Ursa Major

Constellations of Words

Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

the Greater Bear

Urania’s Mirror1825

1. Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature
2. The fixed stars in this constellation
3. History_of_the_constellation

Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature

Located at the top of the heavens the stars of the two bear-constellations,Ursa MajorandUrsa Minor, never set, i.e., they never disappear below the horizon, they are always visible in the night sky, all night, every night, throughout the year. One of these stars,Polaris, the Pole Star in Ursa Minor, appears to stand still making it a good reference point for navigators at sea to identify, while the other stars in these two constellations, called circumpolar stars, revolve around it.
One myth explains why they were positioned so; Zeus (Jupiter) placedCallistoin the sky as the constellation Ursa Major, or ‘Great Bear,’ and her son, Arcas who was also Zeus’ son, as Ursa Minor, as ‘Little Bear’:

“Hera, Zeus’ wife, was not pleased with this arrangement, especially since Callisto was another of her husband’s infidelities. She went to her nurse, Tethys, the wife of Oceanus, and beseeched her to punish Callisto and Arcas. Tethys decided to deprive the pair of water, and so the Great Bear and the Little Bear are cursed to circle in the skies, never to dip below the horizon for a refreshing bath or a cool drink” [].

The constellations never sink below the horizon, thus they never appear to be going into the water.

The Ursa of Ursa Major is from the Indo-European root rtko, ‘Bear’. Derivatives: arctic (meaning north from Latin arcticus, from Greek arktikos), ursine (bear-like), from Latin ursus, Greek arktos. [Pokorny rktho-s 875. Watkins]. The names Ursula and Orson, are related.

In the northern branches of the Indo-European languages, the name of the bear was subject to a taboo and there was a proliferation of euphemisms; ‘honey-licker’, ‘honey eater’, ‘shaggy’, etc. The word for bear in Russian is ‘medved‘, and the same in Czech. In Polish, bear is a similar word ‘niedzwiedz‘, and in Old Church Slavonic, bear is ‘medvedi‘. All of these words mean something like ‘honey-eater’ and are derived from the common Slavic words ‘medu‘ = ‘honey’ (PIE *medhu-, from which we also get the English word ‘mead’, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water) plus ‘ed-‘ = ‘eat’ []. Our word bear appears to be another taboo term, from Dutch ‘bruin‘, meaning ‘the brown one’, French ‘brun‘ and ‘brunette’. Related to the Norse name Bjorn, and place-names Berlin, Berne

Our word bear, the animal, comes from the Indo-European root *bher, ‘Bright, brown.’ Derivatives: brown (one meaning of brown was ‘shining’, and it was often used to describe swords in Old English poetry), bruin (a bear), Bruno (name), brunet, burnet, burnish (meant to make something brown.), from Old French brun, shining, brown, beaver (a semiaquatic rodent noted for felling trees to build dams and partially submerged dens called lodges), Bernard (name, ‘bold bear’), bear² (the animal), from Old English bera, bear, from Germanic *ber, ‘the brown animal’), berserker, from Old Norse björn, bear, from Germanic *bernuz. [Pokorny 5. bher– 136.]

There might be a relationship between the roots bear, to tolerate (from *bher), and bear (from *bher). Aristotle (according to Olcott, p.348) “held that the name (Ursa) was derived from the fact that of all known animals the bear was thought to be the only one that dared to venture into the frozen regions of the north and tempt the solitude and cold”. According to Hesiod “Zeus put Callisto among the stars, giving her the name Bear because of the misfortune which had befallen her.” The bear was the only animal able to bear the cold. Navigators used the two bear constellations (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) to get their bearings on sea. The Little Bear, Ursa Minor has the North Pole, Polaris, the North Star, so by finding it you can find which way is true north. The pointer stars in this constellation Merak and Dubhe, point to Polaris.

Arabs imagined the asterism, the Big Dipper, as a Bier with the three stars in the tail as the mourners following the Bier. Olcott (p.350) says the title “‘the Bier’ is so similar to the almost universal appellation ‘the Bear,’ that we might almost suppose that the latter title was a confused rendering of the former.”

In the Hindu tradition, the Great Bear (saptariksha) is the abode of the seven Rishi; identifying Kratu with the star Dubhe; Pulaha with Merak; Pulastya with Phecda; Atri with Megrez; Angiras with Alioth; Vasishtha with Mizar; Bhrigu with Alkaid. [

Ursa Major represents Callisto (Kallisto) as the Great Bear. Callisto from Greek kalos, or kallos, beautiful, from the Indo-European root *kal, ‘Beautiful’. Derivatives: Callisto, calomel, kaleidoscope, (these words from Greek kalos, beautiful), calligraphy, Calliope (the Muse of epic poetry), hemercallis (the day-lily),’ calisthenics‘, from Greek kallos, beauty. [Pokorny 2. kal– 524. Watkins

Kaleidoscope literally means ‘observer of beautiful forms’, ‘a complex, colorful, and shifting pattern or scene’, or, ‘a complex set of events or circumstances’. The word might relate to this explanation of how this constellation Ursa Major appears to us as explained by Julius Staal:

“The bear is a quadruped but is able to stand upright on two legs and move about like a human being. Much mythological significance has been ascribed to this similarity between the posture and movement of humans and bears. The daily circumpolar movement of Ursa Major is simple, easy to observe, and can be imagined readily as similar to the shifting movement of a bear changing regularly from quadrupedal to bipedal to quadrupedal posture. As Ursa Major makes its daily transit around the Pole star, it gives the appearance of a bear running on all fours when it is near the lower culmination of its transit. However, a few hours after lowest culmination the quadrangle gradually rises into an upright position, just as a real bear would do as it stands up in its cumbersome way” (The New Patterns in the Sky, Julius D.W. Staal).

The female bear archetype might represent the ‘fallen woman’ in society, bears have loud passionate ‘love affairs’ and then part company leaving the female pregnant and alone. This was the experience of Callisto who was a hunting partner in Artemis’ virgin group. After she became pregnant by Zeus Callisto was cast out and turned into a bear (Ursa Major, the Great Bear) for her sexual transgressions against that society’s mores. Olcott (p.353) tells of a legend; “this constellation represented a Princess, transformed into a bear on account of her pride in rejecting all suitors. For this her skin was nailed to the sky as a warning to other proud maidens.” Female bears stay with their bear lovers for a period of time and studies have found that it is often the female that rejects the male causing him to leave her, also knowing he could harm the cubs.

“Linguists hypothesize that in old common Germanic, the true name of the bear was under a taboo — not to be spoken directly. The exact details of the taboo are not known. Did it apply to hunters who were hunting the bear and did not want to warn it? Or to hunters hunting other animals and did not wanting to rile up the bear and have it steal their prey? Or did it apply to anyone who did not want to summon the bear by its name and perhaps become its prey? Whatever the details, the taboo worked so well that no trace of the original *rtko– word remains in Germanic languages, except as borrowed historically in learned words from Greek or Latin. The Greeks and Romans apparently had a more laid-back relationship with the bear, perhaps because there were relatively few encounters, and preserved the ancient name”. http://www.cloudline.org/LinguisticArchaeology.html

Speculating on the word dub: Dabu, was the Babylonian name the Great Bear constellation []. A bear is Hebrew Dobh, the name for this constellation; Phoenician Dub; and Arabian Al Dubb. The English verb ‘to dub‘ means to give another name or nickname, or give a new title or description. Because of the taboo of calling a bear a bear, bears were dubbed with various descriptive titles in European languages.

