In Latin, Ursa Major means “greater she-bear.” In Greek Arktos is the word for bear, hence the name Arctic, which means bearish and describes the far northern parts of the earth where the Great Bear constellation dominates the heavens even more than in the northern hemisphere. A very large constellation, Ursa Major is best known for its famous asterism or star grouping, the Big Dipper.
Location in the Night Sky
Ursa Major is highest in the sky in the spring and lowest in the autumn, when, according to Indian legends, the Bear is looking for a place to lie down for its winter hibernation. This constellation is a circumpolar constellation, which means it travels closely around the North Star; it is always above the horizon never rising or setting; it can be seen any time of the year, high or low in the sky.
The following graphic shows the position of the Big Dipper in the early evening each season. In the spring the bowl is high above and inverted, pouring water upon the new flowers. In summer the bowl looks as if it is ready to scoop up some cool water with its handle above and its bowl below. In autumn the bowl is right-side-up, ready to catch the falling leaves. In winter the handle points down like an icicle.
The pointer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper point to Polaris, our current North Star. The distance to Polaris appears to be six times the distance between the pointer stars.
To find the Great Bear in the Spring night sky, look high overhead and locate the Dipper first, then the three pairs of stars which form the Bear’s paws … this works for the ancient or new way of viewing the Great Bear. The bowl of the Dipper is inverted as if pouring the contents of fresh water down upon an awakening earth. The paws of the Bear are up high as if walking in the heavens.
Ursa Minor means little bear in Latin, but this circumpolar constellation resembles a dipper more than a bear and is therefore commonly called the Little Dipper. It is much less conspicuous than the Big Dipper, but it contains the most important navigational star in our sky, Polaris, the Pole or North Star. From our perspective, Polaris appears to remain in the same location, while all the other stars seem to rotate around it as if it is the center of the universe. Since you will always see Polaris in the same northern location, whenever you look at it and extend your arms out to the side, the front of your body is facing north, and south is behind you; your extended right arm points east and your extended left arm points west. Give it a try! When you experience this, you can understand why the North Star has been of great navigational value down through the ages.
The celestial North Pole is the point where the imaginary polar axis of the earth would touch the sky if it were extended. Polaris, for all practical purposes, is this celestial North Pole, being only one degree off this point. It is not the brightest of stars, nor was it or will it always be the star closest to the pole. Because of the earth’s wobble, the celestial pole shifts as the centuries go by, and different stars become pole stars at different times.
Most of the Little Dipper’s stars are faint. Only the two at the end of the bowl are fairly bright. They are called Guardians of the Pole as they march around the pole like sentries. The brighter one of the pair, seen at the upper end of the bowl, was the Pole Star in the time of Plato, about 400 BCE.
Location in the Night Sky
Polaris can be found by following a line formed by the pointer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper. Extend this line 6x the distance between the two pointer stars, and you will see the North Star. There are no bright stars in between to cause any confusion. Polaris is the tip of the Little Dipper handle.
The Myth ~ The Great Bear and the Little Bear
To the ancient Greeks, Ursa Major represented Callisto, a follower of Artemis, the virgin huntress, and goddess of the crescent moon. Zeus, king of the gods, fell in love with Callisto and she gave birth to his child named Arcas. Some say Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, became intensely jealous and changed Callisto into a bear left to roam the forest. One day Arcas came upon the bear. Callisto stood on her hind legs to welcome her son. Thinking himself attacked, Arcas readied his bow. Zeus, who saw what was about to happen, turned Arcas into a small bear. Grabbing both bears by their tails, Zeus hurled them into the safety of the sky, where they still roam close together as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. This action might explain why the ancient view of the Great Bear has an unusually long tail.
Variations of the Myth
Some say Hera had the last laugh, she moved the bears into a part of the sky near the celestial pole. There they would never set below the horizon, never resting, remaining the eternal victims of Zeus’ wandering eye.
Another legend says Zeus seduced Callisto by taking on the form of Artemis to deceive her. Artemis demanded the strictest chastity from the maidens who followed her hunting through the mountains. In order to save Callisto and Arcas from the wrath of the virgin goddess, Zeus transformed Callisto into the Great Bear and set her in the stars with Arcas, their child, beside her.
Still, others say it was the rage of Hera or Artemis which cursed Callisto, who then turned into a bear pursued by her own hounds. Only later was she placed as the Great Bear among the stars.
Some say Arcas grew up to become king of Arcadia and brought agriculture to that wild and rugged country, for which he was immortalized among the stars as Bootes, inventor of the “Wagon,” which is the other name for the constellation of the Great Bear.
A more ancient belief behind the story of Callisto is that the Great Bear is really Artemis herself and that Callisto is another name for Artemis. Artemis is the ancient queen of the stars and the ruler of the Arctic Pole. The she-bear is her symbol. She is the “Sounding One” and the “Lady of the Wild Mountains” giving off a “brilliant blaze” as she hunts. She is the queen of the inviolate meadow far from the haunts of men. She is the queen of the crescent moon, moonlight being her actual presence, and she is believed to cause wild animals and trees to dance.
Later the English linked the constellation to both the Bear and Wagon. They saw it as the wagon of King Arthur, whose Round Table is reflected in the constellations circling the Pole, and whose name comes from the Celtic word for “bear.” Legend has it that Arthur is sleeping in a cave with his knights beside him, and will return one day to save his country in its hour of need. The seven most important stars of the Bear-Wagon (the Big Dipper) are also known as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who lie dreaming in a mountain cave waiting for the resurrection. These Seven Sleepers, unlike Arthur, are said to have awoken after 200 years and gone down to the local town for provisions, after which they went to sleep once more.
In ancient China, the seven stars of the Big Dipper were associated with the celestial palace of the Lord On High, the Star God of Longevity, the heavenly mountain, the paradise of the immortals. The star Sirius, the Heavenly Wolf, guarded this celestial palace. Today Sirius, which shares the space motion Ursa Major, is regarded as an outlying member of it!
The Great Bear throughout the ages has been linked to the gods and goddesses to royalty and immortality. Open to this constellation in the springtime and receive its heavenly blessings! The paws of the Great Bear are up high as if walking in the heavens, and the bowl of its the Big Dipper is inverted as if pouring heavenly contents upon an awakening earth. Look up, be blessed and graced!