The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough or the Saptarishi (after the seven rishis), is an asterism of seven stars that has been recognized as a distinct grouping in many cultures from time immemorial. The component stars are the seven brightest of the formal constellation Ursa Major. The North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star on Earth, can be located by imagining a line from Merak (β) to Dubhe (α) and then extending it. Polaris is part of the “Little Dipper“, Ursa Minor.’
Different Folks – Different Stories
Hindu astronomy, it is referred to as Sapta Rishi, meaning the “The Seven Great Sages“.
The seven stars are very important in Taoist astrology. Sometimes there are said to be nine stars — besides the seven visible stars, two invisible “attendant” stars, one on either side of the star Alkaid. Legend has it that there used to be 9 stars (北斗九星) but 2 had since faded and that those who can see the 2 unseen stars will lead a long life. The Goddess Doumu is said to have given birth to the nine stars which make up the asterism. Another Goddess!
Buruj Biduk (The Ladle) is the formation’s name in Malaysia. In Mongolia, it is known as the Seven Gods (Долоон бурхан). In parts of rural India, it is known as the Samantha formation. An Arabian story has the four stars of the Plough’s bowl as a coffin, with the three stars in the handle as mourners, following it.
In both Ireland and the United Kingdom, this pattern is known as the Plough. It is also occasionally referred to as the Butcher’s Cleaver in northernEngland. In Ireland the figure is sometimes called the Starry Plough; the symbol of the Starry Plough has been used as a political symbol by Irish Republican and left wing movements.
Known as Charles his waine in some areas of England, the Plough was formerly called by the old name Charles’ Wain (“wain” meaning “wagon,” and derived from the still older Carlswæn), as it still is in Scandinavia, Karlavagnen,Karlsvogna, or Karlsvognen. In the northeast of England it is sometimes known as Charlie’s Waggon. A folk etymology holds that it was named after Charlemagne, but this common Germanic name meant the men’s wagon (the churls’ wagon), in contrast to the women’s wagon (the Little Dipper). An older Odin’s Wain may have preceded these Nordic designations. Similarly, in Romanian and most Slavic languages it is known as “the Great Wagon”, as opposed to “the Small Wagon,” the Little Dipper. In German it is called Großer Wagen (Great Cart) and less commonGroßer Bär (Big Bear).
In Dutch, its official name is Grote Beer (Big Bear, or “Ursa Major” in Latin), but often called Steelpannetje (saucepan), because of its resemblance to the utensil. In Finland the figure is known as Otava and widely used as a cultural symbol. In Finnish dialects, the word otava means a ‘salmon net’, but this word is largely obsolete in modern Finnish.
In Hungary, it is commonly called Göncölszekér (“Göncöl’s cart”) after a figure in Hungarian mythology, a táltos who carried medicines in his cart that could cure any disease.
These seven stars, meaning “seven plough oxen,” are the origin of the Latin word septentriōnēs neaning “north” at least to one etymologist.
In the English speaking regions of North America (Canada and the United States) the Plough is known as the Big Dipper because the major stars can be seen to follow the rough outline of a large ladle or dipper. This figuration appears to be derived originally from Africa, where it was sometimes seen as a drinking gourd. In the 19th century, runaway slaves would “follow the Drinking Gourd” to the north and freedom.
A widespread American Indian figuration had the bowl as a bear. Some groups considered the handle to be three cubs following their mother, while others pictured three hunters tracking the bear. (For example, see Abenaki mythology.) The Dipper appears on some Tribal flags, while the flag of the state of Alaska features a stylized Big Dipper and North Star. The Anishinaabe or Ojibway First Nation know the Big Dipper as Ojig-anang or the Fisher Star (after the fisher cat, an animal of the weasel family that oddly enough, does not eat fish).
This most familiar constellation is one of the first that most people ever learn, and may be the only one they know.
I used to live in Mozambique and almost every night I had a pristine view of the big dipper. It was so beautiful. I’ve heard the term “follow the drinking gourd” as well.
I’d love to see the big dipper from somewhere far away. It would feel like a bit of home.
Thank you for sharing this. I love looking up at the stars on a clear night, but I only know a few of the constellations. I learned about the “dippers” from my grandmother so I will always love those the most.
I think we all feel that way.
According to Greek mythology, the god Zeus once desired a woman named Kallisto. Quite understandably, his wife Hera became jealous and turned Kallisto into a bear. In the meantime, Kallisto’s son, Artemis, almost shoots his mother by accident while hunting. In order to avert tragedy, Zeus turns them both into stars and sets them in the sky. Despite the Greek tale, a resounding amount of cultures also recognized this constellation as being a bear – including many native American Indian tribes, the Jewish culture and more. No matter if you can “see” the bear in the stars or not, the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major form the well-known asterism known as the “Big Dipper” (as it is called in the United States) or the Plough (as it is referred to in the United Kingdom and Ireland). The Big Dipper constellation also played a very important role in the Underground Railroad which helped slaves escape from the South before the Civil War. By connecting the stellar patterns, escapees could easily follow the stars north and there were songs quietly passed among the slave population which told of the “Drinking Gourd” and how to follow its light.