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Ursa Major

Part 3 - Middle East and Asia

The Saptarishis Ursa Major is the most prominent constellation in the in the northern celestial hemisphere.

The constellation, especially the Big Dipper plays an important role in the mythology of India, China and many other Asian nations.

Ursa Major references in the Bible

"The Bear" as a constellation is mentioned twice in the Bible.

Job 9:9 He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
Job 38:32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?

In the Vulgate, a late-4th century Latin translation of the Bible, "The Bear" was translated as "Arcturus."

Sources: Wikipedia and biblehub

Islamic Astronomy

Most of today's names of the stars of Ursa Major - including all eight stars of the Big Dipper - are of Arabic origin:

α Dubhe ظهر الدب الاكبر ¿ahr ad-dubb al-akbar Back of the Greater Bear
β Merak المراق al-maraqq Loins' (of the bear)
γ Phecda فخذ الدب fakhth al-dubb Thigh of the bear
δ Megrez المغرز‎ al-maghriz Base (of the bear's tail)
ε Alioth عليات الحمال alyat al-hamal The sheep's fat tail
ζ Mizar المئزر miʼzar Apron; wrapper; cover
η Alkaid
قائد بنات نعش al-qā'id bināt naʿsh The leader of the daughters of the bier
g Alcor السها al-suhā The forgotten one

Ursa Major in Al-Sufi's
Book of Fixed Stars
Source: Bodleian Library, Oxford

Both names for Eta Ursae Majoris, Alkaid and Benetnasch are derived from the same arabic phrase al-qā'id bināt naʿsh (leader of the daughters of the bier).

A bier is a stand on which a corpse, coffin, or casket containing a corpse is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave. Bināt naʿsh al-kubra The daughters of the bier, i.e. the mourning maidens, are the three stars of the handle of the Big Dipper, Alkaid, Mizar, and Alioth; while the four stars of the bowl, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe, are the bier.

Source: Wikipedia
Arabic Names of the stars of the Big Dipper
In addition to the Big Dipper, Arab astronomers identified two asterisms within Ursa Major:
θ, τ, 23, υ, φ, 18 and 15 UMa formed Sarīr Banāt al-Na'sh, the Throne of the Mourners, also known as Al-Haud, the Pond.

In the south of Ursa Major are three pairs of stars, collectively known as Ḳafzah al Ṭhibā,the Springs of the Gazelle, each pair making one spring; the Gazelle being imagined from the unformed stars since gathered up as Leo Minor, and the springing of the animal being due to its fear of the greater Lion's tail. Eventually the gazelle jumped into Al-Haud, the Pond.

ν and ξ were called Al Ḳafzah al Ūla - the first spring;
λ and μ were called Al Fiḳrah al Thānia - the second spring;
ι and κ were called All Ḳafzah al‑thālithaḥ - the third spring.

Arab asterisms in Ursa Major

Add for Alcor

Ancient India

Subhash Kak writes in Birth and Development of Indian Astronomie, that in the Vedic periode, the stars later known in the West as the Big Dipper and as Ursa Minor were called "the Riksas" - the bears.

Source: Selin, Helaine (6 December 2012). Astronomy Across Cultures: The history of non-western astronomy

In Hinduism, the Big Dipper is known as Saptarshi (सप्तर्षि - meaning "seven sages"). Each of the stars of the the Big Dipper represents one of the Saptarshi or Seven Sages.

The Saptarshi are the seven rishis in ancient India, who are extolled at many places in the Vedas and other Hindu literature. In the Vedas, they are regarded as the patriarchs of the Vedic religion.

In addition, Mizar's companion Alcor is named Arundhati, after the wife of Vashista.
The Seven Saptarishi
The Stars of the Big Dipper in Hindu Mythology

α Dubhe क्रतु Kratu β Merak ਪੁਲਹ Pulaha
γ Phecda पुलस्त्य Pulastya δ Megrez अत्रि Atri
ε Alioth अङ्गिरा Angiras ζ Mizar वसीष्ठ Vasishtha
η Alkaid ऋषि मरीचि Marichi g Alcor अरुन्धती Arundhati

Source: Wikipedia

Brahma and the Seven Saptarishi
Source: Pinterest

Big Dipper in Hindu Astronomy Big Dipper in Chinese Astronomy
The Stars of the Big Dipper in Chinse Astronomy

α Dubhe Tianshu Celestial pivot
β Merak Tianxuan Celestial rotating jade
γ Phecda Tianji Celestial shining pearl
δ Megrez Tianquan Celestial balance
ε Alioth 玉衡 Yuheng Jade sighting-tube
ζ Mizar 開陽 Kaiyang Opener of heat
η Alkaid 搖光 Yaoguang Twinkling brilliance

Sources: Ian Ridpath and Wikipedia

To the right is a painting by an unknown Ming Dynasty royal artist, depicting a grand ritual in heaven. The seven young men in casual clothing are seven stars in the Big Dipper while nine middle-aged guys with beards in formal official attire are dippers’ assistants.

The Celestial Ruling Group
Jintai Era (1450-1456)
Source: View of China

Ancient China

In Chinese, Ursa Major is written 大 熊 座.

Chinese astronomers knew the shape of the Big Dipper as Beidou, the Northern Dipper (they had a Southern Dipper as well, in Sagittarius).

It was also seen as the chariot of the Emperor, controlling the sky as it revolves around the pole.

