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Ursa Minor

Star Lore

UrsaMinor is the northernmost constellation in the sky.

Ursa Minor has traditionally been important for navigation, as its main star, Polaris lies nearly in a direct line with the Earth's rotational axis "above" the North Pole.

Its Latin name means "Lesser Bear" but it is better known as the Little Bear.

Ursa Minor is similar shaped as the nearby asterism of the Big Dipper and many myth regarding the
"Little Bear" (or dipper or wagon) are connected with the "Big Bear" (or dipper or wagon).

Ancient Mesopotamia

While almost all of the (Greek) Ptolemaic Constellations have their roots in ancient Mesopotamia, there were no bears in Mesopotamian star charts.

The MUL.APIN star catalog refers to the constellation as MAR.GID.DA.AN.NA, the Wagon of Heaven.

Rogers associates MAR.GID.DA.AN.NA with Damkianna, which is a synonym for Ninhursag, the ancient Sumerian mother goddess of the mountains.

Akkadian cylinder seal impression depicting a vegetation goddess, possibly Ninhursag; Wikipedia
Rogers also suggests (with a question mark) that the MUL.APIN name IBILA.E.MAH represents Polaris.
He translates IBILA.E.MAH with "The star which stands in its rope: The Heir of the Sublime Temple, the first-ranking son of Anu.

Sources: J. H. Rogers: Origins of the Ancient Constellations: I The Mesopotamian Tradition,
Brian Harris: Ancient Skies: Early Babylonian astronomy, with specific reference to MUL.APIN

Norse and Viking Mythology

The Vikings and other Nordic nations had the same concept as the Babylonians:

According to Jonas Persson, the Big Dipper and Ursa Minor are called the Karlsvagn (Man’s Chariot) and Kvennavagn (Woman’s Chariot), respectively, suggesting that the man is Thor, while the woman in the smaller wagon is Freyja.

The Nordic version of the wagon has survived in Germany and Denmark, where Ursa Minor is still called Kleiner Wagen and Litli Vagn, respectively - both meaning Little Wagon.

Sources: Jonas Persson: Norse Constellations, R. H. Allen

Kvennavagn; Jonas Persson

In Finland, as R. H. Allen points out "apparently alone among the northern nations of Europe in this conception" the constellation is seen as a bear, being called Vähä Otawa, the Little Bear.

Polaris is known in Finland as Taehti, the Star at the Top of the Heavenly Mountain.

Source: R. H. Allen

Phoenician Navigation

The Phoenicians were the first sailors in recorded history to use Polaris and the constellation Ursa Minor as a navigational aid.

During the peak of the Phoenician civilization, the celestial pole was somewhat closer to Kochab (β UMi) than to Polaris (α UMi), and thus, the Phoenicians used the entire constellation to determine a northerly bearing. Greek scholar Callimachus (ca. 310 BC - ca 240 BC) reported that Thales (ca. 626 BC - ca. 548 BC) "... measured out the little stars of the Wain [wagon] by which the Phoenicians sail".

Phoenician ship 2nd century AD
carved on the face of a sarcophagus
Ancient History Encyclopedia
According to Ian Ridpath, It is not clear whether Thales actually invented the constellation or merely introduced it to the Greeks.

Eratosthenes reported that the Greeks referred to Ursa Minor as Φοινίκη, the "Phoenician."

Source: Wikipedia

Greek Mythology

The ancient Greek name of the constellation is Κυνοσούρα, latinized Cynosura, the "dog's tail". The origin of this name is unclear (Ursa Minor being a "dog's tail" would imply that another constellation nearby is "the dog", but no such constellation is known). However, in most artistic renderings the bears representing Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are often presented with unusual long tails, which bears don't have.

In the Catasterismi, a 1st century BC Alexandrian prose retelling of the mythic origins of stars and constellations, Cynosura is the name of an Oread nymph described as a nurse of Zeus.

Aratus, also using the term Cynosura, picks up on the tail of the nymphs nursing the infant Zeus. In his version, the nymphs were Adrasteia and Ida. Zeus placed them the sky as Ursa Major (Adrasteia) and Ursa Minor (Ida).

In the Almagest, the constellation appears under the Greek name Arktos Mikra (Ἄρκτος Μικρά), meaning "Little Bear."

Source: Ian Ridpath

Ursa Minor in Urania's Mirror, 1824
Source: Wikipedia

Ursa Minor by Kornelius Reissig

The North Star in Northern Europe

Due to precession, the celestial north pole was void of stars in ancient times. The first mentioning of a pole star usable for navigation can be found in England at around the 8th or 9th century AD.

In old English, the star we now know as Polaris was called scip-steorra, the ship-star; in the Old English rune poem, the T-rune (Tiwaz) is associated with a circumpolar constellation, compared to the quality of steadfastness or honour.

In 14th century Northern Europe, Polaris was called the "guiding star"; lodestar in Old English, leiðarstjarna in Old Norse and leitstern in Middle High German.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bruce Dickins: Runic and heroic poems of the old Teutonic peoples, p. 18

Tiwaz rune

The North Star in Slavic Mythology

In Slavic mythology, Polaris was called Perun's eye and countless Slavic and Hungarian astronomers continued this tradition – most known ones are Nicolaus Copernicus and Franz Xaver von Zach.

