Look Up: Northern Sky Basics with the Big Dipper
While living, breathing black bears hibernate in their snow-covered dens, two bears shine on in our winter sky: Ursa Major, the Great Bear, and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.
The seven main stars of the constellation Ursa Major form a very recognizable pattern (or asterism) most of us know as the Big Dipper. These bright stars are highly visible, and their configuration has inspired stories in just about every culture in the world.
The lower magnitude stars comprising the Little Bear, including the cub's "tail" star Polaris, are usually known as the Little Dipper. Both Big and Little Dippers are circumpolar, revolving around the celestial north pole, and are therefore visible year-round in the northern hemisphere. They seem to spin around the axis of Polaris, also known as the North Star because it's the closest star in the sky (within 1 degree) to the true north celestial pole.
The simplest way to pick out the North Star, which does not otherwise stand out in any way, is to find the two stars that form the right-hand side of the dipper's cup and trace a line upward through them. This line will point to the North Star. The ability to pick out these constellations, and the North Star in particular, enables you to orient north from wherever you are, a grounding technique that may be particularly comforting to those from northern states like Maine--or Alaska, where the Big Dipper and the North Star grace the state flag. (And if you happen to find yourself in Tolkien's Middle-earth, just look for the Sickle of the Valar to find your way home.)
According to Greek myth, the Great Bear was once the woman Callisto, seduced by Zeus (as so many women were; the sky is full of them) and thus turned into a bear by his jealous wife Hera. The Little Bear was her son; they were both tacked up in the night sky as a form of mercy when the son, understandably not recognizing his own mother as a bear, almost shot her. There are several stories to also explain the Great Bear's unusually long tail, better known as the Dipper's handle. In one, Zeus stretched out the tail when he grabbed it to lob the she-bear into the heavens.
The Greeks weren't the only ones to see a bear when they looked at the Big Dipper; several Native American tribes did, as well. My favorite story about the Big Dipper, retold in Maine naturalist Dorcas Miller’s wonderful book STARS OF THE FIRST PEOPLE, comes from our northern neighbors, the Nova Scotia Micmac. To them, the four stars that make up the cup of the dipper formed a bear. The bear was being hunted by seven birds, represented by the dipper’s handle stars and four others in a line arcing down through the star Arcturus (in the constellation Bootes).
The bird-stars were identified very specifically: the first one is Robin, whose breast was reddened by the bear’s blood; the second one is Chickadee with a cooking pot (this star is actually a binary star with a faint “twin”), the third is Grey Jay, who arrived too late to help kill and skin the bear but just in time for the meal, typical Grey Jay "camp robber" behavior. The fourth was Pigeon, which at the time this tale was originally recorded would most likely have been the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon, and then Blue Jay, followed by two owls. As a birder, I enjoy being able to follow the series of stars delineated by that story, a form of celestial bird-watching.
Various British traditions saw the Big Dipper as plow, butcher’s cleaver, or a wagon associated with King Arthur (whose name arguably means "bear") or Charlemagne. Early Germanic and Nordic traditions also identified it as a wagon--most notably, the Wagon of Odin--with the three "handle" stars being three horses pulling the wagon.
In pre-Civil War United States, fleeing slaves were told to “follow the drinking gourd” to safety and freedom in the North, thus establishing the Big Dipper as a celestial memorial to the eventual end of slavery.
The Big Dipper played an important spiritual role in the Taoist folk beliefs of the early Chinese. The celestial power residing in the Big Dipper was apparently in charge of death. To dodge death, believers carried out longevity rituals, including a shuffling dance called Pacing the Big Dipper, and chanted scriptures in appeal to stellar deities. According to one Taoist scripture, the Big Dipper, the Great Perfect Queen of Moonlight, "manages and harmonizes the five agents, balances the Vital Breaths of Yin and Yang, dissolves the stagnant and eliminates the evil and dark." A good force to have on your side.
This Taoist identification with longevity may not be too far off the mark, as you could conceivably track key stories from most of the world's cultures, past and present, through this single asterism. More than just a "sky bear" or a way for us to locate north, the Big Dipper is an easily identified, cross-cultural touchstone, its celestial cup overflowing with stories from millennia of human history.
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.