Helice representing Ursa Major, and Melissa (honey or honey bee), or Cynosura, representing Ursa Minor, were the nurses of the baby Zeus. The Latin name Helice and its Greek cognates seems to have been the most common title for this constellation with both Greeks and Romans. Of the name Helice Allen in Star Names says that in Greece Ursa Major was referred to as Elix (with the dropped), meaning curved, or spiral (helix), and Elike, Homer’s Elikopes, apparently first used for the constellation by Aratos (310 BC – 240 BC). Some, however, derived the name from the curved or twisted position of the chief stars; and others, still more probably, from the city Helice, Kallisto’s birthplace in Arcadia [Star Names, see below] (ancient Helike a city on Gulf of Corinth lost in a tidal wave in 373 BC was rediscovered in 2001). The Roman poet Ovid used this title, Helice, in the Fasti, where he wrote of both the Bears, in navigation. Manilius (see below) also called it Helice. The word helix and the Greek name Helice comes from Greek elix, meaning a helix form, or revolving form, from the Indo-European root *wel- ‘To turn, roll’. Derivatives: waltz, welter, whelk¹ (marine snail), whelk, willow (Salix), walk, well¹ (a water hole), wallet, wale (a weal or welt), wallow, vault¹ (an arched structure), voluble, volume, volute, archivolt, circumvolve, convolve, devolve, evolve, evolution (to unroll as one unrolled a scroll), involve, revolve, (these words from Latin volvere, to roll), convolution, devolution, evolution, revolt, revolution, vulva (the external genital organs of the female, including the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, and vestibule of the vagina), valve, ileus (from Greek eilein), vale¹, valley (a vulva metaphor), Helen (from the Greek name Helen, oldest form Welen), helicon, helix, helicopter, (theses words from Greek helix, spiral object), Mt. Helicon (the legendary abode of the Muses), heliculture (snail farming), helical (spiral shaped), helico– (spiral), helminth (a worm, especially a parasitic roundworm or tapeworm) [Pokorny 7. wel– 1140. Watkins

“There the revolving Bear, which the Wain they call” [The shield of Achilles, in Sir John Herschel’s rendering: Allen, Star Names

“The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye”. [Pope rendered the original the Northern Team, and the lines on Orion: Allen, Star Names

The bear is a quadruped but is able to stand upright on two legs and walk (from *wel- ) like a human being.

Maybe it is because the word Helice is a cognate with the word vulva that made it so taboo to call the bear by its real name?

“The vulva is so called as if it were a folding-door, that is, the door of the belly; either because it receives the semen or because the fetus goes forth from it.” [The Aberdeen Bestiary

Hellas in Greece is bordering Arcadia; Arcadia was named after Callisto’s son Arcas of Ursa Minor

Hellas is so called from king Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha; from him the Greeks first took the name Hellenes. This is the same territory as Attica, earlier called ‘Acte.’ There was a certain Granus, a native of Greece, after whose daughter’s name, Attis, Attica was named. It lies in the middle between Macedonia and Achaea, connected to Arcadia on its northern side. This is the true Greece, where the city of Athens was located, the mother of the liberal arts and the nurse of philosophers; there was nothing nobler and more illustrious in all of Greece” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.290.]`

John F. Blake (Astronomical Myths, 1877, p.63.) said the word “Ursa is said to be derived from versus, because the constellation is seen to turn about the pole. It has been called the Screw (Greek Elike), or Helix, which has plainly reference to its turning.” [The words ursa and versus are not recognized as etymological relatives. Versus comes from I.E. wer

Perhaps Helen [from *wel- above] of Troy, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ [I have not seen her identified with any constellation]. Callisto is from Greek kalos, or kallos, meaning ‘beautiful’.

Greek kalos, or kallos, is usually translated ‘beautiful’ in English. Kalos is a common word in the Greek language, but does not appear to have cognates in other languages, except’ Old Indian kalyah, ‘healthy’. Here is a suggestion that the word is related to health:

‘”One word, then, let us take as the representative of Greek feeling — a word very small and not at all picturesque, but enshrining within itself all that is essentially and peculiarly Hellenic — to kallos, ‘beauty.’ In its origin Curtius connects the word with the Gothic hails ( = hale, ‘sound’) and from the frequency with which the word itself and the prefix kalli are applied to streams of running water, it is not unreasonable to suppose that in the beginning personal beauty meant simply health’… This meaning holds good for more than one of the kallos family – kallyno, e.g., signifies not only ‘adorn’ but ‘cleanse’ ‘…..” [The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece, 1903, djvu 138, p.104′.]

Gothic hails ( = hale, ‘sound’)’ comes from’ the Indo-European root *kailo-  ‘Whole, uninjured, of good omen’. Derivatives: hale¹ (free from infirmity or illness), whole, wholesome, hail² (to salute or greet), wassail (to drink to the health of; toast), health, heal (Middle English helen, from Old English haelan), holy, holiday, hollyhock, (these words from Old English halig, holy, sacred), hollytree (genus Ilex), Hollywood, hallow (to make or set apart as holy), Allhallowmas (all Saints’ Day), Halloween (from Old English halgian, to consecrate, bless), Helga, Helge (Old Norse ‘Holy One’), Oleg, Olga, from Old Norse Helge (feminine Helga), ‘holy’. [Pokorny kai-lo- 520. Watkins] [Indo-European and Sanskrit /k/ becomes European /h/] 

“The first of the signs is Arctos, which, fixed on the pole, rotates with its seven stars revolving around it. Its name is Greek (i.e. arktos, ‘bear’), and in Latin it is called the Bear (Ursa). Because it turns like a wagon, we call it the Septentriones (i.e. septem, ‘seven’ + triones). For triones, strictly speaking, are plowing oxen, so called because they tread (terere) the soil, as if the word were teriones. Their proximity to the pole causes them not to set, because they are on the pole.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.104.]

[Isidore sees a link between the words Taurus and Latin terra, earth. The plowing oxen are treading (terere) the earth (not the planet earth?).]

Ursa Major represents the Great Mother Bear, and the adjacent constellation, Ursa Minor, represents her son Arcas. Little bear cubs are born very small, about 500th of the mother’s weight (essentially an embryo, not a foetus), and in legend it was believed that it was born as a shapeless lump of flesh which the mother bear (Ursa Major) shapes into its proper form by licking it, and this is said be the origin of the expression ‘to lick into shape’; to give proper form to.

“The bear (ursus) is said to be so called because it shapes its offspring in its ‘own mouth’ (oresuo), as if the word were orsus, for people say that it produces unshaped offspring, and gives birth to some kind of flesh that the mother forms into limbs by licking it. Whence this is said (Petronius, Anthol. Latina, ed. Riese, 690.3): ‘Thus with her tongue the bear shapes her offspring when she has borne it’. But prematurity is what causes this kind of offspring; the bear gives birth after at most thirty days, whence it happens that its hurried gestation creates unshaped offspring. Bears have weak heads; their greatest strength is in their forepaws and loins, whence they sometimes stand up erect” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.252.]

Isidore says that bear (ursus) is from ‘own mouth’ (oresuo), as if the word were orsus. Latin orsus, ‘beginning’, is related to ordiri, ‘order‘ [], and to the word ‘art‘, from the Indo-European root *ar-, ‘To fit together’ [], and also to the word ‘harmony‘, from Greek harma, a chariot, and this constellation was known as Arthur’s Chariot or Wain. The mother bear is essentially an artist, she employs artwork to shape her formless offspring into its proper form by licking it. Celtic words for ‘bear’ are art or artos (identical to the Greek arct, and arctos).

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

“Now when, after completing a revolution round the pole, the Bear (Ursa Major) with muzzle foremost replaces her unceasing steps in her former tracks, never immersed in Ocean but ever turning in a circle, to those born at such a time wild creatures will show no hostile face, and in their dealings with animals these men will find them submissive to their rule. Such a one will be able to control huge lions with a gesture, to fondle wolves, and to play with captive panthers; so far from shunning the powerful bears that are the kin of the constellation, he will train them to human accomplishments and feats foreign to their nature; he will seat himself on the elephant’s back and with a goad will direct the movements of a beast which disgraces its massive weight by yielding to tiny jabs; he will dispel the fury of the tiger, training it to become a peaceful animal, whilst all the other beasts which molest the earth with their savageness he will join in friendship to himself; keen-scented whelps he will train…” [here the translator notes that eight pages have been lost] [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, book 5, p.357, 359]

“Now where heaven reaches its culmination in the shining Bears, which from the summit of the sky look down on all the stars and know no setting and, shifting their opposed stations about the same high point, set sky and stars in rotation, from there an insubstantial axis runs down through the wintry air and controls the universe, keeping it pivoted at opposite poles: it forms the middle about which the starry sphere revolves and wheels its heavenly flight, but is itself without motion and, drawn straight through the empty spaces of the great sky to the two Bears and through the very globe of the Earth, stands fixed, since the entire atmosphere ever revolves in a circle, and every part of the whole rotates to the place from which it once began, that which is in the middle, about which all moves, so insubstantial that it cannot turn round upon itself or even submit to motion or spin in circular fashion, this men have called the axis, since, motionless itself, it yet sees everything spinning about it. The top of the axis is occupied by constellations well known to hapless mariners, guiding them over the measureless deep in their search for gain. Helice (Ursa Major), the greater, describes the greater arc; it is marked by seven stars which vie with each other under its guidance the ships of Greece set sail to cross the seas. Cynosura [Ursa Minor] is small and wheels round in a narrow circle, less in brightness as it is in size, but in the judgment of the Tyrians it excels the larger bear. Carthaginians count it the surer-guide when at sea they make for unseen shores. They are not set face to face: each with its muzzle points at the other’s tail and follows one that follows it. Sprawling between them and embracing each the Dragon separates and surrounds them with its glowing stars lest they ever meet or leave their stations.” [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, book 1, p.27, 29].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Ursa Major
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
pi 2 (π 21CAN26 22CAN49 08 40 12.8 +64° 19′ 40″ +44 01 20 4.76 K2
Muscida omicron (ο) 21CAN36 23CAN00 08 30 15.9 +60° 43′ 05″ +40 14 22 3.47 G1
h (23 UMa) 29CAN26 00LEO49 9h 31m 31.7s +63° 3′ 43″ +45 09 45 3.75 A4
Talitha (Borealis) iota (ι) 01LEO25 02LEO48 8h 59m 12.4s +48° 02′ 30″ +29 34 30 3.12 A4
kappa (κ) (Talitha Australis) 02LEO33 03LEO56 9h 3m 37.5s +47° 09′ 24″ +28 58 31 3.68 B9
upsilon (υ) 04LEO53 06LEO16 09 50 59.4 +59° 02′ 19″ +42 39 04 3.89 A6
theta (θ) 05LEO53 07LEO16 09 32 51.4 +51° 40′ 38″ +34 54 11 3.26 F6
phi (φ) 07LEO58 09LEO21 09 52 06.4 +54° 03′ 52″ +38 15 22 4.54 A3
Dubhe alpha (α) 13LEO47 15LEO12 11h 3m 43.7s +61° 45′ 3″ +49 40 39 1.95 K0
Merak beta (β) 18LEO02 19LEO26 11 01 50.5 +56° 22′ 57.″ +45 07 41 2.44 A1
Tania Borealis lambda (λ) 18LEO09 19LEO33 10 17 05.8 +42° 54′ 52″ +29 52 58 3.53 A2
Tania Australis mu (μ) 19LEO50 21LEO14 10 22 19.7 +41° 29′ 58″ +28 59 40 3.21 M0
psi (ψ) 27LEO26 28LEO49 11 09 39.8 +44° 29′ 55″ +35 32 07 3.15 K1
Phecda gamma (γ) 29LEO04 00VIR29 11 53 49.8 +53° 41′ 41″ +47 08 16 2.54 A1
Megrez delta (δ) 29LEO39 01VIR04 12 15 25.6 +57° 01′ 57″ +51 39 11 3.44 A3
El Kophrah chi (χ) 02VIR15 03VIR40 11h 46m 3s +47° 46′ 46″ +41 32 31 3.85 K1
Alula Boreale nu (ν) 05VIR15 06VIR39 11 18 28.7 +33° 05′ 39″ +26 09 36 3.71 K3
Alula Australe xi (ξ) 05VIR57 07VIR21 11h 18m 11s +31° 31′ 45″ +24 43 58 3.88 G0
Alioth epsilon (ε) 07VIR31 08VIR56 12h 54m 1.7s +55° 57′ 35″ +54 18 58 1.68 A0
Mizar zeta (ζ) 14VIR17 15VIR42 13h 23m 55.5s +54° 55′ 31″ +56 22 37 2.40 A2
Alcor 80 (g) 14VIR27 15VIR52 13h 25m 13.5s +54° 59′ 17″ +56 32 55 4.02 A1
Alkaid eta (η) 25VIR31 26VIR56 13h 47m 32.4s +49° 18′ 48″ +54 23 22 1.91 B3

Hevelius,Firmamentum, 1690

History of the constellation

from Star Names 1889, Richard H. Allen

‘Twas noon of night, when round the pole

The sullen Bear is seen to roll.

—  Thomas Moore’s translation of the Odes of Anacreon.

. . . round and round the frozen Pole Glideth the lean white bear.

—   Robert Williams Buchanan’s BalladofJudasIscariot

UrsaMajor, the Greater Bear the GrandeOurse of the French, the OrsaMaggiore of the Italians, and the GrosseBar of the Germans, always has been the best known of the stellar groups, appearing in every extended reference to the heavens in the legends, parchments, tablets, and stones of remotest times. And Sir George Cornewall Lewis, quoting allusions to it by Aristotle, Strabo, and many other classical writers, thinks, from Homer’s line,

Arctos, sole star that never bathes in the ocean wave

(by reason of precession it then was much nearer the pole than it now is), that this was the only portion of the arctic sky that in the poet’s time had been reduced to constellation form. This statement, however, refers solely to the Greeks; for even before Homer’s day we know that earlier nations had here their own stellar groups; yet we must remember that the Arktos and Amaxa (from ama-axa, ama– “together with”, –axa, meaning axle, the axle is Ursa Minor) of the Iliad and Odyssey consisted of but the seven stars, and that these alone bore those names till Thales formed our Ursa Minor. Later on the figure was enlarged “for the purpose of uranographic completeness,” so that Heis now catalogues 227 components visible to his naked eye, although only 140 appeared to Argelander, down to the 6th magnitude.

It is almost the first object to which the attention of beginners in astronomy is called, — a fact owing partly to its circumpolar position for all points above the 41st parallel rendering it always and entirely visible above that latitude, but very largely to its great extent and to the striking conformation of its prominent stars. It is noticeable, too, that all early catalogues commenced with the two Ursine constellations (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor).

