Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Great Bear

To the curious and logical human mind, all things must have reason, some purpose and indeed some explanation for existence. It is the inquisitive nature of man to seek the answers to these. Where Science fails, Mythology steps in to take up the slack. Few things were, are, and will continue to be more mysterious than the very stars themselves...

Zeus Disguided and Callisto
Painting by Fran├žois Boucher
When one day the World was settled upon its course, wide around its celestial dome trod Zeus the Thunderer, Lord of the Sky and god of gods. Across the Earth far below he raked his omniscient eyes, across mountains tall, oceans deep and plains vast. Over the fair, unspoiled meadows of Arcadia he oft enjoyed to cast his gaze, for there was no more idyllic land in all Greece. Just then, in the shade of some Arcadian grove, the Son of Kronos saw her, and he was afire. A nymph, reclining upon a tree, though no ordinary spirit of the forest. Simply clad, dressed for the hunt, hair tied, quiver slung and spear ready. Daughter of accursed Lycaon, her name was Callisto, and she was a loyal and chaste follower of Diana, the lady of the hunt and goddess of the moon.

The Sun far above the mortal plain waxed strong now, burning heat pounding Arcadian fields.  The young nymph had been sent panting to the grove, and flung herself now upon the cool grass. Far above, Zeus spied 'the charming huntress unprepar'd, stretch'd on the verdant turf, without a guard'. Wary of Hera's prying gaze, Zeus cast an anxious glance to and fro before his move he made.
Sensing that this one would no easy catch be, his form he shifted. King of all gods no more, he took the shape of the lady Diana herself, softening his regal features and relaxing his dread visage. In the huntress' voice he spoke "How fares my girl? How went the morning chase?" to whom chaste Callisto replied "All hail, bright deity, whom I prefer to Zeus himself". Closer by far was the Thunderer than she thought, to her soon to come regret. With warm words and embrace Zeus worked his charm until the form of Diana could no longer hold the god of all gods, and the truth at last was bared. But when has a mortal ever had the power, or the will to resist the master of the Heavens? "Possess'd at last of what his heart desir'd, Back to his Heav'ns, th' exulting God retir'd". Fair Callisto, poor Callisto, rising from the grass that failed as her respite, with cast down eyes awash with shame as much as tears, flew from the guilty place, almost leaving her bow behind, such her haste.

Diana and Callisto unveiled
Painting by Titian
But now Diana, the fiercely virgin goddess, returned to the glade, close in tow her hunter's train. The oblivious goddess called to Callisto, who when she saw her mistress, quaked with fear. Suspecting some other fraud, some deception of the flesh, she trod carefully, flushed in her face. Terror cursing her every step, she joined the parade, her defilement to all others yet concealed.

Nine months in the world of men passed, until a warm day once more came to pass. Diana wiped the sweat from her heavenly brow, and commanded her maids to join her in the bathe, the sentinel careful to see that no prying eye might look upon them in their modesty. All maids comply, all joyful but one. For when they as one cast their tunics aside, the plight of Callisto was revealed, her form swollen with child. The eyes of Diana flashed dangerously. Wrath burned through her veins, and in that moment, Tartarus had no fury more terrible than hers. "Begone!" the goddes cried with outrage, "Begone! nor dare the hallow'd stream to strain". Tears streaming from her eyes, writhing with injustice, Callisto fled for her life, forever banished from Diana's presence.

Far above Hera, Queen of the gods, heard the commotion, and the nymph's cries. Long had she bided her time, awaiting the moment when she might punish her husband for his infidelities, and her rage she now directed upon the nymph with whom he had lain. To fire her more, the pains of labour struck Callisto now, as the fruit of Zeus' advance was born. A flash of lightning and Hera's wrath was vented upon the nymph. Sensing some dark craft, Callisto raised her hands in mercy, but before her eyes, her arms grew thick and shaggy with hair, her nails warped and stretched into evil claws:

               'Her hands bear half her weight, and turn to paws;
                her lips that once cou'd tempt a god,
                begin to grow distorted in an ugly grin .
                And, lest the supplicating brute might reach
                The ears of Jove, she was depriv'd of speech:
                Her surly voice thro' a hoarse passage came
                In savage sounds...'
                   - CALLISTO CURSED

Her form twisted to that of a towering and ferocious bear, but her mind remaining, she begged of Zeus for aid, desperate now, but all that came forth was an echoing roar that caused birds to flee the canopies in fear. How such fear flew within her now, with such dread she though of roaming the meadows she once called her own, with blinding terror from her own hounds she fled, thinking to avoid poor Actaeon's fate. How she felt for her father Lycaon now, their forms both horribly mutated now, one by Zeus, one by the deeds of Zeus.

Fifteen long summers passed on the earthly plain, and the son of Callisto was growing into a mighty boy. Like his mother before him he was skilled at the hunt, and from her he had taken fine reflexes and a deadly aim. Conqueror of the plains vast and mountains high, to the depths of the forest he stalked in search of prey. By chance he came across his mother where she lay, broken hearted and overflowing with sorrow. One eyelid flickered, and she caught sight of the hunter. Fondly she gazed, 'she knew her son, and kept him in her sight'. She moved to approach, eager to embrace the boy she long thought lost. But a cruel hand had Hera dealt, for only fright rippled through the boy, as a rampaging bear he saw toward him bound. He nocked an arrow on his bow and pulled it tight, aiming at his own mother's heart...

But it was then that Zeus the Thunderer, hidden from Callisto for so many years by Hera, saw at last the scene below. Fifteen years of guilt and pity boiled to their head, and anger at Hera's callous spite. The string of the bow strained, and the boy's grip began to loose. A lone tear welled in the eye of the bear. But Zeus forbade this crime, and with all godly haste he flashed down to the earth, taking both mother and son into his grasp. Looking to his own domain, the son of Kronos fixed them both in the vault of the sky to watch forever over the cosmos, forever united side by side. The mother, the Great Bear, came over time to be called by the Latin race Ursa Major, the son Ursa Minor, and still today can both be seen clearly in the night sky. But Hera looked above too, and saw her rival glowing among the stars, and burned with rage anew. To Oceanus, the Titan of the seas, she turned. Oceanus welcomed the Queen of the gods, and begged of her the reason for her unusual visit. Hera commanded Oceanus to never grant Callisto or her kin the simple pleasure of water, that they might never meet the surface of his domain. That is why Ursa Major and Ursa Minor never sink below the horizon...

Ursa Major - The Great Bear

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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