History of the Constellations

Stars and Constellations

Ursa Major

| Prev: Turdus Solitarius | Index of Constellations | Next: UMi |

Contents of this page: | Description | Skylore | Modern Culture | Origin and History | Asterisms | Special Stars | Nebulae | Galaxies | Submit new info... |

Images (at bottom of page): | Ursa Major Chart: (Figure 1) | Hyginus, 1482, page C8v: (Figure 2) | Hyginus, 1482, page D1r: (Figure 3) | Hyginus, 1517, page E1r: (Figure 4) | Ptolemy, 1541-const, page UrsaMajor: (Figure 5) | Bayer, 1661, page B: (Figure 6) | Bayer, 1697, page B4v: (Figure 7) | Bayer, 1697, page C1r: (Figure 8) | Bayer, 1697, page C1v: (Figure 9) | Bode, 1801, page l: (Figure 10) | Bode, 1801, page r: (Figure 11) | Aspin, 1825, page UrsaMajor: (Figure 12) | Images digitized by Hannah Magruder.

Constellation Data


Ursa Major or the Big Bear is the third largest of the 88 constellations. Seven stars form a familiar group of stars, or an "asterism" within the constellation. In America they are called the "Big Dipper" or "Drinking Gourd," and in Britain the "Plough" or the "Wain." The Big Dipper is one of the most easily recognizable groups of stars in the sky. It is referred to as circumpolar because it never completely sets below the horizon, but is visible in northern skies year-round.

Three stars make up the Big Dipper’s handle, and four stars make its bowl.

If you can find the Big Dipper in the sky, you have a skymark to orient yourself both on the Earth and in the Heavens. The two stars that form the pouring side of the bowl point to Polaris, the north star. Polaris is a rather faint star about five times farther away than the distance between the pointers themselves, and marks the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.

The Big and Little Dippers pour into each other, just as the Big Bear and the Little Bear ceaselessly turn around and around the northern sky. The Guard stars of the Little Dipper protect Polaris from the Great Bear, just in case he might try to catch the North Star for himself.

Skylore and Literature

Only the most imaginative can see a bear in the area of the Big Dipper. There are many star-patterns that look like dippers, triangles, or squares in the sky. There are very few that actually resemble bears or people. Yet constellations were named to honor particular figures in ancient stories, not because the star pattern actually looked like the figure being honored. It took imagination to invent them a long time ago, and it takes imagination to see them now.

The "handles" of the dippers represent the "tails" of the bears on ancient star maps--even though modern bears don’t have long tails! The Big Bear was regarded as a bear before Homer, and an ancient Greek story explains why the Big and Little Bears have such long tails.

A long time ago, Zeus fell in love with a mortal woman named Callisto, who was a far-traveler and a huntress. In jealousy Hera, the wife of Zeus, changed Callisto into a large bear. In a forest one day, Callisto‚Äôs son Arcas chanced upon a huge bear. To his horror, the bear immediately started to run straight toward him. Not perceiving that the bear was his mother, Arcas raised his javelin to slay the bear. Zeus saw the tragedy that was about to happen, but not even Zeus could undo the spell of Hera. The only alternative was to change Arcas into a bear like Callisto, only smaller. To keep them safely together, and to make them immortal, Zeus grabbed both bears by their tails, swung them around and around, and hurled them into the sky. So much swinging stretched out their tails. Yet Hera had the last word, moving them to the part of the sky which never sets. There Callisto and Arcas now endure a weariness without rest until the end of the world. (Adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

In Middle Earth, the Big Dipper (or possible Ursa Major) was known as Valacirca (the Sickle of the Valar), and Cerch im(b)elain (Seven Butterflies). (Rachel Magruder)

Modern Culture

Origin and History

Ursa Major is included in the ancient star catalogs of Eudoxos of Knidos, Aratos of Soli, and Ptolemy.

Biblical references: "The Bear" is mentioned in Job 9:7-9 and Job 38:31-33. Other constellations alluded to in the Bible are Orion and Taurus.


