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Bear Myths in the Sky

They are the bears you can see every night. All you need do is look up. At least with no clouds. In ancient times, men would look up to the stars twinkling in the heavens and see in them the patterns which represented the creatures and characters of legends and the Gods. Ursa Major, Latin for the large bear or the Great Bear is better known as the Big Dipper - in England as the Plough (plow but the English spell funny). Two of the stars of the big dippers bowl point to the North Star “Polaris” which was a key fix for ancient mariners. The north star stays stationary in the sky because it is above the Earth axis, so as the world spins, the other constellations move through the night, but the North Star stays steady. Polaris is the star at the end of the tail of Ursa Miner – the Little Bear. It was not only the Europeans who saw these stars as bears, but were the same in many cultures.

The Myth of the Great Bear - Ursa Major

In the mythoolgy stories of the Greeks, Zeus lusts after a young maiden named Callisto, the daughter of cruel King Lycaon of Arcadia who ran away to be with the wood nymphs of Zeus' daughter Artemis, the huntress. Callisto bore the king of the gods a child, and Zeus' wife Hera, so jealous of Callisto's beauty and her husband's infidelty, cast a spell, turning Callisto into a bear. Her son was named Arcus, meaning child of the bear. When Arcus grew older, while hunting in the woods one day, he came a bear. It was his mother, but he diidn't know it. He was about to shoot her with his bow, but Zeus sees them and to avert the tragic end flings them both into the sky, forming the constellation of the Great Bear, forever turning in the sky as a hunted animal. He gave Callisto such a great prominence in the sky, always to be on view, to annoy his wife. It was that kind of marriage. Zeus gave the great bear a little bear so she could have a son, with Arcus chasing them with his bow. Which is curiously very similar to how the Iroquois Indians of North America saw the three brightest stars as three hunters chasing a bear through the night sky with the lead hunter carrying a bow and arrow

The Little Bear - Ursa Minor

The constellation with the North Star, also knwn as the Little Dipper and always paired with the bigger version is seen as a baby bear with a long tail. The tail is unusually long for a bear as a result of being swung around in the sky. The smaller bear gets paired with the the Ursa Major in variations of the Arcus and Callisto legend, that perhaps Arcus was chasing both bears, but mostly because they can always be seen together with one following the other. Parts of Ursa Minor disappear below the horizon as the Earth turns, but Ursa Major is always on view.

The myths originated in Greek mythology but the names are Latin because the Romans took on the Greek gods and renamed them. The Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, also the mayor of Danzig (Gdansk) and a beer brewer in the 1600s was the first of the "modern" era of the science of astronomy to map and illustrate the moon and constellations. He was called the "founder of lunar topography" for his map of the visible surface of the moon. He has a crater named for him, but apprently didn't see any bears on the moon through his telescope.


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