The Big Dipper is a group of seven stars. They are a part of the constellation known as Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is so located that it can be used as a point of reference to find other star groups. For example the North Star can be found in a straight line above starting from the two foremost stars of the ladle shape. Because the Big Dipper is clearly visible at night to the naked eye, it must have been known to mankind for as long as he has lived on earth.
Discovery and Names of the Big Dipper in Ancient History
No single person discovered the Big Dipper. It has been known and catalogued as a group since the earliest civilizations.
Many names have been given to the Big Dipper by different peoples. In Britain the cluster of stars was seen as a Plough, Charlie and His Wagon or the Butcher’s Cleaver. In Ireland it was called the Starry Plough and was reputed to have political relevance. Scandinavians probably corrupted the name Charlie and His Wagon to Karlsvogna. Or else it was the other way around and Karlsvogna meant “wagon of men” just as the Little Dipper was supposed to be the “women’s wagon.” Romanian astronomers also catalogued the stars as a wagon formation.
In India, ancient Vedic astrologers named the Big Dipper as the Seven Great Sages. In China the Big Dipper and the constellations played a key role in Taoism. It was believed that at certain times and locations they helped with Taoist alchemical practices.
The Big Dipper was also known in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. Among Arab astrologers, the four stars of the bowl appeared as a coffin and the three stars behind it were mourners.
It was in North America that the Big Dipper earned its current name. The four stars form the dip while the three stars make the handle. It resembles a ladle. But some Native Americans instead saw a bear with either three cubs or three hunters following her.
One can find references to the Big Dipper in early literature. In Homer’s Iliad it is called “the Bear, that men call Wain.” In the Book of Amos it is referred to as “the seven stars.”
The Big Dipper belongs to the constellation Ursa Major. In Greek mythology, Zeus placed one of his lovers and their child in the sky to save them from his angry wife, Hera. The mother and son became Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.