Source: Ian Ridpath

In a Chinese proverb, the southern dipper marks life while the northern dipper (Beidou, our Big Dipper in Ursa Major) marks death. The Hong Kong Space Museum tells the story of the two dippers:

Chariot of the Emperor; © Arjayempee
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

It was said that, in the Period of Three Kingdoms (220-280), there was a famous Taoist priest named Guan Lu. Once day he met a young man named Yan Chao. As an expert in physiognomy, he found the young man would die soon and told the man his ill fortune. At the time, Yan Chao was only nineteen and was really upset by the bad news. He begged the priest to help him. Guan Lu instructed, "You should go home fast and prepare a bottle of good wine and a plate of deer meat. Then go to the south of the wheat fields. Under a giant mulberry tree, you will find two old men playing Go. Serve them well and don't say a word. They may help you."

Following the instruction, Yan Chao finally found the old men as described. He stood beside still and served them with wine and meat silently. Being too concentrated on the game, they enjoyed the feast subconsciously. After some time, the old men to the North suddenly noticed the present of Yan Chao and annoyingly said, "What are you doing here?" Without saying a word, Yan Chao fell on his knees and kowtowed.
Two old men
Source: Hong Kong Space Museum
Not knowing how to deal with the young man, the old man finally said, "we've enjoyed his offerings. Let's do something to reward him." The old man to the South said, "Give me your record of death." When he found that Yan Chao was destined to live only nineteen years, he crossed the record out and changed it into ninety. Delighted with unexpected good result, Yan Chao thanked the old men and went home. Afterwards, Guan Lu explained, "the old man sitting to the North is Northern Dipper, the one to the South is Southern Dipper. Southern Dipper is responsible for the birth and Northern Dipper is responsible for the death."
Ian Ridpath describes the other asterisms in the constellation as follows:

A ring of six faint stars near Merak including 36 and 44 UMa was known as Tiānláo, a prison for noblemen (the prison for commoners was in Corona Borealis), although some maps place this group south of ψ UMa.

Tiānlǐ, the judge responsible for imprisoning the noblemen, was represented by four faint stars including 66 UMa within the bowl of the Dipper.

Six stars in the forelegs and head of the bear formed an arc called Wénchāng, the administrative centre, representing six officers or departments of the celestial government. Sources differ as to exactly which six stars were involved, but υ, φ, θ 15 UMa were among them.

Chinese asterisms in Ursa Major
Map based on a map provided by

There are various other faint Chinese constellations in this area which are difficult to identify with any certainty. To the north of Wénchāng was Sānshī a trio of stars representing three tutors. [Wikipedia identifies this group as ρ, σ1 and σ2 Uma.]
Nèijiē, "inner steps", was a group of six stars representing steps between Wenchang and the polar region of the sky. The Chinese referred to the area around the celestial pole as the Purple Palace or Central Palace. The star 24 UMa formed part of one of the walls enclosing this circumpolar region; the complete wall extended from Draco to Camelopardalis

South of the bowl of the Dipper were two named single stars. One was called Tàiyángshǒu, "guard of the Sun", usually identified as
χ UMa, while ψ UMa was Tàizūn, representing royal relatives or ancestors.

In southern Ursa Major, the three pairs of stars that the Arabs visualized as the tracks of a leaping gazelle were known in China as Sāntái, "three steps’, either leading to the administrative centre Wenchang, or steps that allowed the Emperor to travel between Earth and sky – literally, three steps to Heaven.

In Chinese astronomy, all the asterisms, except for Sāntái were part of the Purple Forbidden enclosure; Sāntái was located in the Supreme Palace enclosure.

Sources: Ian Ridpath, Wikipedia
Stair to the Purple Heaven Palace; © Lu Jialiang

Purple Heaven Palace; © Yang Guangzhi


In Shinto, the seven largest stars of Ursa Major belong to Amenominakanushi, the "Heavenly Ancestral God of the Originating Heart of the Universe."


In Taoism. the Big Dipper is personified as Doumu, the "Mother of the Great Chariot."


The Buddhist equivalent to Doumu is called Marici.

Sources: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia


In Korea, the constellation is referred to as "the seven stars of the north." In the related myth, a widow with seven sons found comfort with a widower, but to get to his house required crossing a stream. The seven sons, sympathetic to their mother, placed stepping stones in the river. Their mother, not knowing who put the stones in place, blessed them and, when they died, they became the constellation.

Sources: Wikipedia

Stepping stones; Wikipedia


Wikipedia informs us about a Mongolian version of the prehistoric myth of the Seven Men:

Once upon a time, there were eight orphan brothers gifted with outstanding capabilities living within a kingdom. The king and the queen lived within it peacefully. One day, a monster came and kidnapped the queen. The king asked the eight brothers to bring her back and said: "If one of you succeeds to rescue my beloved, I will give to him a golden arrow".

The orphans went together to assist their queen. They searched the monster during two days and three nights, when in the middle of the third night, they found and killed the monster. They brought back the queen in the castle. The king did not cut out the arrow in eight parts, he decided to threw it in the sky. The first to catch it could keep it.

The younger brother succeeded the test and changed immediately into the North Star. The seven others changed into the seven gods, the seven Gods visiting their younger brother every night. The name Doloon burkhan (the Seven Gods) comes from this legend to appoint the Great Bear and the Golden Stick, Altan Hadaas, the Polar Star.

Source: Wikipedia


In Burmese, the stars of the Big Dipper are known as Pucwan Tārā (pronounced "bazun taja"). Pucwan is a general term for a crustacean, such as prawn, shrimp, crab, lobster,

Source: Wikipedia

Malaysia and Indonesia

In Malay, the Big Dipper is known as Buruj Biduk, the Boat Constellation; in Indonesian, as Bintang Biduk, the Canoe Stars.

Sources: Wikipedia

Biduk Canoe in Indonesia
Source: 1001 Malam

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