Big Dipper

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This article is about the asterism. For other uses, see Big Dipper (disambiguation).
Big Dipper map

The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough[1][2] 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.

Names and lore[edit]


The constellation of Ursa Major has been seen as a bear by many distinct civilizations.[3] This may stem from a common oral tradition stretching back more than 13,000 years.[4] Using statistical and phylogenetic tools, Julien d'Huy reconstructs the following Palaeolithic state of the story: "There is an animal that is a horned herbivore, especially an elk. One human pursues this ungulate. The hunt locates or get to the sky. The animal is alive when it is transformed into a constellation. It forms the Big Dipper".[5]


The Hall of the Big Dipper in a Taoist temple, Wuhan

In Hindu astronomy, it is referred to as Saptarshi Mandal, meaning the "Collection of seven stars" or "Collection of Seven Great Sages", as each star is named after a Hindu mythological sage.

Throughout eastern Asia, the stars compose the Northern Ladle. They are colloquially known as the "Seven Stars of the Northern Ladle":

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.

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 Indonesia, the asterism is known as Bintang Biduk or "biduk star", biduk refers to a small ship or canoe used to transport objects.[6]Buruj Biduk (The Ladle) is the formation's name in Malaysia.


The Big Dipper seen from Kauai.
The "Starry Plough", used by Irish nationalists and leftists.

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 northern England. 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 of Charles' Wain[7] ("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 "Karlavagnen" was derived from Charlemagne, but this common Germanic name meant the men's wagon (the churls' wagon), in contrast to the women's wagon (the Little Dipper).[8][9] An older Odin's Wain may have preceded these Nordic designations.[7] 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 common Großer Bär (Big Bear).

The Big Dipper seen from Berlin (Germany) in June 2011.

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 Hungarian, 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.[10] In Finnish, the figure is known as Otava and widely used as a cultural symbol. Otava is an archaic Finnish word a salmon net.[11] It also was a name for bear, since in Finnish mythology the bear was said to have originated from the constellation of Otava.[12][13]

These seven stars (septentriones, from the phrase septem triōnēs, meaning "seven plough oxen"[14]) are the origin of the Latin word septentriōnēs meaning "north" and now found as the adjective septentrional (northern) in English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. This etymology goes back to a passage in Varro (Marcus Terentius) who explains that triōn- (a word not attested elsewhere) means "plough ox" and derives the form from terō, one of whose meanings is "thresh grain by rubbing". The derivation is acceptable (Latin short vowels often syncopate before -r- in medial syllables), but the meaning, if Varro is right about the root derivation, is surely "threshing ox", as the seven stars (oxen) perpetually wheel about the pole star like oxen on a threshing floor. A different etymology appeals to *septem astr-iōn- "seven stars" (aster-), which is not obviously wrong (if lacking poetic inspiration), but the development of *-nstr- to -ntr- is not without problems.

North America[edit]

Big Dipper seen from Tampa, Florida

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 with hopes of 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).


Within Ursa Major the stars of the Big Dipper have Bayer designations in consecutive Greek alphabetical order from the bowl to the handle.

The Big Dipper's bowl and part of the handle photographed from the International Space Station.
Mizar and Alcor are at the upper right.
(L Yrs)
Dubheα UMa1.8124
Merakβ UMa2.479
Phecdaγ UMa2.484
Megrezδ UMa3.358
Aliothε UMa1.881
Mizarζ UMa2.178
Alkaidη UMa1.9101

In the same line of sight as Mizar, but about one light-year beyond it, is the star Alcor (80 UMa). Together they are known as the "Horse and Rider". At fourth magnitude, Alcor would normally be relatively easy to see with the unaided eye, but its proximity to Mizar renders it more difficult to resolve, and it has served as a traditional test of sight. Mizar itself has four components and thus enjoys the distinction of being part of an optical binary as well as being the first-discovered telescopic binary (1617) and the first-discovered spectroscopic binary (1889).

4D proper moving in -/+ 150 000 years. To view this image you need 3D glasses (red-green or red-blue).

Five of the stars of the Big Dipper are at the core of the Ursa Major Moving Group. The two at the ends, Dubhe and Alkaid, are not part of the swarm, and are moving in the opposite direction. Relative to the central five, they are moving down and to the right in the map. This will slowly change the Dipper's shape, with the bowl opening up and the handle becoming more bent. In 50,000 years the Dipper will no longer exist as we know it, but be re-formed into a new Dipper facing the opposite way. The stars Alkaid to Phecda will then constitute the bowl, while Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe will be the handle.