Special Stars

Look at the second star from the end of the dipper’s handle. Look closely, and you may see two stars, Alcor and Mizar (Migh-zar), which are also known as the Horse and Rider. According to the Greeks, the second star is one of the Pleiades sisters, who left her six sisters in the constellation Taurus (TORE-us) when she married. Mizar, the brightest of the two, is visible as a double star in a large telescope. Interestingly, from spectroscopic evidence it is known that both components of Mizar are each double stars as well, so that there are actually four stars in Mizar, which along with Alcor make five stars in this single system.


M97, Owl Nebula (Planetary nebula), mag. 11.1.


M81 (Spiral galaxy), mag. 7.0.

M82, Exploding Galaxy (Irregular galaxy), mag. 8.4.

M101 (Spiral galaxy), mag. 7.9.

M108 (Spiral galaxy), mag. 10.5.

M109 (Spiral galaxy), mag. 10.0.

In the area of Ursa Major near the Big Dipper are two remarkable galaxies, both of which are too far away to view without a telescope.

  • M81 is a classic spiral galaxy we see almost face-on, about the same size as the Milky Way, beautiful in its graceful repose.
  • In contrast, M82, seen edge-on, may have experienced a titanic explosion. No one knows for sure, but M81 and M82 are wrapped in a common envelope of dust. Perhaps the passing of M81, which is almost ten times larger, has left the smaller M82 disrupted in its wake.

For ten days in December of 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope collected light from a blank spot of sky, devoid of naked-eye stars, just above the bowl of the Big Dipper. This project, known as the Hubble Deep Field survey, covered an area of the sky about one-twenty-fourth of a degree wide, no larger than a grain of sand held at arm’s length. Within this tiny spot of sky, beyond the reach of earth-bound telescopes, were brought into view over fifteen-hundred galaxies, four billion times fainter than the limits of human vision. This snapshot of the Big Bang’s galactic baby boom discloses galaxies in an astonishing plenitude and variety. There are spirals and ellipticals and bar-shaped galaxies, the same familiar galactic types seen in galaxies nearer to us. Many are colliding, some interacting or exchanging their material. Many are seen edge-on; many face-on; and many from every angle in between. Their stars are colored blue, yellow, and orange. Their light has travelled to us across eons of time from the remotest parts of the known universe.

Submit new info...

Many excellent websites provide a variety of information about constellations for amateur astronomers and telescope users (see sidebar links for a few of these). These constellation pages are not intended to duplicate those efforts, but are devoted to two aims: First, they are intended to assist the beginning skywatcher, including students in history of science survey courses, in becoming familiar with Basic Celestial Phenomena (BCP). Second, these pages are devoted to the history of the constellations and the history of astronomy. They are intended to serve as a repository for collaborative use and reference. Do you have additional historical information about the stars or constellation described on this page? Please submit additional information to kmagruder@ou.edu. Submissions will be attributed. Editors for historical information are Kerry Magruder, JoAnn Palmeri, Peter Barker, and Laura Gibbs.

Oklahoma History of Science exhibits: http://hos.ou.edu/exhibits/. Page revised 4/15/04

Bad links, misplaced images, or questions? Contact Kerry Magruder. Thank you.

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown. But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile." R. W. Emerson, Nature


Figure 1 Figure 1 - Return to Text

UMa Chart
Figure 2 Figure 2 - Return to Text

Hyginus, 1482

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 3 Figure 3 - Return to Text

Hyginus, 1482

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 4 Figure 4 - Return to Text

Hyginus, 1517

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 5 Figure 5 - Return to Text

Ptolemy, 1541-const

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 6 Figure 6 - Return to Text

Bayer, 1661

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 7 Figure 7 - Return to Text

Bayer, 1697

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 8 Figure 8 - Return to Text

Bayer, 1697

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 9 Figure 9 - Return to Text

Bayer, 1697

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 10 Figure 10 - Return to Text

Bode, 1801

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 11 Figure 11 - Return to Text

Bode, 1801

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)
Figure 12 Figure 12 - Return to Text

Aspin, 1825

Zoom - 5 in | 10 in
Download TIFF (large file)

Exhibit credit: Kerry Magruder.

Exhibit Links
Web Links

These teaching resources provided by the History of Science Department at the University of Oklahoma.

Unless otherwise indicated, all images courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries. Image Terms of Use.

OU LogoOU College of Arts and Sciences Online Logo

OU Disclaimer | Contacts: Content - Kerry Magruder, Website - Eric Bruning