Although the group has many titles and mythical associations, it has almost everywhere been known as a Bear, usually in the feminine, from its legendary origin. All classic writers, from Homer to those in the decline of Roman literature, thus mentioned it, — a universality of consent as to its form which, it has fancifully been said, may have arisen from Aristotle’s idea that its prototype was the only creature that dared invade the frozen North. {Page 420} Yet it is remarkable that the Teutonic nations did not know this stellar group under this shape, although the animal was of course familiar to them and made much of in story and worship. With them these stars were the Wagen, our familiar Wain. Aratos wrote in the Phainomena

Two Bears

Called Wains move round it, either in her place;

Ovid, in the Tristia, Magnaminorqueferae; and Propertius included both in his GemmaeUrsae; while Horace, Vergil, and Ovid, again, called them GelidaeArcti (Glacial Artics). We also meet with Arctoi and Arctoe. The Anglo-Saxon ManualofAstronomy of the 10th century adopted the Greek Arctos, although it adds “which untaught men call Carleswaen“; rare old Ben Jonson, in 1609, in his Epicoene, ortheSilentWoman, called Kallisto

a star MistressUrsula in the heavens;

and La Lande cited Feramajor, FiliaUrsae, and Ursa cum puerulo, referring to Arcas (Ursa Minor).

The well-known, although varied, story of Kallisto,   as old as Hesiod’s time, — who was changed to a bear because of Juno’s jealousy and transferred to the skies by the regard of Jove, has given rise to much poetical allusion from Hesiod’s day till ours, especially among the Latins. In Addison’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where this myth is related, we read that Jove

snatched them [Kallisto (Ursa Major and Arcas (Ursa Minor)] through the air

In whirlwinds up to heaven and fixed them there;

Where the new constellations nightly rise,

And add a luster to the northern skies;

although the dissatisfied Juno still complained that in this location they proudly roll

In their new orbs and brighten all the pole.

This version of the legend turned Kallisto’s son Arcas into Ursa Minor, although he was Bootes; Matthew Arnold correctly writing of the mother and son in his Merope

The Gods had pity, made them Stars.

Stars now they sparkle

In the northern Heaven —

The guard Arcturus

The guard-watched Bear.

{Page 421} Another version substituted her divine mistress Artemis; — also known to the Greeks as Kalliste, the Roman Diana — for the nymph of the celestial transformation; the last Greek word well describing the extreme beauty of this constellation. La Lande, however, referred the title to the Phoenician Kalitsah, or Chalitsa, Safety, as its observation helped to a safe voyage.

Among its names from the old story are Kallisto herself; Lycaonia, LycaoniaPuella, LycaoniaArctos, from her father, or grandfather, king of the aboriginal race that was known as late as Saint Paul’s day, with the distinct dialect alluded to in the ActsoftheApostles, xiv, 11; DianaeComes and PhoebesMiles are from her companionship in arms with that goddess; and it was one of the

arctos oceani metuentes aequore tingi

because Tethys, at Juno’s instigation, had forbidden Kallisto to enter her watery dominions. Yet Camoes, from a lower latitude, wrote of AsUrsas

We saw the Bears, despite of Juno, lave

Their tardy bodies in the boreal wave.

Ovid’s arctosaequorisexpertes; immunemqueaequorisArcton, liquidiqueimmuniaponti, and utraquesicca, were from the fact that, being circumpolar, neither of the Bears sets below the ocean horizon. This was a favorite conceit of the poets, and astronomically correct during millenniums before and centuries after Homer’s day, although not so in recent times as to the Greater, except in high latitudes. Chaucer reproduced this in his rendering of the DeConsolationePhilosophiae by Boetius, whom he styles Boece:

Ne the sterre y-cleped “the Bere,” that enclyneth his ravisshinge courses abouten the soverein heighte of the worlde, ne the same sterre Ursa nis never-mo wasshen in the depe westrene see, ne coveiteth nat to deyen his flaumbe in the see of the occian, al-thogh he see other sterres y-plounged in the see;

our Bryant rendering this idea:

The Bear that sees star setting after star

In the blue brine, descends not to the deep.

Poetical titles induced by the legend of Arcas were VirgoNonacrina and TegeaeaVirgo, from the Arcadian towns Nonacris and Tegea; Erymanthis, perhaps the Erymanthian Boar that Hercules slew, but more probably the ErymanthianBear (the male of a bear is called a boar); MaenaliaArctos, Maenalis, and MaenalisUrsa, from those mountains; Parrhasis, ParrhasiaVirgo, and ParrhasidesStellae, from {Page 422} the tribe, although Pluche went farther back for this to the Phoenician pilots’ Parrasis, the Guiding Star, — the Hebrews’ Pharashah. Sophocles wrote of it in the Oedipus as ArcadiumSidus, referring to the whole country of Arcadia, the Switzerland of Greece, famous in the classical world for its wild mountain scenery; and very early silver coins of Mantinea showed the Bear as mother of the patron god.

Such has been the myth of this constellation current for at least three millenniums; but Mueller discards it all, and says: “The legend of Kallisto, the beloved of Zeus and mother of Arkas, has nothing to do with the original meaning of the stars. On the contrary, Kallisto was supposed to have been changed into the Arktos or Greater Bear because she was the mother of Arkas, that is to say, of the Arcadian or bear race, and her name, or that other son, reminded the Greeks of their long established name of the northern constellation”. [Allen notes at bottom of page: Lucian, in DeAstrologia, wrote that “the Arcadians were an ignorant people and despised astronomy”; and Ovid graphically described their great antiquity and primitive mode of life, well justifying their title of the Bear Race, his lines being quaintly translated by Gower: “Therefore they naked run in sign and honour Of hardiness and that old bare-skinned manner.” ]

Aratos’ version of the legend, from very ancient Naxian tradition, made the two Bears the Cretan nurses of the infant Jupiter, afterwards raised to heaven for their devotion to their charge. From this came the CretaeaesiveArctoe of Germanicus; but Lewis said: “This fable is inconsistent with the natural history of the island; for the ancients testify that Crete never contained any bears or other noxious animals.”

Subsequent story changed the nurses into the Cretan nymphs Helice and Melissa (Ursa Minor). Hyginus and Germanicus also used the masculine form Ursus as well as Arctus

DipperThe Hebrew word ‘Ash or ‘Ayish in the BookofJob, ix, 9, and xxxviii, 32, supposed to refer to the Square in this constellation as a Bier, not a Bear, was translated Arcturus by Saint Jerome in the Vulgate: and this was adopted in the version of 1611 authorized by King James. Hence the popular belief that the Bible mentions our star alpha Bootes (Arcturus); but Umbreit had already corrected this to “the Bear and her young,” and in the Revision of 1885 the patriarch talks to us of “the Bear with her train,” these latter being represented by the three tail stars [the bier was marked by the Plough or Big Dipper stars on the body of the Bear  – Merak (beta), Dubhe (alpha), Phecda (gamma) and Megrez (delta). The coffin was followed by “Mourners”; the three big stars on the tail of the Great Bear; epsilon (Alioth), zeta (Mizar), and eta (Alkaid).]. Von Herder strangely rendered the first of these passages “Libra and the Pole Star, the Seven Stars “;

but the second, more correctly, as “the Bear with her young” feeding around the pole; or, by another tradition, the nightly wanderer, a mother of the stars seeking her lost children, — those that no longer are visible. The {Page 423} BreechesBible has this marginal note to its word Arcturus: “The North Star, with those that are about him.”

