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Ursa Major is probably the most widely recognized of the northern hemispheres constellations because of its asterism (A group of stars within a constellation) the Big Dipper. Ursa Major actually means "the Great Bear" and Ursa Minor is "the Lesser Bear" aka, the Little Dipper. Most drawings of the constellations depict these constellations as bears. Some Native Americans also recognized Ursa Major as a bear. In the Greek tradition, the bear has a long tail stretched when the bears were placed in the sky by Zeus. In the Native American story, the bear is depicted as being chased by three braves.

Both Ursa Major and Minor are seen to revolve around a star that doesn't appear to move--Polaris, the North Star. When viewd as the big dipper, two stars that form the end side of the dipper point to Polaris which is the end star on the handle of the dipper. The whole northern hemisphere sky seems to revolve around Polaris and the orientation of the bear figures changes dramatically through the course of the night.

The Greek story of the bears goes like this...
Zeus, King of the Gods of Mt. Olympus, was always disguising himself to sneak into women's bedrooms and make love to them. One of these women was Callisto, who through Zeus, gave birth to Arcas. Zeus was married at the time to Hera, who didn't care much for Zeus' amorous adventures and turned Callisto into a bear that roamed the forests of Arcadia. One day, Callisto, the bear, came face to face with her son Arcas, who was out hunting. Zeus, in his all-knowing, god-like fashion, saw what was happening and quickly turned both mother and son into the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, (the greater and lesser bears) to prevent the matricide. Hera, evidentally still upset over the whole issue, persuaded the Titans, Tethys and Oceanus to forbid the two figures from bathing in their waters, so the two constellations never dip below the horizon.

The story doesn't quite end there. The constellation Boötes directly overhead in the early part of summer pursues the bears with his greyhounds, the constellation Canes Venatici.

Native American myths grow and change as new visions are related. There are several stories about the bears in the heavens. One story tells of the great bear wandering the heavens through the spring. Towards summer three braves, that are represented by the three stars of the Greek bears' tale, stalk the bear. Throughout the summer the bear leads a quick pursuit with the braves following. In the autumn, the braves' arrows find the bear and the blood dyes the trees scarlet. The trees mourn for the bear and drop their leaves and the summer dies with the bear until the bear is reborn in the spring.


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