Callisto (fairest) In Greek mythology, an Arcadian nymph, follower of Artemis; daughter of Lycam and Cyllene (or Nycteus or Cereus); sister of Pallas; mother of Arcas by Zeus. Callisto was transformed into a bear and placed in the heavens as the Great Bear along with her son Arcas as the Little Bear.

Callisto was a follower of Artemis and had taken a vow of chastity. Zeus, ever lustful, saw her one day resting alone in the woods. Disguising himself as the goddess Artemis, he began caressing Callisto. Before the girl was fully aware of what was happening, he raped her. In order to keep his adultery a secret from his wife, Hera, the god changed Callisto into a bear. A variant account says Artemis discovered the girl was pregnant and metamorphosed her into a bear. Another account says that Hera changed the girl into a bear when she discovered Zeus’s infidelity.

The story’s ending also varies considerably in the ancient accounts. In some versions Artemis shoots Callisto while she is out hunting with Hera, who points out the bear. Zeus sends Hermes to save the baby Arcas, who is then brought up by Maia, Hermes’ mother. Another story is that Arcas, when grown up, saw the bear in the woods and, not knowing the bear was his mother, killed it. Still another variation tells how the bear wandered into the sacred shrine of Zeus Lycaeus and was killed for sacrilege.

The fate of Callisto, however, finds all of the accounts in agreement. Zeus transported her to the stars as the constellation Arctos, the Great Bear. Either at the same time or later he placed their son Arcas as the nearby constellation Arctophylax, which appears to be guarding the Great Bear. Hera, however, was not at all happy at this and appealed to Tethys, the sea goddess and Hera’s old nurse. She asked that Tethys and her husband Oceanus never permit Callisto to enter their realm. They agreed, and that is why the Great Bear is doomed to revolve ceaselessly about the North Star. The ancient Arcadians showed visitors a tomb of Callisto on a hill, the top of which contained a sanctuary of Artemis Calliste, indicating that Callisto was another form of the goddess Artemis. The shebear was the animal associated with the cult of Artemis Calliste.

Sources for the myth of Callisto are Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 2), Hyginus’s Fabulae and Poetica Astronomica, and Apollodorus’s Bibliotheca (Library).

The rape of Callisto is the theme of the painting Jupiter and Callisto by François Boucher, the French artist. He shows Jupiter in his female disguise as Artemis. Titian painted Diana and Callisto, portraying the goddess discovering that Callisto is pregnant.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

Callisto : The Great Bear

Callisto is a Nymph and a close companion of Artemis. She may be her lover, best friend, or alter ego.

Zeus in the form of a wolf had sex with Callisto. Later myths suggest she was raped, but in the earliest versions, sex was consensual and may even have been sacred: union occurred in the temple where he was worshipped in the guise of a wolf. Artemis did not take this well. She either kills Callisto or transforms her into a bear.

That’s the Classical Greek myth. Scholars suggest that Callisto is a particularly ancient goddess from the Arcadia region of Greece who predates her Greek myth. No transformation may have been needed: Callisto is a primordial bear goddess. She already was a bear. Callisto may be an early incarnation of Artemis or her ally from pre-Hellenic days before the arrival of Zeus.

The Hellenic Greeks did not particularly like deities in the form of animals. The concept of a sacred bear didn’t necessarily appeal to them. Callisto came with territory they conquered; they may have preferred the explanation that her bear form was a punishment. Before she died, if she died, Callisto gave birth to Zeus’ son, Arcas. Another version of the myth has her roaming Arcadia in the form of a voiceless bear (a plain bear; not a spirit bear) until Zeus transfers her to the sky as the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

Callisto was venerated as an ancestral spirit. The Arcades from Arcadia (the “bear folk”) traced their descent from Arcas. She is invoked as a fierce guardian spirit on behalf of people and bears. She is also a spirit of transformation.


Kallisto; Themisto




She wears a bearskin in paintings from Delphi. Fifth-century BCE coins minted in Greece depict Callisto in the form of a bear. Coins from fourth-century BCE Orchomenos show Artemis shooting a girl, identified as Callisto.


Zeus transported Callisto and Arcas to the sky, allegedly to prevent Arcas the hunter from unknowingly killing his own mother. Callisto is the Great Bear, and Arcas is Arcturus, brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the bear watcher.

Sacred site:

Callisto’s Tomb near Trikolonoi, Arcadia, was eventually topped by a sanctuary of Artemis.


Honey, berries, sweet foods, spring water, images of bears


  • Artemis
  • Black Madonna of Orcival
  • Dione
  • Maia
  • Nymph
  • Zeus: Zeus Lykaios


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.