I love exploring the different Goddesses of the world and it helps that I’m in a group that does just that. Once a month we come together to discuss a Goddess and to pick the next month’s choice. January’s Goddess focus is on Callisto. She is described as a Greek goddess of instinct, protection, and flexibility. And that Her symbols are a mother bear, a willow branch, and the constellation Ursa Major.
I’m finding out that Callisto’s story is far more complicated that it first appears. She is a beloved follower of Artemis who becomes pregnant, is turned into a bear and bares a son and upon her death is placed in the stars. Her story drastically varies in all other details but those and in each variation there is a shift in cause and response to her plight.
I had done some brief reading before the meeting and had a basic over view of Her story. But siting in circle with other women, I found it surprising that no one really focused on the rape mythos surrounding Callisto. They focused more on seeing Her story as another mother’s myth; as metaphor for leaving maidenhood and entering motherhood. To me that view is a unequal fit.
It bothered me because I see in the story of Callisto a way to explore the emotional consequences for a woman who has been raped. I took the group’s avoidance of the rapes issues in the Callisto myth as a symptom of our society’s typical avoidance to openly address rape. Granted that ancient Greece was a strongly patriarchal society and this myth is colored by that perspective, I don’t feel that perspective is too different from our Western society today. Too often a sexual assault victim is blamed for the actions of the aggressor. And too often there isn’t a spiritual way to absorb and negate the feelings and trauma of rape.
For the modern women, I think it is possible to view Callisto’s life as a metaphor of a woman’s emotions who has endured a rape and the social pressures and responses of acknowledging that such a crime has occur to her. There still exists a social banishment from the ranks of the chaste virgin and the uncompassionate reception of a unwed mother. At the very least, I think Callisto’s story shows just how long the rape culture has existed and has become second nature in Western society.
But in looking deeper on the net for information on Callisto, first appearances are deceiving. Not only is the story of Callisto a way to explain a constellation Ursa Major but it is also adds to the continuing historical saga of Arcadia in which her son Arcas may have given his name to the region. Just glancing back to who Callisto’s father is and the myths surrounding him, I see echos of a familiar flood myth. Irreverent Lycaon sacrificed a human baby on the altar of Zeus and incurring his wrath which flooded the world, which I find eerily familiar to the story of Noah. And with Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf, I wonder what the implications of this has on the modern mythos of the werewolf.
Historically, Callisto is considered an immortal as she is the stars of Ursa Major. But I don’t know if she really was viewed as a Goddess instead of an attribute of the Goddess Artemis. I do sense that to get a better understanding of Callisto I need to gain a better understanding of Artemis and her band and their role in the ancient Greek society.
Google Books: The Callisto myth from Ovid to Atwood: initiation and rape in literature
Callisto: The Tale of Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Bootes and Lupus
Pantheon.org : Callisto
Theio.com : Kallisto