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  • Jo-Anne Blanco

Goddess Kallisto, forever in the stars.

Kallisto or Callisto (from “kalliste” meaning “most beautiful”) was the daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia and was to share a similar transformative fate to that of her proud father. In order to test Zeus’ omnipotence, King Lycaon fed his own son, Nyctimus, Kallisto’s brother, to the sky god. Enraged, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf and restored Nyctimus to life. King Lycaon’s mother was Meliboa, daughter of Oceanus, one of the Greeks’ most ancient water gods; and his wife was Cyllene, a Naiad guarding over the fresh waters of rivers, wells, springs and fountains, after whom Mount Cyllene was named. Thus Kallisto was a nymph of divine heritage through her mother and grandmother.

Kallisto became a companion of the goddess Artemis and, upon doing so, swore the oath of chastity demanded by the goddess of the moon and hunt of all her attendants. Kallisto chose to live alongside Artemis in the wilds of the forests and mountains and lakes, far from the prying eyes of men. Unfortunately, such was her extraordinary beauty that she captured the attention of Zeus, who disguised himself as Artemis to seduce her, and by the time Kallisto realised that it was a trick it was too late. She fell pregnant and tried to hide it from Artemis, but her secret was discovered one day while she was bathing with the other nymphs.

Accounts vary as to what happened next. Some say Artemis was so furious that she changed Kallisto into a bear, which was Artemis’ own symbol – indeed, so closely were Artemis and Kallisto linked that there were some later Greek cults where the two were conflated and worshipped as Artemis Kalliste. Others say that it was Zeus who changed Kallisto into a bear to protect her from Artemis’ wrath, but that Artemis shot Kallisto with her silver arrows and that Kallisto, still a bear, died giving birth to her son, Arcas, the ancestor of the Arcadians. Later versions from Roman times state that Artemis, now Diana, expelled Kallisto from her retinue after finding out that she was pregnant and that Kallisto gave birth to Arcas not long afterwards. In this Roman version, it is Juno (Hera), wife of Jupiter (Zeus), who turns Kallisto into a bear and, years later, Kallisto’s son Arcas finds her while hunting in a forest.

All the differing accounts, however, have the same ending. Whether Kallisto is shot with arrows by Artemis, dies giving birth to Arcas, or is about to be killed by her son during a hunt, Zeus/Jupiter saves her by transforming her into the dazzling constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, to live on in the sky forever. The second largest of the four Galilean moons of the planet Jupiter is also named after her.

Appears in Fata Morgana Books III and IV

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