Since ancient times, men have recognized the silhouette of the bear in the sky, in the Big Bear (Ursa Major) and Little Bear (Ursa Minor) constellations. Being able to see these shapes in the stary sky is a well-spread knowledge, quite often it’s one of the few constellations that people know.
According to the Greek myth, these bears in the sky are due to the fate of Callisto, one of Artemis’ virgin companions who used to live and hunt with the goddess. Zeus, in love with Callisto, used a stratagem to approach her and made her pregnant. As a punishment, she was turned into a she-bear by Artemis or by Hera, Zeus’ wife, according t o different versions of the myth. Arcas, Callisto’s son, grew up and one day met his mother in the forest and was ready to hunt her. To avoid this matricide, Zeus metamorphosed him as well into a bear and fixed them both in the heavens, as the Great Bear and the Little Bear.
In other cultures, the same constellations find their origins in different stories as well related to bears.
For the Eskimos, the constellations come from the story of a woman who met a group of bears living in their house in a human form but wearing their bearskins to go out and to hunt. The woman stayed some time with them, but finally went back to her own home, yearning for her husband. Although her promise to the Bear Men to keep their secret, she talked to her husband and, full of curiosity, he went to try to see them. Angry for her betrayal, one of the Bear Men found back the woman and bit her to death. To defend her, her husband’s dog attacked the bear but suddenly, both of the animals burnt bright and rise to the sky, as stars.
Other culture, other legends, the Algonkian Indians (North American tribes) identify as well the same stars as bears. It is thus believed that the Great Bear is composed of four stars pursued by seven hunters, and that a group of stars above the bear constitute its den.
This cosmic hunt appeared, in a different way, in the Asian story of the hunt of the spirit elk, Khelgen (Ursa Minor), by Mangi (Ursa Major), the bear and chief ancestor spirit whose tracks are the Milky Way. Khelgen is overtaken every year, at the end of the winter, and with her death the earth come into new life, with the beginning of spring and renewal of nature.
The bear, whose power for renewal after its winter sleep is linked to the regenerations of seasons, appears all year long in the sky, like an eternal sign of the its mystical role as a weather magistrate and prophet Never going under the horizon axis, the two constellations in the sky are seen as the wheels of the seasons and sometimes even considered as essential part of the functioning of the universe.
Sources: The Sacred Paw, The bear in nature, myth, and literature. Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders.