Stars and the heavens have long captured the human imagination. During long nights of star gazing – before TV and the internet — ancient peoples invented fascinating stories about constellations that reflected their aspirations and relationships with the natural world and each other. The dramas that played out in the heavens unified their world and gave their lives meaning.
No group of stars has been more durably famous than the Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In French, Grande Ourse. Italian, Ursa Maggiore. German, Grosse Bär. Ursa Major and its neighbor Ursa Minor, the Lesser or Little Bear, are the first two constellations listed in the earliest star catalogues dating from nearly 3000 years ago.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the importance of real-life bears is reflected in the many stories of the cosmos that the ancients gifted us with—none more universal than those told about the Great Bear. Playing center stage in the night sky, bears were often depicted as guides and teachers, and literally provided direction. The Big Dipper points to the North Star in Ursa Minor and never sinks below the horizon at night.
According to the Greeks, the Big Dipper outlined the bear’s tail and hindquarters in the larger constellation Ursa Major. But some Native American people saw the bowl of the Big Dipper as the body of a bear, and the three stars of the handle as her cubs, or sometimes, hunters. The Big Dipper, or “Sky Bear” as the Iroquois called it, has been interpreted as a bear lying on its back in winter. Crawling from its den in spring. Standing on its hind legs in summer. Tracking the seasons in its changing position in the night sky.
This and other star stories reminded our ancestors and continue to remind us of where we are and where we should be going.
Ursa Major, Ursa Minor: Star Asterisms that Steer
Technically speaking, the Big Dipper is an asterism, a star pattern that is not considered to be a constellation by astronomers. The Little Dipper is also an asterism of stars belonging to the constellation Ursa Minor.
The names Big and Little Dipper come from the fact that they look like ladles. The two stars at the fore of the bowl of the Big Dipper, called the Pointers, create an imaginary line aimed directly at the Pole star, or Polaris, in the Little Dipper. Regardless of how astronomers are inclined to treat these star patterns, the Big and Little Bear and the ladles within have been vital to human navigation for millennia.
Animals Use Star Maps Too
But humans are not the only species that use stars for direction. Research on songbirds that navigate at night shows that birds learn the patterns of stars within an arc of about 35 degrees bounding the North Pole including, of course, Ursa Major and Minor. Scientists surmise that birds imprint on several constellations to ensure more robust navigation on nights with partial cloud cover. Migratory birds also rely on the polar axis of the rotation of the stars as a reference system and use a diversity of other navigational cues that are truly mind-blowing.
Although insects may not have a lot of what we many think of as brains, their navigation systems are far from primitive. Dung beetles, for example, take mental “snapshots” of star locations. They navigate by comparing the positions of stars or other celestial bodies noted in each snapshot. The lowly dung beetle, blessed with a cerebral sextant?
As far as we know, though, humans are the only species to invent elaborate stories and even entire myth systems about stars in an unending quest to make sense of our individual lives and create durable communities.
Telling Time: Sky Maps, Megaliths and Earthworks
Given our collective human need to track the march of seasons, it is not surprising that archaeologists have conclusively shown that the ancients used stars as a sort of cosmic clock. Equinox and solstice were especially important to past cultures, in part as transcendent reminders for when to plant and harvest crops.
The first written star maps can be dated to an astoundingly early date of 1700 BC in Mesopotamia. What we think of as the current system of constellations was codified by the Assyrians shortly after, around 1100 BC – including the Big Dipper as a bear– and integrated into the later Greek system of 88 constellations. The bear constellation makes its literary debut around 500 BC in Homer’s epic poems.
But star clocks, maps, and stories clearly predate systems of writing. The megaliths in Stonehenge, for example, were erected around 3000 BC to mark the solstice, and other ancient stone arrangements showing solstice points have been found elsewhere in Europe, Mexico, and Peru.
Stone star maps may go back further in time, including in North America. Some experts speculate that the oldest and perhaps most comprehensive sky map was carved on rock monoliths at Herschel in southern Saskatchewan. The rock art is thought by leading authorities to belong to the “Pit and Groove” style that dates to about 9,000-10,000 years ago. These engravings bear an uncanny resemblance to numerous constellations, including the North Pole and Ursa Minor, and equinox and solstice points.
The ancient Hopewell people of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys were also masters at connecting earthen artwork with the stars. Archaeologists have long been baffled by a spectacular set of mounds, burials and earthworks built around 1,000 years ago near the town of Newark, Ohio—perhaps the largest geometrical earthworks in the world. The complicated site includes multiple celestial alignments and representations of constellations including Ursa Minor and the North Pole. The earthworks also recorded the complex cycle of the moon with stunning accuracy.
Tracking the Seasons and the Cosmic Hunt: Iroquois Tale
Oral history has fleshed out the stories of stars more fully than what rocks can tell — and also points to a very distant past for Ursa Major stories in particular. According to an Iroquois story, bear emerges from the stars in the Corona Borealis. He is pursued through the summer skies by seven hunters: Robin, Chickadee, Moose Bird (Grey Jay), Pidgeon, Blue Jay, Owl, and Saw-Whet (a kind of owl). As autumn nears, the four hunters farthest from the Bear lose the trail, with the stars that denote them setting one after the other. At last Robin fatally wounds the Bear with an arrow. The blood of the Bear colors the fall leaves red. One drop of the Bear’s blood falls on Robin, coloring his breast red.
For the Iroquois, the death of the bear explained the cycle of the seasons. Yes, there is violence, but it is not mean-spirited. It is part of the fabric of life and the ecology of the human imagination that ties Robin and the other birds to the Bear, and all to the vibrant hardwood forests of the Northeast.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the mythological motif of the “Cosmic Hunt” is widespread in northern and central Eurasia and the Americas, but absent in other parts of the globe where the stellar cast is out of sight beyond the curve of the globe. Sometimes the story features Orion or the Pleides, rather than Ursa Major, and targets elk, bighorn sheep, or other prey. But it is amazingly consistent, and its circumboreal distribution dates the story back to perhaps 15,000 years ago, and certainly as early as Paleolithic times. One expert suggested that the story of Ursa Major as the Great Bear “is quite likely one of the oldest inventions of humanity.”
Mystery and Transformation: Zuni Tale
One major reason why bears have had such a hold on our imagination is that they so obviously symbolize renewal and transformation. In a Zuni tale, the Great Bear guards the land from the frozen gods of the north. In winter, the land is ravaged by the frozen breath of the ice gods as the bear sleeps. In the spring, when the bear wakes, she drives the frozen gods back and the land is refreshed.
This tale gets to the parallels between the lifeways of the bear and our own aspirations for rebirth. An animal that seemingly dies underground in winter and emerges with new life in spring is, indeed, a miracle. To people who watched bears disappear into the earth when it snowed and reappear when the plants sprouted, bears represented the hope for new life.
How old is our association of the bear with transformation and power? Who knows. But European cave paintings, artifacts and ensembles of cave bear skulls suggest some kind of bear worship dating back more than 30,000 years.
Many aspects of bears’ lifeways are still mysterious. It is amazing that no matter how much scientists have learned about hibernation and the biology of the bear, they are still in awe at what we don’t know. As Hamlet reminds us, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” To me, a bit of mystery about bears is a good thing and inspires humility.
Explaining The Landscape: Kiowa Tale
Although ancient stories operate on many levels, some star stories help interpret landscapes. Kiowa author Scott Momaday offers this Kiowa tale about Devils Tower, a dramatic volcanic neck that rises vertically from the plains of Wyoming:
“Eight children were at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered in fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb it, and as they did so, it began to rise in the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”
In another Kiowa tale about Devils Tower, the seven sisters become the constellation Pleides, which is also called “the Seven Sisters” elsewhere in Europe and America – a reminder of how these stories were spread and swapped. All connect people, animals, plants, lands, and the heavens in a unified harmonious fabric.
Family Relations: Callisto and Arcas
One of my favorite stories about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor comes from the ancient Greeks and centers on Callisto, one of the maidens of Artemis, goddess of the forest, hunt, childbirth, and harvest. Artemis was closely associated with bears. In fact, her name has the same root as Arctos, the Latin for bear.
Callisto was seduced by Zeus and bore a son, Arcas, who grew up to be a hunter. In revenge, Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, turned Callisto into a bear. Coming upon her son one day in the forest, Callisto rushed to greet him. Not recognizing his mother, Arcas took aim and was about to shoot her when Zeus saw what was happening. He turned Arcas into a bear and, to save them both, flung them into the heavens where they were transformed into stars. She became Ursa Major, he Ursa Minor.
I love this story because it is strange, yet relatable; bigger than life, yet intimate. In Greek mythology, the chief god Zeus was the classic misogynist, but still he was a god, and he does save Callisto and Arcas in the end. Hera was the jealous vengeful wife, justified in her suspicions, but without her the bears in the Big and Little Dipper would not be part of our mythic legacy. And the son nearly kills the mother – ring any bells?
But why bears? Many scholars believe that Artemis was a mythic descendent of the Earth Mother goddess that long predated the Greeks and Christ. Male-dominated hierarchies are associated with the development of Neolithic agricultural systems dating as far back as 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. But before that, feminine principles seemed to have ruled, as represented by figurines of big-hipped women, one dated about 35,000 years ago. The Earth Mother represented more than fertility or sexuality. She was, and is, simply the all-embracing mother. There is nothing separate from her. All things come from her, return to her, and are her.
In this way, the bear provides a convenient shorthand to a larger ancient story about our relationship with the earth — and one that we are in danger of losing in modern society.
Losing True North
Many of us can no longer see the stars. They are obscured by all-too-pervasive artificial light pollution. But this fact hardly explains why so many of us seem to be glued to our smart phones and oblivious to the night sky. Regardless of causes, the results of estrangement from the natural world are well documented. Our obsession with TV, computers, Facebook, and Twitter breeds isolation, fear, and alienation. We are beset with meaninglessness and ennui. Many take drugs to deal with anxiety and depression, which are epidemic. More of us are losing a sense of purpose and wonder about the world.
In this context, bears are an afterthought, a luxury, or a threat. We are taught to be terrified of grizzly bears as “massive flesh-eating carnivores,” in the words of a recent fear-mongering Secretary of Interior. News stories sensationalize bear attacks and feed our dread. It is no surprise then that many, especially those in positions of power, believe that bears should be walled out, gunned down, or relegated to zoos. People who love bears are purported hopeless romantics. Never mind history. Never mind the fact that our European ancestors wiped out 97% of the grizzlies we once had in the lower 48 states in a mere 60 years.
Parenthetically, it is perhaps not surprising that white male hunters are the primary promulgators of fear, aided and abetted by groups such as the NRA and Safari Club. The spirit of domination, subjugation, and aggression is unfortunately still very much alive. For the affected men, grizzly bears are little more than trophies to bolster a frail masculine ego. For them, magic, mystery, and myth are dead, along with the rich fabric of connections that bind bears and us to history, the earth, and the cosmos.
But Artemis is far from dead, reminding us of the wild and a different way of life. She embodies a web of interconnections that ecological investigations are rediscovering.
And, worldviews have been changing, albeit slowly. During the last century, the ethos of domination and control has been in demise, slowly yielding once more to a feminine principle of reverence for the earth. This change is codified in our environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, which has been vital to the survival of grizzly bears and other threatened species. In this context, restraint is not about suffering or deprivation; it is about abundance, respect, and freedom.
Follow The Drinking Gourd To Freedom
And thinking of freedom, I can’t resist bringing up the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song about the Big Dipper provided a literal map during the 1800s for enslaved blacks in the South wishing to escape to freedom in the North. Here is the first verse:
When the sun come back,
When the firs’ quail calls,
Then the time is come:
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.
“When the sun comes back” has to do with the time after solstice when days lengthen. “When the first quail calls” relates to their breeding season, which starts during April in the South. “Drinking gourd” obviously refers to the Big Dipper. Other verses provide more detailed directions northward along rivers and describe markers such as “left foot, peg foot” left on trees and in the mud by Underground Railroad operative Peg Leg Joe and his ilk.
We can still look to Ursa Major and Minor for direction, regeneration, the promise of transformation, and literal and metaphorical freedom.
Soon, according to Iroquois cosmology, we will see the Sky Bear crawl out of its starry den, just like its earthly counterparts, and be blessed by the Zuni bear ushering in spring by chasing the ice gods back north. Circling around the pole, Callisto and Arcas, mother and son, will also continue to remind us of new life and ancient relationships.
The point is we don’t need to stay enslaved to destructive and alienating narratives of domination and tribalism — if we can liberate ourselves from our smart phones and look at the night sky now and then, and remember we are not alone.
Bears, in the sky and on earth, can help show us a path towards health, community, and shared purpose. They can connect us with magic, mystery, and a rich textured human past. More importantly, they can help us imagine a different future.
As daylight slowly returns to the Northern Hemisphere, may light shine in our hearts also.