Hebrew observers called the constellation Dobh; Phoenician, Dub; and Arabian, AlDubbalAkbar, the Greater Bear, — Dubhelacbar with Bayer and DubAlacber with Chilmead, — all of these perhaps adopted from Greece. Caesius cited the “Mohammedans'” Dubbe, Dubhe, and Dubon; and Robert Browning, in his JochananHakkadosh, repeated these as Dob

But whence came the same idea into the minds of our North American Indians? Was it by accident? or is it evidence of a common origin in the far antiquity of Asia ? The conformation of the seven stars in no way resembles the animal, — indeed the contrary; yet they called them Okuari and Paukunawa, words for a “bear,” before they were visited by the white men, as is attested by Le Clercq in 1691, by the Reverend Cotton Mather in 1712, by the Jesuit missionary La Fitau in 1724, and by the French traveler Charlevoix in 1744. And Bancroft wrote in his history of our country:

The red men . . . did not divide the heavens, nor even a belt in the heavens, into constellations. It is a curious coincidence, that among the Algonquins of the Atlantic and of the Mississippi, alike among the Narragansetts and the Illinois, the North Star was called the Bear.

In justice, however, to their familiarity with a bear’s anatomy, it should be said that the impossible tail of our Ursa was to them either ThreeHunters, or a HunterwithhistwoDogs, in pursuit of the creature; the star Alcor being the pot in which they would cook her. They thus avoided the incongruousness of the present astronomical ideas of Bruin’s make-up, although their cooking-utensil was inadequate. The Housatonic Indians, who roamed over that valley from Pittsfield through Lenox and Stockbridge to Great Barrington, said that this chase of the stellar Bear lasted from the spring till the autumn, when the animal was wounded and its blood plainly seen in the foliage of the forest.

The long tail of the Bear, a queer appendage to a comparatively tailless animal, is thus accounted for by old Thomas Hood in his didactic style:


I marvel why (seeing she hath the form of a bear) her tail should be so long.


Imagine that Jupiter, fearing to come too nigh unto her teeth, lay hold on her tail, and thereby drew her up into the heaven; so that she of herself being very weighty, and the distance from the earth to the heavens very great, there was great likelihood that her tail must stretch. Other reason know I none.{Page 424} My friend the Reverend Doctor Robert M. Luther of Newark, New Jersey, tells me that a similar story was current with the Pennsylvania Germans of forty years ago. The same “weightie” reason will apply equally well to the Smaller Bear (Ursa Minor); indeed the latter’s tail is even proportionately longer, although the kink in it takes a different turn. It is probably this association of these Seven Stars with our aborigines that has given them the occasional title of the SevenLittleIndians

Trevisa derived the title thus: “alwey thoo sterres wyndeth and turneth rounde aboute that lyne, that is calde Axis, as a bere aboute the stake. And therefore that cercle is clepid the more bere.” Boteler borrowed this for his Hudibras‘:

And round about the pole does make

A circle like a bear at stake.

The great epic of the Finns, the Kalewala, makes much of this constellation, styling it Otawa and Otawamen, in which Miss Clerke sees likeness to the names used by our aborigines for “the great Teutonic King of beasts.” But that people also said that the Bear stars, and especially the pole-star (Polaris), were young and beautiful maidens highly skilled in spinning and weaving, — a story originating from a fancied resemblance of their rays of light to a weaver’s web.

The CenturyDictionary has a theory as to the origin of the idea of a Bear for these seven stars, doubtless from its editor, Professor Whitney, that seems plausible, — at all events, scholarly. It is that their Sanskrit designation, Riksha, signifies, in two different genders, “a Bear,” and “a Star,” “Bright,” or “to shine,” —  hence a title, the Seven Shiners, — so that it would appear to have come, by some confusion of sound, of the two words among a people not familiar with the animal. Later on Riksha was confounded with the word Rishi, and so connected with the Seven Sages, or Poets, of India [identifying Kratu with the star Dubhe; Pulaha with Merak; Pulastya with Phecda; Atri with Megrez; Angiras with Alioth; Vasishtha with Mizar; Bhrigu with Alkaid. []]; afterwards with the Seven Wise Men of Greece, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the Seven Champions of Christendom, etc.; while the Seven Stars of early authors, as often used for Ursa Major as for the Pleiades, certainly is much more appropriate to the Ursine figure than to the Taurine. Minsheu had “the Seven Starres called Charles Waine in the North,” and three centuries earlier Chaucer wrote of “the sterres seven” with manifest reference to this constellation. The Kalewala (Kalevala) had the equivalent Seitsen tahtinen; the Portuguese Camoes, Sete Flammas; and the Turks, Yidigher Yilduz.

Hewitt says that these seven stars at first were known in India as Seven Bears, although also as Seven Antelopes, and again as Seven Bulls, the latter merged into one, the Great Spotted Bull, as the Seven Bears also {Page 425} were into Ursa Major, with our Arcturus for their keeper; and he gives their individual titles as Kratu for alpha, Pulaha for beta, Pulastya for gamma, Atri for delta, Angiras for epsilon, and Marici for eta, the six sons of Brahma, who himself was Vashishtha, the star zeta. The VishnuDharma, however, claimed Atri as their ruler; indeed, there seems to be much variance in Sanskrit works as to the identity of these stars and titles.

When the figure of the Bear was extended to its present dimensions, four times as great as Homer’s Arktos, we do not know, and, to quote again from Miss Clerke,

we can only conjecture; but there is evidence that it was fairly well established when Aratos wrote his description of the constellations. [He stretched it over Gemini, Cancer, and Leo] Aratos, however, copied Eudoxus, and Eudoxus used observations made —  doubtless by Accad or Chaldaean astrologers — above 2000 B.C. We infer, then, that the Babylonian Bear was no other than the modern Ursa Major. . . . Thus, circling the globe from the valley of the Ganges to the great lakes of the New World, we find ourselves confronted with the same sign in the northern skies, the relic of some primeval association of ideas, long since extinct. Extinct even in Homer’s time.

And Achilles Tatios distinctly asserted that it was from Chaldaea. But Brown thinks, in regard to the identity of the archaic and modern constellations of this name in that country, that at present there is no real evidence to connect the KakkabuDabi (or Dabu, the Babylonian Bear) with the Plough or Wain, still less with Ursa Major; and identifies the latter with the Euphratean BelmeKhira, the Confronter of Bel, — Berlin, with Bel himself. A group of seven stars is often shown on the cylinders from Babylonia, Lajard’s CultedeMithra giving many instances of this, although the reference may have been to the Pleiades; while it is Sayce’s suggestion that perhaps “the god seven,” so frequently mentioned in the inscriptions, is connected with Ursa Major.

Among the adjacent Syrians it was a WildBoar, and in the stars of the feet of our Bear (now Leo Minor) the early nomads saw the tracks of their Ghazal (gazelle). Similarly, in the far North, it has been the Sarw of the Lapps, their familiar Reindeer, the Los of the Ostiaks, and the Tukto of the Greenlanders.

Smyth wrote in his SpeculumHartwelliauum: “King Arthur, the renowned hero of the Mabinogion, typified the Great Bear; as his name, — Arth, bear, and Uthyr, wonderful, — implies in the Welsh language; and the constellation, visibly describing a circle in the North Polar regions of the sky, may possibly have been the true origin of the Son of Pendragon’s famous Round Table, the earliest institution of a military order of knighthood.”

{Page 426} Whatever may be the fact in this speculation, we know that the early English placed King Arthur’s home here, and that the people of Great Britain long called it Arthur’s Chariot or Wain, which appears in the LayoftheLastMinstrel

Arthur’s slow wain his course doth roll,

In utter darkness, round the pole.

