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The Facts and Fictions of the Ursa Major Constellation

The night sky and its many stars have been a couple of humanity’s few reliable collective companions – constants that are rarely afforded to us elsewhere. No matter what happens throughout our days, the night sky will always come back to greet us. Something is comforting about that, but there’s also something equally as compelling there. After all, figuring out the mechanisms behind it, discovering everything we can about its planets and stars, and representing it through music, art, and more has been a goal present from some of our earliest civilizations to now. 

In short, we’ve always been entranced by the space above us and by its many constellations. The Ursa Major constellation has been of particular interest by scholars and inquisitive minds alike, one of the most recognizable yet misunderstood star clusters out there. 

What is the Ursa Major Constellation?

So, what exactly is the Ursa Major constellation, anyways? Well, it’s a northern constellation (one of the north’s largest at that) and contains the famous Big Dipper asterism within its ranks. Originally part of Ptolemy’s 48 listed constellations, the history of it is vast and deep. Ursa Major can be associated with extensive stories and religious lore from so many different cultures and peoples around the world. 

The Greco-Romans, Native Americans, East Asians, and many religious traditions from the Judeo-Christians to the Hindus are just the tip of the iceberg, relating the constellation to everything from awe-inspiring sages to thousands-years-old hunting myths. While all these myths and connections are wildly different from group to group, they do still manage to share something in common: that Ursa Major is regarded as symbolic, wonderful, and beyond anything, full of meaning.  

Ursa Major’s importance doesn’t only rest in its representational background, though. It’s also very significant on a more physical level. Located between the latitudes of +90° and -30°, it covers a shocking amount of space within our sky. Just this one constellation takes up about 3.1% of it in total, something pretty unique even amongst all the other exceptional facts revealed by astronomy. 

Ursa Major Constellation

By Till Credner - Own work: AlltheSky.com

The Stars that Make Up Ursa Major

Like any other constellation that you’ll see once night falls, Ursa Major is a collection of several stars and other deep-sky objects that ultimately form a recognizable pattern. In Ursa Major's case, it’s made up by 135 stars in total, 13 of which have planets, and seven Messier objects including M40, M81, M82, M97, M101, M108, and M109. 

Its most prominent stars are those connected to the Big Dipper. Dubhe, Iota Ursae Majoris, and Alioth are probably the most significant of the bunch, three of the constellation's brightest stars. However, there are still plenty of other critical stars within Ursa Major. Polaris, also known as the North Star, immediately comes to mind as well as those in the Ursa Major Moving Group – a series of stars that stick together, sharing both a common origin and velocity.

Guide to Best Constellation Viewing

Excited by the prospect of seeing the Ursa Major constellation? If so, it’s always helpful to know what you should be looking for, where, and when. After all, there are practically countless stars visible on a clear night. Go in without clear direction, and your odds of finding Ursa Major’s pretty slim. Luckily, it’s easy to see once you’ve got a bit of a guide. 

First thing’s first, make sure you’re outside during the optimal time. Best timing is typically around 9’oclock at night, particularly in April. This is when it will be at its brightest, and you’ll likely get an ideal view, but anytime the sky’s clear and there’s little light pollution should do you just fine. Once you’ve got good conditions, simply look for the Big Dipper. If you can find its widely-known ladle shape, you’ve also found Ursa Major. 

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Stories and Myths of the Constellation

The science and facts behind the Ursa Major constellation are (admittedly) fascinating, but the mythologies are truly something else. Translating into “Great Bear,” the constellation’s many stories often revolve around this, and its Greek myth doesn’t let us down there, either. 

According to the ancient legend, Ursa Major actually used to be a gorgeous woman by the name of Callisto, a maiden that had been taken to bed by the god Zeus. However, as any Greek mythology student would know, Zeus’ wife, Hera, was not the type to take that laying down. To prevent an act of violent jealousy, Zeus turned both Callisto and his son, Arcas, into bears and tossed them into the sky. They then became stretched out and formed the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor as we know them today.

But the Greeks didn’t have all the fun. Native Americans and several other cultures have their own unique tellings of what the constellation represents and how it came to be. The former of these is probably most similar to the ancient Greek mythology, though, once again directly associating it with great bears. In particular, the Iroquois interpreted three of the constellation’s stars (Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid) as hunters pursuing the Great Bear. Every autumn, they win in their battle against it and eat the bear. The skeleton then returns to its cave come winter, and the hunt begins all over again in a continuous cycle.