One evening recently I gazed up at the Big Dipper and thought there must be a whole host of lore and mythology associated with it. As I was soon to discover, there is.
However, my little investigation started with a jolt akin to learning the truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The Big Dipper is not an officially recognized constellation by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). It is officially recognized as an asterism, which is a small group of stars that does not make up one of the 88 officially recognized constellations.
The Big Dipper is considered a part of Ursa Major, the bear.
As you would expect, the lore associated with the Big Dipper is a long and rich one. To many Native American tribes the Big Dipper represented an animal, for example the Mandan and Hidatsa saw an ermine. Much of the Norse mythology associated with the stars and planets has been lost, or is poorly understood. In one version the Big Dipper is Thor’s chariot and the Little Dipper is his hammer. In some mythology from Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland the constellation is referred to as the “Wain.” There has been some speculation that the wain is a general reference to any of the Norse gods such as Odin or Thor who traveled in a chariot.
A chariot also shows up in the lore of the Irish and French, and some others. To the British, however, it was “The Plough.” It seems seeing a “dipper” may be a uniquely American observation.
People have always looked to the heavens and seen reflections of their culture and surroundings. So who cares for official designation, get out there and look at the stars.
You can imagine whatever you want with the big dipper and all the other stars in the sky.
Create your own constellations. Start your own new mythology.
Just the other night while writing this column I took a break to view the sky. I had the munchies, and suddenly the Big Dipper didn’t look anything like a dipper. It looked like a hand reaching into a bowl of popcorn!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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