Star Bears, or the Moon Goddess and Ursa Major

“Moon lore is a fascinating study. In the most ancient times, the Greek lands of the old matriarchal society were ruled by cults of moon priestesses. In those days, the moon had more authority than the sun.” Frank Edgar, Ph.D., Greek and Roman Mythology, 1994.

The Greeks had several female deities associated with the moon. Selene drove her silver chariot with two white horses through the night sky. Another moon goddess was Hecate, who assisted women in childbirth, but was also associated with funerals and graveyards. Bendis of Thrace had a temple at Athens where 10-year-old girls served, dressed in brown tunics. The goddess most commonly associated in modern Greek mythology with the moon is the huntress, Artemis. For example, she absorbed the attributes of Bendis of Thrace and young girls were then known as the Little She-Bears to honor Artemis.

According to later Olympian mythology, the maiden Artemis had a nymph in her train known as Callisto (“Beautiful” or “Fair”). So beautiful was Callisto that Zeus, the King of Heaven, became enamored of her. Zeus disguised himself as Artemis. Eventually, Callisto gave birth to a son, Arcas.

This displeased a powerful goddess-stories differ which. One story said it was Hera, the Queen of Heaven, who was angry at Zeus’s philandering. Another story said Artemis was angry, because one of her own nymphs had broken her vow of chastity. In either case, Callisto was transformed into a brown bear. When Callisto awoke to discover her condition, she hurried down to the water to see what had happened to her. While she was gone, a good shepherd found her tiny son asleep, alone in the forest. He picked the child up, carried him home, and became Arcas’s foster father.

As the child grew, the shepherd was concerned, for he noticed a large female bear seemed always to be prowling around in the woods nearby his hut. He noticed the bear left whenever he came out, but feared for the child’s safety and instructed Arcas never to go out without him. As Arcas grew older, his foster father began to take him hunting and taught Arcas to use the spear to defend the sheep, and himself, against wild animals.

The bear, of course, was Callisto, who dearly missed her son. One day, young Arcas wandered with his spear out into the forest alone. Callisto, delighted, ran to greet him and rose up on her hind legs to hug him. Arcas, who had been warned about the danger of bears, raised his spear boldly to kill this savage beast.

Once again, a powerful deity intervened. Some say it was Zeus, who sought to protect Callisto and stayed Arcas’s arm. Another story says Artemis herself stayed Arcas’s hand rather than have him unknowingly commit the crime of matricide.

Whichever deity intervened, that deity also transformed Arcas from a young boy into a young bear. To make certain that both were forever safe from the hunter’s spear and arrows, they were placed in the uppermost northern portion of the sky. Callisto still protectively encircles Arcas, for she is the constellation Ursa Major (Big Bear). Arcas is the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Bear), which contains the pole star.

Ursa Major Ursa Major constellation

Myth's Notes

In February 2006, Chesapeake Pagan Community held an Imbolc Healing Circle which focused on Bear. In Native American thought, Bear is a spirit often associated with healing. There's at least one tribal legend about someone observing a female bear pealing bark off a tree, ingesting the inner bark to treat an infirmity. The person observing the bear also collected some of the inner bark and it became an important medicine for the tribe. In any case, one of Chesapeake Pagan Community's members, who's a Shaman, received a message from the Bear spirit. The Bear spirit told her that the Imbolc Healing Circle should focus around Bear and all aspects of Bear, and that this would make a powerful circle. Aspects of Bear included things like toy bears, teddy bears, etc. A separate altar was set up for people to bring in their bear images and artifacts. (That altar even included an endangered species grizzly bear chocolate bar.)

The image of the bear is indeed powerful. Skulls of cave bears were apparently venerated by early humans. Wherever bears interact with humans, they figure prominently as symbols in that culture.

This Greek story bears the marks of an early, anonymous, Greek mythographer trying to combine several different story threads. It is significant that one of Artemis’s titles was Artemis Calliste (Artemis the Fair), and the bear was one of her sacred animals. Perhaps Callisto the Bear was once an aspect of Artemis, the mother bear who protects her cub. Artemis was a protectress of young, wild animals. It is also possible this myth reflected the custom of the “Little She-Bears,” girls who dedicated themselves to the goddess by wearing brown tunics. I retold the story of the Star Bears to the Chesapeake Pagan children's Imbolc circle.

It is true that the Romans retold the same story about Diana, after they assimilated the complex figure of Artemis with her. The names Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are Latin. However, in this particular case I felt it was more esthetically correct to retell it in the Greek manner. Robert Graves speculated that Artemis, as the moon goddess, was the original queen of heaven; it was she who placed the bears in the sky.

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