The Great Bear

Ursa major

Following on from an earlier blog on Ursa minor the aim of today’s article is to expand on your knowledge of the constellations immediately surrounding the pole star. Possibly the best known route to locating Polaris in the night sky is by using the end ‘pointers’ in Ursa major (see last paragraph or preceding article).

Ursa major translates from the Latin for the ‘greater bear’ and you can see how similar its pattern of stars is to Ursa minor. Amazing really that these two constellations appearing so similar, also occupy the same section of the night sky, wheeling around and around Polaris.

In Greek we get ‘Arktos’ for ‘bear’ and hence we call the far Northern parts of our planet the Arctic meaning ‘bearish’ as these northerly lands all lay beneath the constellation of the great bear.

If you remember that what we recognise as the greater bear is only an asterism (pattern) of the more visible stars and in fact the constellation is much larger than this. There are two recognised ways of joining these associated stars to give the likeness of a bear.

ursa major config1

ursa major config2

Another name for Ursa major is ‘the big dipper’ and this relates to the pattern of its 7 brightest stars bearing the likeness of a native American water dipper or ladle. Not what I thought as a child… a large theme park attraction…

In some Native American tribes the orientation of ‘the big dipper’ was used to ascertain the season of the year potentially impacting on decision making within the tribe as to which hunting grounds to frequent or which staple plant foods to gather etc.

orientations of ursa major

This is a particularly interesting point as here in the UK in our medieval past the same constellation was and still is known and referred to as ‘the plough’ and in the same way was used to inform farmers when to sow and till their fields pre the advent of calendars and Casio watches. Right now in Jan if you look up in the late evening and find the plough you will see it in its  winter orientation – standing on its handle.

Other much less common names for this constellation include the meat cleaver and the saucepan due to its obvious likeness of these implements. A very old English name for the plough is ‘Charles’ Wain’ and before this ‘Carlswaen’ where a ‘wain’ means a wagon – again the likeness to a plough or a wagon is not hard to see. In Germany people know Ursa major as Grober wagen – literally ‘big wagon’.

These names all came from periods in time where the common observer of these constellations would have had a very practical existence, whose very life depended on tools and skills and so these utilitarian names are not so surprising.

It is entirely possible that we have the Scandinavians to thank for our old name of Charles Wain (wagon) for Ursa major as they call Ursa major ‘Karlsvognen’. The ancient Scandinavians have also left a very distinct mark on the place names of our landscape. Especially on the more northern OS maps, names like Fell for mountain, Dale for valley and Stock for wood are a common sight in the English Lake District.

Mythology of Ursa major

There are almost as many Native American myths surrounding Ursa major as there are Native American tribes themselves.

One of the more commonly occurring stories involves the four stars of the pan representing a bear and the three stars of the handle representing hunters.

As the constellation wheels around the pole star you get the impression that the hunters are chasing the bear and the three stars in the handle are often called ‘the hunters who are always hunting’ in this particular myth.

More than just pretty stories myths like this one hold real value for anyone who cares to read them as not only does it reflect the daily acts of these cultures (hunting, cooking, ritual ceremony etc) providing us an insight into their way of life it also shows just how tuned in to their world they were.

In this particular myth the three hunters manage to wound the bear with an arrow which although not a fatal injury causes it to bleed when it swoops low to the horizon, staining the leaves of the trees crimson in the autumn season. These ancient cultures sought for patterns and understanding in their world just as we do now, they just lacked the ‘all powerful’ technology we now hold in such high regard.

Depending on the season and time of night Ursa major can be seen to be the correct way up and on all fours or standing on its rear legs rising up into the sky – a pattern easily associated with the real life habit of bears going about as either quadrupeds or bipeds. Many tribal myths involve a great bear being chased before it climbs up a high mountain and even further into the sky itself always with the three hunters in hot pursuit.

There are a few variations on a theme with this myth in regard to the second star in the pan handle, a star called Mizar. Most tribes using this myth recognised Mizar as a hunter but where some would see the tiny star Alcor just next to it as a cooking pot, other tribes saw a hunting dog named ‘hold tight’.

Despite Ursa major being such a recognisable and large constellation in the sky many people have not seen the tiny detail of the binary star Mizar and Alcor. Mizar being the brighter of the two is easily recognised as the second star along in the handle but when you’re looking directly at this you are unlikely to spot the tiny, feint Alcor sitting just next to it.

stars in plough

The name Alcor in Arabic translates literally to ‘The Proof’ and was often used as a primitive eye test by these people as you need to have pretty clear vision to spot the tiny amount of light reaching us from this star. Native American tribes used similar methods in testing the visual acuity of their hunters but used other constellations such as Pleiades which we cover in a future article.

If you have ever joined us on one of our weekend courses or the Morocco expedition you will likely have been regaled with the little known and possibly made up Crow myth of Mateebaa – a myth with which our very own instructor Matt Adams shares some remarkable similarities…(sorry in-house joke in there!!)

Right around the Northern Latitudes of our planet cultures past and present have relied on the unmistakable pattern of Ursa major in the sky to keep them on track. The fact that the constellation never sets in Northern latitudes, has 7 uniformly placed bright stars and resembles any number of common objects has cemented this constellation into many cultures.

Another example of exactly this comes from the American deep South where during the 18th century fleeing slaves would use the constellation as a guiding beacon to the north and their hopeful freedom. To these people Ursa major was known as the drinking gourd as again this was a familiar everyday item to which they easily related the constellation to.

Ursa major as a stepping stone to the sky

To finish off the article here is a summary of how you can use Ursa major when you’re out in the woods to locate and identify other constellation immediately surrounding it.

We have already discussed how to use the ‘pointers’ as a way of locating Polaris and at the same time identifying the constellation Ursa minor. Lesser utilised by the interested bushcraft observer is the method of carrying on an imaginary curve using the three stars in the handle as a guide to locate the first bright star you come to.

This bright star is Arcturus in the constellation Bootes (or the Herder). Arcturus will not always be above the horizon however as you must extend the handle of the plough and so this method will only really work in the Spring through to the Autumn.

If you remember the popular nemonic ‘Arc to Arcturus’ and use the following diagram you will get the right idea.

arc to arcturus

Assuming you have already located both Ursa major and Ursa minor in the sky it is also possible to pick out a very long meandering chain of very feint stars winding their way through the middle of the two bears – this is Draco the dragon which we will come back to in the next astral blog along with Hercules.

Adam Logan

Instructor for Woodland Ways.