Arcas was a beloved ancestor of the Arcadians and the person after which the Arcadia region in Greece was named. To enable the region to develop he taught the people how to farm and helped to spread agriculture throughout the area. Arcas eventually got married and had three legitimate sons, two daughters and one illegitimate son. Keep reading this article as it will highlight his birth, family, mythology and his death.
How Was Arcas Born?
Acras was born to Zeus, after he had raped the nymph, Callisto who was in the entourage of Artemis, the goddess of vegetation when her beauty caught Zeus. He tried to woo Callisto who wouldn’t leave Artemis. Zeus had to rape her and get the nymph pregnant.
Zeus Saves Arcas From His Wife
On hearing what her husband had done, Hera, punish both the nymph and her son, Arcas. She went after Callisto and turned her into a bear but her anger was unsatiated so she looked for Arcas. Zeus learned of his wife’s intentions and quickly came to the rescue of his son. He snatched the boy and hid him in an area of Greece (which eventually became known as Arcadia) so Hera wouldn’t find him.
King Lycaon’s Sacrifice
There he handed over the boy to the mother of Hermes known as Maia and tasked her to raise the boy. Arcas lived in the palace of his maternal grandfather, King Lycaon of Arcadia until one day Lycaon used him as a sacrifice to the gods. Lycaon’s motive for sacrificing the boy was to test the omniscience of Zeus. Thus, while he placed the boy on the fire he taunted Zeus by saying, “If you think that you’re so clever, make your son whole and unharmed”.
King of Arcadia
Of course, this angered Zeus and he sent flashes of lightning bolts to kill the sons of Lycaon and he turned Lycaon into a wolf/werewolf. Zeus then took Arcas and healed his wounds until he became whole again. With no one to succeed the throne of Lycaon, Arcas ascended the throne and under his rulership, Arcadia prospered. Arcas spread agriculture throughout the region and is believed to have taught his citizens how to bake bread and weave.
He was known as the greatest hunter in Arcadia– a skill he inherited from his mother Callisto. He took to hunting frequently and was joined by some of his citizens. On one of his hunting trips, he came across a bear and planned to kill it. What he didn’t know was that that bear was his mother, Callisto, who Hera had turned into the animal.
The bear (Callisto), upon recognizing her son, rushed to embrace him but Arcas misinterpreted it as an attack by the bear and drew his arrow to shoot. Fortunately, Zeus, who was observing all this in silence, finally intervened and prevented son from killing his mother. Zeus then turned Arcas into a bear and placed both mother bear (Callisto) and son (Arcas) into stars. Callisto’s star became known as Ursa Major and Arcas star became known as Ursa Minor in the Northern Sky.
The Myth According to Hyginus
According to the Roman historian Hyginus, Arcas was the child of King Lycaon who wanted to test the omniscience of Zeus by sacrificing his son. This angered Zeus who destroyed the table on which Arcas was being sacrificed. He then demolished the house of Lycaon with thunder and later healed Arcas. When Arcas grew up, he established a town called Trapezus on the site on which his father’s (Lycaon’s) house once stood.
Later, Arcas became king and the best hunter in Arcadia with his own entourage of hunters. Once, the hunters in Arcas company with hunting with him when they encountered the bear. Arcas chased the bear until the bear wandered into the temple of Arcas god, Zeus, located in the town of Lycae. Arcas drew his bow and arrow to kill the bear for it was forbidden for any mortal to enter the temple.
Zeus intervened and prevented son from killing his mother. He then transformed Arcas into a bear and placed both of them among the stars in the Northern Sky. They became known as Ursa Major meaning Great Bear and Ursa Minor meaning Lesser Bear. However, Hera found out and it angered her the more so she requested the Titan Tethys to place the Great Bear and the Lesser Bear in places where they can’t fall below the horizon to drink water.
The Myth According to Pausanias
Pausanias, the Greek geographer narrated that Arcas became king after Nyctimus, the son of King Lycaon, died. At the time, the region was called Pesalgia but after Arcas ascended the throne, he changed the name to Arcadia to reflect his reign. He taught his citizens the art of weaving and making bread. Later, Arcas fell in love with the sea-nymph Erato and married her.
The couple gave birth to three sons namely Apheidas, Azan, and Elastus, and divided the kingdom among them. Pausanias records that Arcas had one illegitimate son named Autolas with an unnamed woman.
When he died, the oracle at Delphi insisted that his bones be brought from Mt Macnalus to Arcadia. His remains were then buried close to an altar of Hera in Mantineia, a city in Arcadia. The citizens of Tegea in Arcadia built statues of Arcas and his family at Delphi to honor them.
Meaning and Pronunciation in English
Available sources do not provide the meaning of Arcas but most describe him as the King of Arcadia who named the region after himself.
Arcas is pronounced as |Ar-kas|
So far, we’ve looked at the mythology of Arcas according to various historians. Here is a recap of what we’ve discovered:
- Arcas was born after Zeus raped the sea nymph Callisto when he failed to woo her.
- Hearing of what Zeus had done, Hera raved in anger and turned Callisto into a bear.
- Zeus then snatched the boy before Hera could hurt him and gave him to Maia, the mother of Hermes, to be cared for in Arcadia.
- The King of Arcadia, Lycaon, decided to test Zeus’s omniscience by sacrificing Arcas which angered the king of the gods and he killed Lycaon.
- Arcas inherited the throne, became the best hunter and almost killed his mother save for the intervention of Zeus who turned him into a bear.
Later, Zeus turned both Callisto and Arcas into stars and reunited them in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Lesser Bear) respectively. Hera then asked the Titan Tethys to deprive the Ursa Major and Minor of water by ensuring they never sank beyond the horizon.