In Ireland it has been KingDavidChariot, from one of that island’s early kings; in France, the Great Chariot, and it was seen on Gaulish coins. The Anglo-Norman poet De Thaun of the 12th century had it Charere; and La Lande cited the more modern laRoue, the Wheel. Occasionally it has been called the Car of Bootes.

And this carries us back to another of the earliest titles for our constellation, the Amaxa, Wain or Wagon, Riccioli’s Amaxa, of the Iliad and Odyssey, that Homer used equally with Arktos, although with the same limitation to the seven stars. Describing the shield made by Hephaistos for Achilles, the poet said, in Sir John Herschel’s rendering:

There the revolving Bear, which the Wain they call, was ensculptured,

Circling on high, and in all its course regarding Orion;

Sole of the starry train which refuses to bathe in the Ocean;

which I have quoted, in preference to others more rhythmical, from the interest that we all feel in the translator as an astronomer, although but little known as a poet. Homer repeated this in the 5th book of the Odyssey, where Ulixes, in Bryant’s translation, is

Gazing with fixed eye on the Pleiades,

Bootes setting late and the Great Bear,

By others called the Wain, which wheeling round,

Looks ever toward Orion and alone

Dips not into the waters of the deep.

For so Calypso, glorious goddess, bade

That, on his ocean journey, he should keep

That constellation ever on his left;

Ithaca, whither he was bound, lying due east from Calypso’s isle, Orgygia. Pope rendered the original the NorthernTeam, and the lines on Orion:

To which, around the axle of the sky,

The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye.

These passages clearly show the early use of the Wain stars in Greek navigation before Cynosura (Polaris) was known to them; as Aratos wrote:

{Page 427}

By it on the deep

Achaians gather where to sail their ships;

Ovid imitating this in the Fasti and Tristia. Orion seems to have been often joined in this use, for Apollonius wrote:

The watchful sailor, to Orion’s star

And Helice, turned heedful.

Aratos called the constellation the “Wain-like Bear “; and, alluding to the title Amaxa, asserted that the word was from ama, “together,” the Amaxai, thus circling together around the pole; but no philologist accepts this, and it might as well have come from axon, “axle,” referring to the axis of the heavens. In fact, Hewitt goes far back of Aratos in his statement that the Sanskrit god Akshivan, the Driver of the Axle (Aksha), was adopted in Greece as Ixion, whose well-known wheel was merely the circling course of this constellation. Anacreon mentioned it as a Chariot as well as a Bear; and Hesychios had it Aganna, an archaic word from agein, “to carry,” singularly like, in orthography at least, the Akkadian title for the Wain stars, Aganna, or Akanna, the Lord of Heaven; and Aben Ezra called it Ajala, the Hebrew word for “wagon.”

The Romans expressed the same idea in their Currus; Plaustrum, [The Latin plaustrum, originally a two-wheeled ox-cart, appears in the DeReRustics of Cato Censorius as plaustrummaius for one with four wheels.] or Plostrum, magnum; with the diminutive Plaustricula, which Capella (alpha Auriga) turned into Plaustriluca, imitating the “Noctiluca” used by Horace for the moon. Apollinaris Sidonius, the Christian writer of the 6th century, called the constellation PlaustraParrhasis; and Rycharde Eden wrote it Plastrum,

al the sterres cauled Plastrum or Charles Wayne, are hydde under the Northe pole to the canibals.

In all these, of course, reference was made to the seven stars only, Bartschius plainly showing this on his chart, where he outlines them, with the title Plaustrum, included within the limits of the much larger Ursa Major.

The Italians have Cataletto, a Bier, and Carro; and the Portuguese Camoes wrote it Carreta. The Danes, Swedes, and Icelanders knew it as StoriVagn, the Great Wagon, and as KarlsVagn; Karl being Thor, their greatest god, of whom the old Swedish RhymeChronicle, describing the statues in the church [It is in this church, or cathedral, that the great Linnaeus lies buried, and over its south porch is sculptured the Hebrew story of the Creation. ] at Upsala, says: {Page 428} “The God Thor was the highest of them; He sat naked as a child, Seven stars in his hand and Charles’s Wain.”

The Goths similarly called the seven stars KarlWagen, which has descended to modern Germans as Wagen and HimmelWagen, the last with the story that it represents theChariotinwhichElijahjourneyedtoheaven. But in the heathen times of the northern nations it was the WagonofOdin, Woden, or Wuotan, the father of Thor, and the IrminesWagen of the Saxons. Grimm cites Herwagen, probably the Horwagen of Bayer and the Hurwagen of Caesius; while a common English name now is the Waggon. The Poles call it WozNiebeski, the Heavenly Wain. In all these similes the three tail stars of our Bear were the three draught-horses in line. The royal poet King James wrote:

Heir shynes the charlewain, there the Harp gives light,

And heir the Seamans Starres, and there Twinnis bright.

This old and still universally popular title, CharlesWain, demands more than mere mention. It has often been derived from the Saxon ceorl, the carle of mediaeval times, our churl, and thus the “peasant’s cart “; but this is incorrect, and the NewEnglishDictionary has an exhaustive article on the words, well worthy of repetition here:

CharlesWain. Forms; carles-waen, Cherlemaynes-wayne, Charlmons wayn, carle wen-sterre, carwaynesterre, Charel-wayn, Charlewayn, Charle wane, Charles wayne or waine, Charles or Carol’s wain(e), Charlemagne or Charles his wane, wain(e), Charle-waine, Charl-maigne Wain, Charles’s Wain. [OE. Carleswaegn, the wain (amaxa, plaustrum) of Carl (Charles the Great, Charlemagne). The name appears to arise out of the verbal association of the star-name Arcturus with Arturus or Arthur, and the legendary association of Arthur and Charlemagne; so that what was originally the wain of Arcturus or Bootes (‘Bootes’ golden wain,’ Pope) became at length the wain of Carl or Charlemagne.  (The guess churl or carlewain has been made in ignorance of the history.)]

As the name Arcturus was formerly sometimes applied loosely to the constellation Bootes, and incorrectly to the Great Bear, the name Carlewaynesterre occurs applied to the star Arcturus (alpha Bootes).

The editor cites from various authors since the year 1000, when he finds Carleswaen, and quotes from Sir John Davies, the philosophical poet of the Elizabethan age:

Those bright starres

Which English Shepheards, Charles his waine, do name;

But more this He is Charles, his waine,

Since Charles her royal wagoner became;

and from John Taylor, “the King’s water-poet,” of 1630: {Page 429}

Charles his Cart (which we by custome call Charles his wane) is most gloriously stellifide.

The list ends with a quotation from J. F. Blake, of 1876, who even at this late day had KingCharlesWain. This connection of these Seven Stars with England’s kings was due to the courtiers of Charles I and II, who claimed it as in their masters’ honor, and elsewhere occurs, William Bas, or Basse, about 1650, having, in OldTomofBeulam

Bid Charles make ready his waine;

James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, in the QueenWake of 1813:

Charles re-yoked his golden wain;

and Tom Hood, of fifty years ago:

looking at that Wain of Charles, the Martyr’s.

This is from the Comet, the humorous AstronomicalAnecdote of the great Sir William Herschel, whom the poet called the “be-knighted,” and further described as

like a Tom of Coventry, sly peeping,

At Dian sleeping;

Or ogling thro’ his glass

Some heavenly lass

Tripping with pails along the Milky Way.

