I wrote this for my 4 year old son, Oscar, to take into school as he was doing a project on the Polar Regions and so I decided to explain to him the origins of the North Star, according to Greek literature. I had the picture commissioned by a Wimbledon based artist called Rob Anderson and it depicts, above mother and son, the asterisms ‘Big Dipper and Little Dipper’; a series of stars which form part of the greater constellations ‘Ursa Major and Ursa Minor’ (Ursa being Roman/Latin for ‘bear’). My main influences for this were Homer’s ‘Odyssey’; Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ and the work of Ted Hughes.
The Myth of Kallisto and Arcas
And the Story of the North Star
A long time ago in Ancient Greece
There were gods and goddesses, and a Golden Fleece
The story of the fleece will come another time
But for the moment, here’s another, just as fine.
There was a girl called Kallisto
Pretty as a picture, pure as a doe
Now chief of the gods was Mister Zeus
Who hung about the skies while we humans ran loose
He saw this beauty, Kallisto
(And although he was married, his wife needn’t know)
Down from the heavens he swept to take her on a date
Such was her elegance, her poise, her gait.
Hera found out, (his wife you know)
She said ‘That’s enough!’ and with one fair blow
Turned poor Kallisto into a bear
Dark brown fur replacing her golden hair.
For 16 years she wandered the forests alone
With Hera and Zeus atop their Grecian thrones
Meanwhile her son, a gifted hunter
Brought up by his grandfather, torn from his mother, asunder
Was out hunting in the woods one day
Looking for bears, his favoured prey
When Kallisto spied him through the trees
And ran to him, dropping to her knees.
‘Oh Arcas, my son, I’ve missed you so’
But that the bear was his mother, he didn’t know
Her words to him were howls, not cries
He was aloof to her sorrowful sighs.
So with great skill and regal poise,
He arched his bow, this King of boys
The arrow aimed, about to fire
Kallisto wept and her tears soared higher
Than the tops of the trees and the birds’ sweet call
And upon Zeus’ ears did those tears fall
Suddenly the bow and arrow fell
And there on the ground, after Zeus’ spell
Stood little bear instead of boy
Looking at his mother with tears of joy
To her he ran and with huge embrace
Brought laughter and smiles to her age worn face.
Then once more did Zeus intervene
(Despite the protests of his Queen)
He picked them up, tail by tail
And up to the skies, they both did sail.
Arcas and Kallisto, mother and son
Round and round, how far they spun!
Now we see them from afar
The hunter now a shining star
That serves to guide people on their way
When night has followed on from day.
Beneath him there is Kallisto
Who never again, from his side will go
She points up to her wondrous son
And with that, my friends, this tale is done.
Influences and references used in the writing of the above:
Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid
Nigel Spivey’s ‘Songs from Bronze: Myths from many Lands’
Charles Kingsley: ‘The Heroes or Greek Fairy Tales’
[First published in 1855]
Roger Lancelyn Green: ‘Tales of the Greek Heroes’
[First published by Penguin books in 1958]
Myths from Many Lands, The Children’s Hour
[Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1907]
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Josephine Preston Peabody cover the Greek Myths
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths
[First published by Penguin books in 1955]
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