It happens every summer. A celestial hunter is in pursuit of the heavenly bear. Both of these characters are portrayed as constellations in our late summer skies. The constellation Bootes makes up the hunter who by trade is a farmer, and the bear is none other than Ursa Major, the Big Bear. These two constellations are right next to each other in the northwestern skies in the early evening this time of year. For the most part they’re easy to see, although as always the farther from city lights you are the better you’ll see them.
Ursa Major, which is Latin for Big Bear, contains the most famous star pattern in the sky - the Big Dipper. The Dipper is the brightest part of the bear, outlining the rear end and the tail of the great beast. The rest of the stars in the Big Bear aren’t nearly as bright, but if you have a dark enough sky, you may see the skinny triangle that allegedly outlines the Bear’s head and the two faint lines of stars that make up the legs.
Right on the Bear’s tail in the northwestern sky is Bootes, the hunting farmer, which looks much more like a giant kite than a farmer with a gun. Arcturus, the second brightest star in the sky, is at the tail of the kite. Just use the old stargazing saying “arc to Arcturus”. Follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle beyond the end of the handle and you’ll run right into Arcturus, a red giant star nearly 22 million miles in diameter, which is more than twenty five times the diameter of the sun. Arcturus is 37 light years away, with one light year equaling about six trillion miles. I say it’s 37 light years right now because Arcturus is presently moving toward the sun and our solar system as it travels through our Milky Way Galaxy. Arcturus’s closest approach will occur in about 4000 years, when the star will be a few hundredths of a light year closer to Earth than it is today. After that, Arcturus and the Earth will slowly move away from each other and Arcturus will fade off into celestial oblivion, never to be seen again.
According to legend, Bootes invented the first ox pulled plow. Prior to that people were forced to hand till and plow, making for really long days. Bootes was the son of Demeter, the goddess of Agriculture. His father was a mortal man that Demeter fell in love with. One thing led to another and oops, Bootes was born to the unwed couple, making him a half god. Back in those days when that sort of thing happened, these godly love-children were placed into adoption. It was more for convenience than any shame. The gods were much too busy running things to raise their “accidental” children.
The goddess of agriculture placed Bootes, his half godliness, with a wealthy farm family and for the first few years everything was great. The crops were good and the profits were high, but then tragedy struck. Bootes’ foster parents were killed in a car accident on New Year’s Eve. They willed all of the money and the farm to Bootes and his older half-brother, who served as executor of the will since he was their oldest son. Things would have been okay, except that Bootes’ big brother was a crook. About a month after the terrible accident he took all of his parent’s money out of the bank, and he and his girlfriend were off on a global spending spree.
Bootes was on his own on the farm, broke and unaware that he was half divine since he was adopted as a baby. It was a real struggle. That spring Bootes had to do all of the tilling himself by hand since he had no money for hired help. He kept thinking, there’s gotta be a better way to do this. It was a combination of his half godliness, his ingenuity, and his desperation that led him to invent the plow that could pulled by an ox rather than a person.
After he worked all of the bugs out Bootes really had something! Not only was he able to plow his own fields in much less time, there was much less wear and tear on his body. Other farmers saw Bootes with this new invention and wanted Bootes to build ox pulled plows for them. Word spread even farther and pretty soon, Bootes had a booming business. He sold the farm and concentrated on his plow business. He was loaded! As the business got better and better, he was able to take time off to hunt and fish, which he did a lot of before his foster parents were killed.
The gods on Mount Olympus got word of this and eventually it reached Demeter, his real mother. She was so proud of her son, and she was especially proud of what he did to improve farming because after all, she was the goddess of agriculture. When Bootes was getting on in years, Demeter decided to give her son the ultimate reward. She plucked him off the ground and placed his body in the stars as the constellation we see today. Every summer and fall Bootes is having the ultimate hunting experience. He gets to hunt the Big Bear, Ursa Major. He couldn’t be happier and in fact, it’s said that Bootes is one of the happiest constellations in the sky.
As we leave summer and journey into early autumn, both Bootes and Ursa Major will sink lower in the northwest sky. According to lore that’s because Bootes has nailed the bear with his arrows and the bear is sinking to the ground with Bootes in hot pursuit. It’s also said that the reason the leaves on the trees turn to shades of red every fall is because the Big Bear is bleeding. Alright, the lack of chlorophyll may have something to do with it too.
Ursa Major is one tough bear though, because every winter he manages to lick his wounds and recover to rise up high in the northeastern skies in the spring, with Bootes right on his tail again. The great hunt goes on and on and on!
Diagram of BOOTES AND URSA MAJOR...Click