The Bears in the Sky

Where I live, there are only two bears. Gigantic bears, which prowl the night. The bears in the sky. They are the big and little bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and they are among the best known constellations. Nearly everyone can go out into the night and find the big dipper. This huge pot is actually an "asterism", a common name for part of a constellation which is not itself a constellation. There are fourteen stars which are commonly accepted as making up the Great Bear, and of these seven are considered to be part of the big dipper.

If you don’t know how to find the two constellations, it isn’t that hard. It is usually much easier to do in the summer, because they are higher in the sky. Go outside on any clear night and look north. You should see a huge dipper shaped constellation. The "handle" is the tail of the bear, the "bowl" is part of the hindquarters. If you look at the two stars which form the beginning of the "bowl" and follow along the line that they form, you will encounter Polaris, the north star. The star forms part of the tail of the little bear, and was used by sailors for years as a guide to finding north and getting their directions. The phrase, "getting your bearings" comes from the practice of using the big bear to find the north star.

Many cultures throughout the world looked to the sky and saw bears there. They made up various tales to explain why it was that these animals had come to live in the sky. The most well known of them comes from the Greek Classical Mythology. It can be found in a far more poetic form in Ovid's Metamorphosis or in Bullfinch's Mythology.

Jupiter and Callisto

Callisto was a young Arcadian nymph. The delightful pleasure of her company and her astounding beauty brought many to spend time with her. Now, at this time, the gods were known to often appear to mortals and would often come to them seeking far more earthly things than one would expect. Jupiter was one such being.

Jupiter was the head of the deitic pantheon, and his infidelity in marriage to Juno was well known. For all that they were gods, they were also given to many mortal failings. This was one of them.

So it came to pass that Jupiter took a liking to Callisto. He appeared to her and they made wild, passionate love. It was from this union that Callisto conceived a child, whom she named Arcas.

The birth of the child brought Juno to the realization that her husband had been unfaithful to her, and in blind anger, brought down divine wrath upon the poor nymph. She decreed that the woman should forever be cursed to be a bear, to wander the wilds as an animal to symbolize the beastliness of the act that she and Jupiter had committed. Callisto’s hands twisted into massive paws, and her body became covered with fur. She bloated and grew fat, and her face pressed out into a shorte ned muzzle. The beautiful woman had become a great and terrible bear. Arcas was devastated at the disappearance of his mother for he did not realize that she had been cursed, and Juno went to great lengths to make certain that he did not discover this.

For many years, Callisto wandered the forests and plains. She was terrified when the night came, because she did not know how to be a bear. She had been a young nymph all of her life, and now the sounds and smells of this new world fi lled her with dread and fear. Even the other bears and animals of the wood scared her. This was not the worst of her troubles, either, because she was a magnificent specimen of bearhood. Many, many hunters sought to capture her and to claim her hide.

Arcas, too, grew up to be a powerful hunter. There are those who would say that he was the greatest hunter in the world. He spent many hours a day in the wilderness, hunting deer and other animals. It was only natural that he would d ecide that he should try to claim the prize of this great bear’s hide.

One day, while Arcas was hunting, he came upon a great bear. It was drinking water from a stream, and was completely unaware of his presence. Unaware that the animal was his mother, Arcas nocked an arrow and waited for the best moment to fire.

If Arcas were to release that arrow, he would have slain his own mother. Jupiter, who normally paid little or no attention to his cast-off lovers, took pity on the pair. Seeing that Arcas was about to loose his arrow, Jupiter changed him too into a bear and hauled the two of them into the sky by their tails. It is for this reason that both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are seen to have long tails. Now, they are frozen there in space, Arcas the bear still holding his bow in clumsy paws.< /P>

The punishment was not yet over, though, for Juno was still filled with anger. She sought out Oceanus and Tethys, the controllers of the sea, and made a request. She asked that the two bears never be allowed to sink below the sea and rest as the other inhabitants of the sky can. Now, you can see as they circle the sky, that they slowly sink nearer the horizon but never sink below it.

In some versions of this legend, the bear driver, Boötes, chases the pair around the sky with his greyhounds—the constellation Canes Venatici.


An unpleasant situation that was. It would seem that many of the stories which are used to explain the origins of those constellations are filled with death and violence. These next one, which comes from Native American traditions, is no exception. It is interesting to note, however, that many of these stories change through time and retellings. There are many different versions of them, each with a slightly different style and ending.

Additionally, while the Greeks saw the bears as having unusually long tails, many other peoples came up with other explanations for the three stars which trail out behind the image of the bear.


The 3 Braves

Long ago, the Great Bear wandered freely throughout the sky. His massive paws took him far across the boundless ceiling of the world. He hunted and fished, feeding there in the rivers of the sky. All throughout the first spring h e did this, until his belly was full and he was happy.

Little did he know that three braves had discovered him feeding that spring and they sought his meat and pelt to feed their families in the long winter that they knew was coming.

Without warning, the braves ran out after the bear. The Great Bear took off running, trying to escape from the hunters. All through the long summer he ran, trying to get away. The braves, however, were very cunning and strong. It wa s in the first autumn when their arrows pierced the Great Bear and he died.

The blood of the bear spilled out of the sky and tinged all of the leaves with red and orange. The trees then dropped all of their leaves in mourning for their friend.

The Great Bear was reborn the following spring as is the way of bears, and the braves set out after him again. They do this each year. If you look into the sky and watch, you can see the three braves trailing behind the Great Bear as he runs from them towards the horizon, only to do it again with the coming of spring.


These legends are but a few of the many that explain the reasons for those constellations. It is worth the time to go out and look at them, however. Even if you are not one who is interested in astronomy, it is a nice to be able to go outside and watch the bears in the sky.