klio: Beiträge zur alten Geschichte (Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin Institut für Griechisch-Römische Altertumskunde) 1907.
  9. In Klio 7 (1907:213f).
  10. Hesiod, Astronomia, fragment 3, preserved as a quote in a commentary on Aratus.
  11. Thus Hesiod is quoted, though Boötes, Βοώτης, from his very name, is a cow (βοως) herdsman.
  12. The episode is a doublet of the serving up of Pelops.

External links[]


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