The Big Dipper which accord to modern protocol is not considered an actual constellation but rather the rear end and the tail of the actual constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Currently the Big Bear in hanging diagonally in the night northwestern sky. It's one of the largest constellations in our night skies. The four stars that outline the pot outline the hind end of the Ursa Major and the handle is the stretched out tail of the bear. How the tail go stretched is a big part of the one of the many tales of the heavenly bears.
Ursa Major's head is made up of three dimmer stars that form a skinny triangle just below the pot of the Big Dipper. These stars aren't as bright as the seven stars of Big Dipper but you should be able to spot them unless you're really plagued by heavy pollution. Extending to the left of the head and the rear end and of the bear are his front and rear legs respectively. Both the front and back paws are mark by a pair of two stars really close to one another.
The stars that make up the Little Dipper are the same stars that make up the Ursa Minor the Little Bear, also with a stretched out tail. At the end of the tail of the Little Bear or the end of the handle of the Little Dipper is Polaris, the North Star. It's certainly not the brightest star in the night sky but it's a pivotal star, (awful pun!) Polaris marks the position of the North celestial pole. Polaris shines directly above the Earth's North pole and so as the Earth rotates on its axis, once every 24 hour with see a reflection of that rotation in the heavens as all the stars revolve around Polaris. It's as if the celestial bears are constantly circling their den!
Through the nearly twenty year history of this column I told you Greek/Roman mythology stories about how the Big and Little Bear wound up in the night sky with stretched out tails. Zeus the king of the gods falls in love with Callisto, a widow who lost her husband in a war some years back. It would have been just fine but the problem was that Zeus was married and his wife Hera found out about it, caught Zeus and Callisto together and probably changed Callisto into a bear who ran off in the forest to live the life of bear.
What made this a real tragedy was that not only did Zeus loose his girlfriend but Arcus, Callisto's only child lost his mother. He didn't know what happened to his mom. All he knew was that his mom had disappeared. Arcus grew up living with relatives into a find young man who fancied hunting....and wouldn't you know he loved hunting bears!
Sure enough, one day from his perch on Mount Olympus Zeus spotted Arcus aiming at arrow at this big mama bear. Thinking there was chance that this bear was actually Callisto Zeus tore down to the scene with lightning speed. The bear was indeed Callisto. Zeus tried in vain to convince Arcus not to shoot his mother but the young man though Zeus was nuts. Just before the arrow flew from Arcus's bow Zeus did the only thing he could and turned Arcus into a little bear. Once Arcus became a bear he recognized his mom and there were huge bear hugs.
Paranoid that Hera would catch him with the bears and pulverize his godliness he grabbed both bears and flung them into the night by their tails greatly stretching them out in the process. I tried to make a long story but it's difficult with this tale of the tails!
There are other stories about the stars we call the Big Bear but in just about all those stories what we see as the Big Dipper is all there is to the Big bear. One of my favorites comes from the Zunis, a native American tribe in western New Mexico, a land I've really come to love. They see our Big Dipper and the great heavenly bear that patrols the night skies against the frozen gods of the north but in the winter the bear heads below the horizon, (at least at that latitude). The cold gods are then free to have their way, blowing in cold air, snowstorms, and ice. By spring the bear reappears in the evening sky and the cold gods quickly retreat northward and the land become warm and sunny again.
Another piece of Ursa Major lore really like comes from the Basque region of Spain but in this case the Big Dipper it isn't a bear at all or even part of a bear. The story goes like this. Two thieves broke into a farmer barn and stole a pair of oxen. The extremely upset farm dispatched his house keeper and a servant out after the thieves. He also sent his errant bulldog who was also suppose to be in charge of security along with. After a few hours the highly irritated and impatient farmer also joined the chase. This whole scene is graphically portrayed every night when you see what we call the Big Dipper. The two stars on the right side of the pot section of the dipper are the two oxen. The two stars on the left side of the pot are the thieves. The star to the left in the dipper's handle is the servant followed by the housekeeper represented by the middle star of the handle. The last star in the handle is the furious farmer. What about the dog? The pooch is a faint star you can barely see right next to the house keeper star in the middle of the handle. Incidentally we know the brighter housekeeper star as Mizar and the faint watchdog star as Alcor. See if you can spot the little doggie!
Diagram of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor...Click