One day Callisto found herself face-to-face with a young and handsome hunter and suddenly recognized him as her son, Arcas. She raised up on her hind legs to embrace her son. Thinking that the bear was about to attack him, Arcas raised his spear and was about to hurl it and kill his mother. Zeus happened to be looking down on the scene from his position on Mt. Olympus and instantly turned Arcas into a bear also. Zeus then grasped each bear by its tail and tugged and tugged until he had managed to lift both high into the sky, Callisto as Ursa Major and her son Arcas as Ursa Minor. This tugging of tails over such a long journey through the sky, stretched both tails and explains why our celestial bears, unlike earthly ones, have long tails. The tail of Arcas became even longer since he was continuously swung around the sky by the end-star in his tail, Polaris. On discovering that her husband had given Callisto and Arcas honored places in heaven, Hera was furious. She went down to Earth to visit her friend the ocean god, Oceanus. "How dare Zeus give these two an honored place in heaven?" Hera fumed. "They have now displaced me, Queen of Heaven, from my place in the sky. I ask you forever keep these two penned so that they may never wander far." Oceanus was sympathetic and promised that he would grant Hera her wish. He would see to it that "the couple never would be permitted to enter our water in their wandering," in other words, that the bears forever would be forbidden to set below the horizon of the sea as other constellations do. To this day both the Lesser Bear and the Greater Bear are held high in the sky near the Pole Star, never permitted to sink beneath the sea horizon.
Ursa Major, perhaps better than any other group of stars, shows that just about any shape one wants to imagine can be assigned to the constellation--a plow, wagon, coffin, bear, or even a reindeer, as the people of Lapland imagined the constellation.
The middle star in the dipper's handle is Mizar, which is actually a double star. Alcor is so close to Mizar that they appear to be one star but Alcor is not Mizar's companion star. In some ancient armies, these stars were used as an eye test. If you could see two separate stars your eye sight was good, if not, you had poor eye sight.
Zeus, King of the Gods, fell in love with the beautiful Callisto, a young woman who was a hunter. When Hera, Zeus' wife, heard of what has happening she was furious and set out after Callisto. On finding her, Hera said, "Your beauty, of which my husband speaks so tenderly, is no more!" Whereupon Hera changes Callisto into a bear. Hera left Callisto with her human feelings rather than those of a bear. Callisto roamed the forest day and night in constant fear of the hunters and in fear of other wild beasts, although she was now one.
The North American Indians also chose bears for these two constellations. They called them Okuri and Paukunawa, both meaning "Bear." This was before any contact with Europeans.
In ancient England, Ursa Major was King Arthur's home and was called Arthur's Chariot. The Irish named Ursa Major after one of their early kings, calling it King David's Chariot. And in France it was the Great Chariot.