Ursa MajorCredit: wikimedia - Johannes Hevelius

Have you ever attempted to crack open the celestial vault so the star stories finally make sense?
I have found that the more I read about the different constellations, and become a watcher of the skies from different time perspectives, the more those constellation stories make sense. The astronomical cosmology differs from our cavemen ancestors who sometimes painted the skylights on cave walls to the present celestial navigators with all sorts of advanced equipment and knowledge.

Coma Berenices
This constellation is especially particular because it is the only non-mythical constellation. The Coma Berenices is named after a real woman who just happened to be Berenice II Queen of Egypt. Yes, this ancient constellation was catalogued by Tycho Brahe in 1602. She was an honored human being named a constellation.

Her story goes like this. She was born in Libya around 273 BC. Her father was a king and her mother was a princess before her marriage. At one time in the family saga Berenice’s mommy betrayed her daughter by becoming the lover of Berenice’s hubby. Well, Berenice put an end to that. She had her dear hubby murdered in her mum’s bed.

Then she married her half-cousin, Ptolemy III. I say this lightly, because in all actuality she was married to Ptolemy III for purely political reasons. In fact there was a re-unification of Egypt and Cyrene because of the marriage. Soon enough another Syrian war broke out and Ptolemy was away doing whatever kings did in war back then, and Berenice was left to worshipping the Greek gods. (Some accounts have her worshipping Venus rather than Aphrodite, but I’ll stick with the Greek goddess version). So Berenice decided to cut off her beautiful hair, and dedicate it to Aphrodite as a sacrifice in hopes that the goddess would arrange for her husband to return safely from the war.

Lo and behold, return he did, but he wasn’t thrilled with his wife’s bald head. Luckily for her, his anger was allayed by a court mathematician who proclaimed that the missing hair had been removed from the temple of Aphrodite by the gods who placed the tresses in the sky among the stars.

Indeed, Berenice’s Hair or Coma Berenices, is a near coma cluster of only 250 light years away. If that seems far, compare it to the Pleiades which are about 400 light years away. Many extra galactic objects can be found in Coma Berenices. Remember, a galaxy consists of millions to billions of stars, dust, and gas. Berenice’s hair is in the Virgo cluster of galaxies visible April through June.

Ursa Major Constellation
Ursa Major mythology is so universal as the bear (Ursa Major is Latin for the Great Bear), that it is considered as one of the main most ancient named constellations. The seven stars that make up the stories of a bear, a wagon, a plough, and now a dipper are common to numerous cultures, and the star lore was associated by the Greeks before Homer, and it was mentioned in the Odyssey. It is definitely an old named constellation that has been renamed as time has passed.

The reason for this differing perception from astronomers from different time periods is what is called proper motions. Stars do have individual motions which cause their positions to change. It is a slow change measured by a fraction of a second of arc per year that changes constellations significantly after hundreds of thousands of years. So, at one time the older cultures saw what we call the Big Dipper as a bear (there probably wasn’t anything called a dipper then anyhow). It did look more like a bear then.

A Greek bear story goes like this. Zeus (thee sky boss) was attracted to a lovely nymph, although he was married to Hera. She decided that the nymph should be changed into a bear so Zeus would find her unattractive and hopefully stop messing around. It worked, but poor nymph- turned- bear was hounded by bear hunters out to kill her on the earthly plane. Zeus didn’t like that so he swooped down to earth and grabbed nymph bear by her tail and flung her into the sky to live out her days among the other stars and eventually become known as Ursa Major. It also explains why her tail is much longer than earth bears.

A Native American legend is a bit similar. It has the bear being chased by hunters up to a mountain top. The bear leaps into the sky (resembling the bowl), and the hunters leap into the sky after it (resembling the handle of the bowl, or dipper).

The Egyptians thought of the asterism (a pattern of stars seen in the night sky) as a hippopotamus, or a river boat for the god Osiris.

The old Romans saw it as 7 oxen pulling a plough.

Presently it is known as the Big Dipper. This star evolution is like the anthropology of astronomical cosmology. It is an eagle view rather than a mouse view, a view taking in many cultures from many times instead of just one detailed view, like when people saw it only as a river boat. Truly the mythology makes the study so much more interesting. After all, each century with recorded celestial observations is infinitely attractive to all amateur astronomers, anyone watching and wishing upon a star. Some of the star stories have similarities, and others show a new (old) way of viewing the phenomena. There is little difference in the Coma Berenices story because it is non-mythological. Yet it is till a wonder in the sky, named after a human who may have studied the stars herself

Ursa major is the third largest constellation, and it’s border has more stars than the 7 in the Big Dipper. However, the Big Dipper is a great guidepost to the North Star, Polaris. The stars at the front of the dipper point to Polaris. It’s easy to find the North Star on a dark, starry night because it is the brightest star in its part of the sky, by the Big Dipper. This leads to yet another story, about a little bear, another myth that lives in the sky.

reference source: 365 Starry Nights, by Chet Raymo
photo credit: wikimedia - Johannes Hevelius