CoverdaleBible alludes to it and its companion as the WaynesofHeaven, which Edmund Becke, in his edition of 1549, transforms into Vaynes, and Cadmarden, in his Rouen edition of 1515, into the WavesofHeaven. Dutch and German versions have WagenamHimmel; the Saxon versions, WaenesThisl, or Wagon-pole; and this idea of a wagon, or its parts and its driver, is seen in all the Northern tongues where the Bear is not recognized. Grimm’s TeutonicMythology is very full as to this branch of the stellar Wain’s nomenclature.

Pleiada, the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew ‘Ash, is manifestly incorrect, but may have misled the later Rabbis who applied this last word to the group in Taurus (the Pleiades). The PeshittaSyriacVersion translates the Mazzaroth (constellation) of the BookofJob by ‘galta, meaning our Wain.

The 15th-century German manuscript so often alluded to mentions it as the SouthernTramontane, a title more fully treated under Ursa Minor; and Vespucci, in his 3dLettera, wrote of the two Bears:

{Page 430}

La stella tramontana o l’orsa maggiore & minore.

Both of these have been — perhaps still are — night clocks to the English rustic, and measures of time generally, as in Poe’s Ulalume, “star-dials that pointed to morn.” Shakespeare’s Carrier at the Rochester inn-yard said:

An’t be not four by the day, I’ll be hanged; Charles Wain is over the new chimney, and yet our horse not pack’d;

Tennyson, in his touching NewYearEve

We danced about the May-pole and in the hazel copse,

Till Charles’s Wain came out above the tall white chimney tops;

and again, in the Princess

I paced the terrace, till the Bear had wheei’d

Thro’ a great arc his seven slow suns.

Spenser, in the FaerieQueen, thus refers to the Wain as a timepiece, and to Polaris as a guide:

By this the northern wagoner had set

His sevenfold teme behind the steadfast starre

That was in ocean waves never yet wet

But firme is fixt, and sendith light from farre

To all that in the wide deep wandering arre.

Its well-known use by the early Greeks in navigation was paralleled in the deserts of Arabia, “through which,” according to Diodorus the Sicilian, “travellers direct their course by the Bears, in the same manner as is done at sea.” They serve this same purpose to the Badawiyy of to-day, as Mrs. Sigourney describes in TheStars, writing of Polaris:

The weary caravan, with chiming bells,

Making strange music ‘mid the desert sands,

Guides by thy pillared fires its nightly march.

Sophocles made a similar statement of the Bear as directing travelers generally; Falstaff, in KingHenryIV, said:

We that take purses go by the moon and the seven stars;

and the modern Keats, in his RobinHood

the seven stars to light you,

Or the polar ray to right you.

{Page 431} But the astrologers of Shakespeare’s time ascribed to it evil influences, which Edmund, in KingLear, commented upon with ridicule:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, (often the surfeit of our own behavior), we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, —

claiming that his own

nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous.

Both of the Bears have been frequently found on the old sign-boards of English inns, and, in a more important way, are emblazoned on the shields of the cities of Antwerp and Groningen in the Netherlands.

The Plough has been a common title with the English down to the present time, even with so competent a scientist as Miss Clerke, one of the few astronomical writers who still continue the use of the good old names of stars and constellations. She, however, takes the three line stars as the Handle, not the Team. Minsheu mentioned it in the same way, but added utplacetastrologisdiciturTemo, . . the Beam, a term originating with Quintus Ennius, the Father of Roman Song, adopted by Cicero, Ovid, Statius, and Varro, and common with the astrologers. Fale, in 1593, described it as called “of countrymen the plough,” the first instance in print that I have found. Thus it was, perhaps still is, the Irish Camcheacta. Hewitt sees this Heavenly Plough even in prehistoric India, and quotes from Sayce the title Sugi, the Wain, which later became Libra’s name as the Yoke.

With the Wain and Plough naturally came the PloughOxen, the Triones of Varro, Aulus Gellius, and the Romans generally, turned by the grammarians into Teriones, the Threshing-oxen, walking around the threshing-floor of the pole. Martial qualified these by hyperboreiOdrysu and Parrhasii, but also called the constellation ParrhasiumJugum; and Claudian, inoccidui, “never setting.” Cicero, with contemporary and later Latin writers, said Septem– or Septentriones, as did the long-haired Iopas in his Aeneid song of the two Northern Cars; and Propertius wrote of them:

Flectant Icaru sidera tarda boves;

while Claudian designated them as pigri; all of which remind us of similar epithets for their driver Bootes.

Septentrio seems to have been applied to either constellation (Ursa major and Ursa Minor); and Dante used it for the Minor, with a beautiful simile, in his Purgatorio. Eventually it became a term for the north pole and the north wind; then for the North {Page 432} generally, as the word Arctic has from the stellar Arktos. Dante had settentrionalesito; Chaucer spoke of the “Septentrioun” as a compass point; Shakespeare, in KingHenryVI

as the South to the Septentrion;

Michael Drayton, the friend of Shakespeare and poet laureate in 1626, wrote in the PolyOlbion of “septentrion cold“; Milton, in ParadiseRegained, of “cold Septentrion blasts blasts“; and, in our day, Owen Meredith in the Wanderer has “beyond the blue Septentrions“; while the word seems current as an adjective in nearly all modem languages. Still there is nothing new in all this, for in the Avesta the Seven Stars marked the North in the four quarters of the heavens.

The Persian title was Hafturengh, HeftAverengh, or HeftRengh, qualified by Mihin, Greater, to distinguish it from Kihin, Lesser; Hewitt giving this as originally Haptoiringas, the Seven Bulls, that possibly may be the origin of the Triones. Cox, however, goes far back of this classic title and says:

They who spoke of the seven triones had long forgotten that their fathers spoke of the taras (staras) or strewers of light; and Al Biruni derived the word from tarana, “passage,” as of the stars through the heavens. Thus from the results of modern philological research it is possible that our long received opinions as to the derivations of many star-names should be abandoned, and that we should search for them far back of Greece or Rome.

Heraclitos, the Ionic philosopher of Ephesus of about 500 B.C., asserted that this constellation marked the boundary between the East and the West, which it may be regarded as doing when on the horizon.

A coin of 74 B.C., struck by the consul Lucretius Trio, bears the Seven Stars disposed in an irregular curve around the new moon, while the word Trio within the crescent is an evident allusion to the consul’s name, albeit one hardly known in Roman history.

The Hebrew ‘Ash, or ‘Ayish, is reproduced by, or was derived from, the Arabic BanatNaashalKubra, the Daughters of the Great Bier, . the Mourners, — the Benenas, Benethasch, and BenethAs of Chilmead and Christmannus, — applied to the three stars in the extreme end of the group, eta being Al Ka’id, (AlkaidAlkaid or Alcaid, Al-Qaid) the Chief One; from this came Bayer’s ElKeid for the whole constellation. Riccioli, quoting Kircher, said that the Arabian Christians with more definiteness termed it NaashLaazar, the Bier of Lazarus, with Mary, Martha, and Ellamath, — this last being given in {Page 433} Mrs. Jameson’s SacredandLegendaryArt as Marcella or Martilla, but by Smyth as Magdalen; Riccioli’s word should be Al Amah, the Maid, the position that Marcella occupied toward the two women during their journey to Marseilles, where she was canonized. Karsten Niebuhr said that the constellation was known, even in his day, as Naash by the Arabs along the Persian Gulf; and Wetzstein tells the modern story, from that people, in which these mourners, the children of Al Na’ash, who was murdered by Al Jadi, the pole-star, are still nightly surrounding him in their thirst for vengeance, the walidan among the daughters — the star Mizar — holding in her arms her new-born infant, the little Alcor, while Suhail is slowly struggling up to their help from the South. Delitzsch says that even to-day the group is known as a Bier in Syria; Flammarion attributing this title to the slow and solemn motion of the figure around the pole. This seems to have originated in Arabia; and from it come the titles even now occasionally heard for the quadrangle stars — the Bier and the GreatCoffin. With the early Arab poets the Banat stars were an emblem of inactivity and laziness.

