The tale of the tails
Last week in Starwatch I attempted to explain the tricks of the trade for finding your way around Ursa Major, the Big Bear, and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. The Little Bear and the famous Little Dipper are one and the same. The Big Dipper makes up the rear end and tail of Ursa Major. Its stars are also the brightest ones of the Big Bear. Both bears ride high in the north-northwestern Marshall sky this time of year.
The Greek mythology story about how the bears wound up in the heavens is one of my all-time favorites. It involves a beautiful young woman named Callisto and her son Arcus. I have to warn mythology purists out there that I take poetic license with these stories, and bring them up to date. But really, is there such a thing as the correct mythology anyway?
Callisto was a beautiful young woman in her late 20s who tragically became a widow and single mom when her husband was killed in a war. Fortunately she had a pretty good job and she worked really hard at it. Callisto was also very fortunate because Arcus, her wonderful 10-year-old son, really helped his mom out around the house and made life a little easier for her. He even made supper for her some nights.
Even with all of the help Callisto worked very hard, and on Saturday mornings she treated herself by heading down to a nearby lake where she would sit on a park bench and feed the ducks. She found that very relaxing.
One bright sunny morning as she was enjoying life with her ducky friends, Zeus, the king of the gods, was taking a stroll around that same lake. Without a doubt, he was quite a hunky god and was legendary for being a ladies man. Zeus gave Callisto a million-dollar smile and then talked her into a cup of coffee at a local bistro and sweet-talked her some more. A few days later they went to the movies, and the next Saturday they made plans to go to a local amusement park. All of this would have been just fine, but Zeus was already engaged to marry the goddess Hera, who would eventually become the queen of the gods.
One thing you don’t do is tick off Hera. She was furious when she found out about Zeus’s love adventures. After all, she already had the flowers ordered for her wedding day and had a hall reserved for the reception. Then Hera found out about Zeus’s plans at the amusement park that coming Saturday and decided to give him a huge surprise.
Hera arrived at the park as soon as it opened on Saturday morning and hid in the bushes next to the giant roller coaster. Later that morning along came Zeus and Callisto, arm in arm. When they got close enough, Hera jumped out of the bushes, held up her magic finger, pointed at Callisto, and turned her into a big bear. This caused quite a commotion! Security was summoned and took chase after Callisto. She was desperate to get away and found a hole in the fence. On all fours she scurried into the nearby woods to live the life of a bear against her will! Meanwhile, Hera dragged Zeus away by his ear.
Tragically, Arcus was left without a mother as well as a father. He didn’t know what happened to his mother, just that she disappeared. As sad as that was, life went on. Arcus moved in with relatives and grew up to become of all things, a professional game hunter.
Toward the end of a long day of hunting with absolutely no luck, Arcus was about to trudge home when all of a sudden a giant female bear sauntered his way. Arcus couldn’t believe it! He quickly nocked an arrow in his bow and took aim. I think you’ve already figured out who this bear was. He was about to shoot his own mother! Talk about Greek tragedy!
As luck would have it, Zeus was taking a stroll through the woods in that same vicinity and came upon the scene. He recognized that big old mama bear from that ugly Saturday morning by the roller coaster. He also recognized Arcus as a grown man. He tried to convince Arcus that the bear he was about to shoot was actually his mother. Arcus didn’t buy it, even from the king of the gods! Arcus ran away from Zeus and took aim at his mom again. Zeus was desperate and had to act quickly. He didn’t want any harm to come to either Arcus or Callisto, and since it was Hera that turned Callisto into a bear he couldn’t reverse the spell. His only option was to point his magic finger at Arcus, and turn him into a little bear. Once this happened Arcus recognized his mother and they gave each other big bear hugs.
While this was happening, Hera, still angry after all those years, was watching from afar and became totally enraged! Fire was shooting from her ears as she swooped down from Mount Olympus. Zeus figured he better do something to defuse the situation. He thought that if he at least got rid of the bears that would calm Hera down. So, Zeus reached down and grabbed both bears by their tails. Then, with his godly strength, he launched the bears into the northern sky and they magically became the constellations we see every night, forever safe from Hera and her temper.
You can’t help but notice that Ursa Major and Minor have really long tails, more like squirrels than bears. But hey, your tail would be stretched out too if someone used it to heave you into the heavens! And that’s why I call this story the tale of the tails!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.