Not only are the stars in the Big Dipper easily found themselves, they may also be used as guides to yet other stars. Thus it is often the starting point for introducing Northern Hemisphere beginners to the night sky:

Additionally, the Dipper may be used as a guide to telescopic objects:

Cultural associations[edit]

The Bible refers to it as "the seven stars" (Amos 5:8).[15]

Book XVIII of Homer's Iliad mentions it as "the Bear, which men also call the Wain."[16]

In Tolkien's Middle-earth mythos, it is called the Valacirca (Sickle of the Valar), the sign of Hope signifying doom for Evil, while in T.A. Barron's Great Tree of Avalon series, it is called the Wizard's Staff, symbolizing Merlin's staff.

It is a prominent symbol in the Fist of the North Star manga/anime series; Kenshiro, has scars on his chest in the Big Dipper's configuration. It is identified as an omen: "When the great bear appears, violence will follow."

In the manga X/1999 and it's anime adaptation, it serves as a major recurring theme of the series mythos.

In the video game Devil Survivor 2, the seven stars of the Big Dipper (known as Septentriones) appear as the primary antagonists of the game, while Polaris serves as the game's final boss.

In the video game Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the player has to find the big dipper in the sky.

In the video game Monster Hunter 3, the seven stars of the Big Dipper appear as names of weapons of different classes all titled as the name of the star followed by Asterism in reference to this constellation.

The last track of Mannheim Steamroller's Fresh Aire 7 album is inspired by Chip Davis' sights of the Big Dipper when a child, and named after the constellation.

In the Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal anime, the Seven Barian Emperors have names based on stars of Big Dipper.

In the 13th Movie of the Case Closed Anime (Detective Conan) the Big Dipper plays a vital role for the criminals actions.

In the Disney Channel's animated series Gravity Falls, the main character's name is Dipper, due to the Big Dipper birthmark on his forehead.

In addition to appearing on the flags of political entities, the Dipper has also been used in corporate logos.[17]

See also[edit]

In spirituality


  1. ^ Stern, David P. (23 April 2008). "Finding the Pole Star". Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Rao, Joe (9 May 2008). "Doorstep Astronomy: See the Big Dipper". Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  3. ^ Gibbon, William B. (1964). "Asiatic parallels in North American star lore: Ursa Major". Journal of American Folklore 77 (305): 236–250. doi:10.2307/537746. 
  4. ^ Bradley E Schaefer, The Origin of the Greek Constellations: Was the Great Bear constellation named before hunter nomads first reached the Americas more than 13,000 years ago?, Scientific American, November 2006, reviewed at The Origin of the Greek Constellations; Yuri Berezkin, The cosmic hunt: variants of a Siberian – North-American myth. Folklore, 31, 2005: 79-100.
  5. ^ d'Huy Julien, Un ours dans les étoiles: recherche phylogénétique sur un mythe préhistorique, Préhistoire du sud-ouest, 20 (1), 2012: 91-106; A Cosmic Hunt in the Berber sky : a phylogenetic reconstruction of Palaeolithic mythology, Les Cahiers de l'AARS, 15, 2012.
  6. ^ KBBI
  7. ^ a b Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning – "Ursa Major", by Richard Hinckley Allen
  8. ^ "150 ord och begrepp inom astronomisk navigation" by Gösta Bågenholm: "Som pendang till Karlavagnen kallas Lilla björn (latin Ursæ Minoris) för kvinnovagnen..." — as an appendix to the Men's Wagon, the Little Bear is called the Women's Wagon
  9. ^ Svensk etymologisk ordbok (1922), by Elof Hellquist, entry Karlavagnen: "I stället sammansatt" ... – "Instead composed from the appellative karl [man] in opposition to Icelandic kvennavagn [women's wagon]"
  10. ^ In order not to be confused with the Little Dipper, our asterism is also called Nagy Göncöl or "Big Göncöl".
  11. ^ Kaisa, Häkkinen (2007). Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja (in Finnish) (4th ed.). WSOY. ISBN 978-951-0-27108-7. 
  12. ^ Hämäläinen, Pirjo (11 November 2013). "Otavassa on orjan merkki". Kansan Uutiset (in Finnish). Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
  13. ^ Mykrä, Sakari. "Kahdensadan nimen kontio". (in Finnish). Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
  14. ^ Merriam-Webster
  15. ^ As per the King James Version. Other translations have "the Pleiades," which also has seven stars visible to the naked eye.]
  16. ^ Iliad
  17. ^ Allen P. Adamson; Martin Sorrell (2007). Brandsimple: how the best brands keep it simple and succeed. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-4039-8490-6.  For an example see Iridium Satellite LLC.