It had other names also Cynosuris appeared with Ovid and Germanicus for this, although it generally is applied to the Lesser Bear; Plintion, used for it or for its quarter of the sky, was from the Greek, as we see in Plutarch’s ai ton plintionupographai, the “fields,” Or “spaces,” into which the augurs divided the heavens, the templa, or regiones, coeli of the Latins; while Elix, the Curved, or Spiral, One, and Elike, apparently first used for the constellation by Aratos and Apollonius Rhodius, became common as descriptive of its twisting around the pole, — whence one of its titles now, the Twister; Sophocles having the same thought in Arktos Strophades, the “circling paths of the Bear.” Some, however, derived the name from the curved or twisted position of the chief stars; and others, still more probably, from the city Helice, Kallisto’s birthplace in Arcadia [ancient Helike a city lost in a tidal wave in 373 BC, rediscovered in 2001]. Ovid used this title in the Fasti, where he wrote of both the Bears, in navigation:

Esse duas Arctos, quarum, Cynosura petatur

Sidonus, Helicen Graia carina notet;

but later on Helice was considered a nymph, one of the two Cretan sister nurses who nourished the infant Jupiter

In odorous Dikte, near the Idaian hill,

whence she was transferred to the skies. Dante, in the Paradiso, alludes to barbarians

coming from some region

That every day by Helice is covered

Revolving with her son (Arcas of Ursa Minor) whom she delights in {Page 434} Homer’s Elikopes has been rendered “observing Helice,” and so applied to the early Grecian sailors; but there seems to be no foundation for this, as the word merely signifies “black-,” “glancing-,” or “rolling-eyed,” and frequently was applied to various characters in the Iliad, with no limitation as to sex or profession.

Ancient, however, as are Arktos and Ursa, ‘Ash and the Bier, Amaxa, Plaustrum, and Triones, this splendid constellation ran still further back —  three or four or even more millenniums before even these titles were current — as the BullThigh, or the ForeShank, in Egypt. There it was represented on the Denderah planisphere and in the temple of Edfu by a single thigh or hind quarter of the animal, alluded to in the BookoftheDead as;

The constellation of the Thigh in the northern sky;

and thus mentioned in inscriptions on the kings’ tombs and the walls of the Ramesseum at Thebes. Sometimes the figure of the Thigh was changed to that of a cow’s body with disc and horns; but, however called or represented, these stars always were prominent in the early astronomy and mythology of Egypt. Mesxet seems to have been their designation, and specially for some one of them, as representative of the malignant red Set, [Set, also Anubis, Apap, Apepi, Bes, Tebha, Temha, and Typhoeus according to Plutarch, was one of Egypt’s greatest gods, who subsequently became the Greek giant Typhon, father of the fierce winds, but slain by Zeus with a thunderbolt and buried under Mount Aetna.] Sit, or Sith, Sut or Sutech, who, with his wife Taurt or Thoueris, shown by the adjoining Hippopotamus (now a part of our Draco), represented darkness and the divinities of evil. Set also was a generic term applied to all circumpolar constellations, because, as always visible, they somewhat paradoxically were thought to typify darkness.

Hewitt writes of Set in his earliest form as Kapi, the Ape-God, stars of our Cepheus marking his head; while at one time on the Nile the Wain stars seem to have been the DogofSet or of Typhon. This may have given rise to the title CanisVenatica (Canes Venatici ) that La Lande cited, if this be not more correctly considered as the classic Kallisto’s hound; and the same idea appears in the Catuli, Lap-dogs, and CanesLaconicae, the Spartan Dogs, that Caesius cited for both of the Wains.

The myth of Horus, one of the most ancient even in ancient Egypt, deciphered from the temple walls of Edfu, 5000 B.C., as connected with the stellar Hippopotamus, was, about 3000 years afterwards, transferred to the Thigh, which then occupied the same circumpolar position that the Hippopotamus did when the original inscription was made. In view of this, Champollion alluded to the Thigh as HorusApollo

{Page 435} Towards our era, when Egypt began to be influenced by Greece, her former pupil, our Wain was regarded as the CarofOsiris, shown on some of that country’s planispheres by an Ark, or Boat, near to the polar point, although it also seems to have been known as a Bear.

Al Biruni devoted a chapter of his work on India to these seven stars, saying that they were there known as SaptarShayar, the Seven Anchorites, with the pious woman Al Suha (the star Alcor), all raised by Dharma to the sky, to a much higher elevation than the rest of the fixed stars, and all located “near Vas, the chaste woman Vumdhati”; but who was this last is not explained. And he quoted from Varaha Mihira: “The northern region is adorned with these stars, as a beautiful woman is adorned with a collar of pearls strung together, and a necklace of white lotus flowers, a handsomely arranged one. Thus adorned, they are like maidens who dance and revolve round the pole as the pole orders them.”

Professor Whitney tells us that to these stars the ancient astronomers of India, and many of the modern upon their authority, have attributed an independent motion about the pole of the heavens, at the rate of eight minutes yearly, or of a complete revolution in 2700 years; and that this strange dogma well illustrates the character of Hindu astronomy. The matter-of-fact Al Biruni, commenting on this same thing, and on the absurdly immense numbers in Hindu chronology, wrote: “The author of the theory was a man entirely devoid of scientific education, and one of the foremost in the series of fools who simply invented those years for the benefit of people who worship the Great Bear and the pole. He had to invent a vast number of years, for the more outrageous it was, the more impression it would make.”

In China, the TseihSing, or Seven Stars, prominent in this constellation, were known as the Government, although also called PihTow, the Northern Measure, which Flammarion translates the Bushel; while the centre of the Square was Kwei, an object of worship and a favorite stellar title in that country, as it occurs twice in their list of sieu, although there rendered the Spectre, or Striding Legs. Reeves said that the four stars of the Square were TienLi, the Heavenly Reason, and Edkins, in his ReligioninChina, assigns to this spot the home of the Taouist female divinity Tow Moo. Colas gives TiTche, the Emperor’s Chariot; but this was doubtless a later designation from Jesuit teaching.

Weigel of Jena figured it as the heraldic DanishElephant; but Julius Schiller, as the archangel Michael; while Caesius said that it might represent one of the Bears sent by Elisha to punish his juvenile persecutors, or the Chariot that Pharaoh gave to Joseph.

{Page 436} Popular names for it have been the ButcherCleaver, somewhat similar to the Hindu figure for the other Seven Stars, the Pleiades; the BroodHen, also reminding us of that cluster, as do the Gaelic Grigirean, Crann, and Crannarain; PeterSkiff, from, or the original of, Julius Schiller’s ShipofSaintPeter; the Ladle; and, what is known to every one, star-lover or not, the BigDipper, the universally common title in our country. In southern France this has been changed to Casserole, the Saucepan.

Pliny strangely blundered in some of his allusions to Ursa Major, asserting in one its invisibility in Egypt, and, again, describing the visit to Rome of ambassadors from Ceylon, — Milton’s “utmost Indian isle Taprobane,” —  wrote of them:

Septentriones Vergiliasque apud nos veluti novo coelo mirabantur.

Star NamesTheir Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]