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The Many Myths of Ursa Major

If you've ever bothered to look up into the night sky—like ever—then you've seen the constellation Ursa Major. You really can't miss it, as it's one of brightest and most distinctive constellations in the sky. While the story of Callisto is the Greek story of Ursa Major, which translates from Latin to "Great Bear," pretty much every other culture on Earth (and possibly Mars) has their own myth or way of describing this not-to-be-missed constellation.

The Big Dipper

In America, the brightest stars in Ursa Major are called the Big Dipper, because, well, they look like a big dipper. You know, like one of big spoon-y things you dip into a punch bowl.

The Drinking Gourd

Some say that the reason the Big Dipper came to be called that in America is because slaves once called the constellation the Drinking Gourd. The star pattern totally looks like one of the hollowed-out gourds that were once used to scoop out water.

The brightest star in the constellation, Polaris (a.k.a. the North Star), was used by runaway slaves to make their way north to freedom. Many slaves knew that, as long as they were "following the gourd," they were heading in the direction of freedom.

The Plough

In the United Kingdom, Ursa Major is called the Plough—probably because it looks like a plow. In Ireland, it's sometimes called the Starry Plough, and it's used as a symbol by Irish Republican movements who want Ireland to be free from English rule. Talk about a loaded constellation.


To Hindus, the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major are the Saptarishi, or the Seven Sages. According to Hindu and Vedic tradition, these seven wise men became practically immortal because of their penance and awesome Yogic power.

Iroquois Great Bear

The Greeks weren't the only ones who saw a big bear in the sky. The Native American Iroquois tribe also called the brightest stars of Ursa Major the Great Bear. According to one legend, the four stars that some see as the handle of the Big Dipper are actually four brave hunters tracking the giant bear (the dipper part) eternally across the sky.

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