Perun was the highest god of the pantheon in Slavic religion. He was the god of sky, thunder, lightning, storms, rain, law, war, fertility and oak trees.

Source: Wikipedia

Figurine of Perun
12th century Veliky Novgorod
Source: Wikipedia

The name Polaris

Ian Ridpath tells us that the first known usage of the name Stella Polaris applied to this star in print was in an edition of the Alfonsine Tables published in Venice in 1492. According to R. H. Allen, in the Alfonsine Tables, the term Alrucaba et est Stella polaris sive Polus was applied to both Kochab (β UMi) and Polaris (α UMi).

The name Stella Polaris also appears on a celestial globe made in 1493 by German priest Johannes Stöffler

Stöffler's Globe at
Landesmuseum Württemberg
Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath, R. H. Allen

Islamic Astronomy

R.H. Allen tells us, that early in Arab astronomy Ursa Minor was called the Lesser Bier (with Ursa Major being the Larger 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. The three stars in the "tail" or "handle" of the constellation were called Banāt al Naʽash al Ṣughrā, the (mourning) Daughters of the Lesser Bier.

In the Book of Fixed Stars (964 AD), al-Sufi presented the constellation as Al Dubb al Aṣghar, the Lesser Bier.

The Mourning Daughters
by Apianus, 1533
Source: Ian Ridpath

In 1533, German astronomer and cartographer Petrus Apianus placed the mourning Daughters under the Latin name Filiae Ursae Majoris in a planisphere showing a combination of Ptolemaic and Arab constellations.
R.H. Allen reports two Arab names for Polaris: Al Ḳiblah, "because it is the star least distant from the pole ... and helped them, in any strange location distant from an established place of worship, to know the points of the compass and thus the direction of Mecca and its Kaʽbah.

As marking the north pole it also bore the title Al Ḳuṭb al Shamāliyy, the Northern Axle.

In Damascus, Polaris was called Mismār, meaning Needle or Nail, while the Turks called it as Yilduz, the Star par excellence. A Turkish myth reports that its light was concealed for a time after their capture of Constantinople.

Source: R.H. Allen
Ursa Minor in a colored edition of the Book of Fixed Stars
Source: Utrecht University

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

Early in Indian history, the star nearest the pole (which until 300 AD was Dubhe [β UMi]) was known as Grahadhāra, the Pivot of the Planets.

In ancient Hindu literature, Polaris is personified as Dhruva, the son of the King Uttānapāda.

The ancient text of the Vishnu Purana tells us, that Vishnu appeared to Dhruva in a meditation. When Vishnu offered Dhruva to grant him a wish. Having no desire for worldly or heavenly pleasures, Dhruva only asked for a life in memory of the Lord.

Vishnu granted him Dhruvapada - the state where he would become a celestial body.

the Saptarshis, seven Rishi (enlightened people), represented by the Big Dipper gave Dhruva the most revered seat of a Star.

Sources: Wikipedia, R.H. Allen
Dhruva as the Pole star; by Manaku ca. 1740
Source: Wikipedia

Ancient China

In Chinese, Ursa Minor is written 小 熊 座.

Ian Ridpath provides an extensive description of the Chinese constellations that are located in what is now known as Ursa Minor:

"In ancient China, the polar region of the sky took on immense symbolism because of its literally pivotal position, mirroring the central authority of the Emperor on Earth. The area including the modern Ursa Minor plus parts of Camelopardalis, Draco, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia was known to the Chinese as Zǐ Wēi Yuán, the Purple Palace Enclosure or Central Palace.

Surrounding it was a wall delineated by 15 stars, divided into western and eastern sections. The eastern wall started in present-day Draco and went through Cepheus into Cassiopeia, while the western section was in Draco, Ursa Major, and Camelopardalis.

Within this central enclosure lived the Emperor and his immediate family, depicted as an arc of five stars called Bìijí, the North Pole Office. In sequence polewards they were: Tàizǐ, the Crown Prince (γ UMi); Di, the Emperor himself (β UMi), described as ‘the reddest and brightest star of the group’; Shùzǐ, son of a concubine (5 UMi); and Hòugōng, the Imperial Concubine or Empress (4 UMi).

At the end of the chain, over the border in Camelopardalis, was Struve 1694; this was known as Tianshu, the Celestial Pivot, or Niuxing, the Pivot Star, because it was closest to the celestial pole and hence acted as the pole star in those times despite being a mere 5th magnitude.

Keeping with the domestic theme, six faint stars in southern Ursa Minor and Draco formed the Emperor’s bedroom, Tiānchuáng.

Although Chinese astronomers did not recognize the Little Dipper we know today, they did have a similar dipper shape called Gòuchén (‘curved array’) formed by some of the same stars: ζ, ε, δ and α Ursae Minoris, plus two other unlabelled stars in Cepheus. What Gòuchén represents is unclear, though – it is variously described as the Empress, the residence of the Emperor, or even six generals

Gòuchén contains the present-day Polaris, but it was not known as that in ancient Chinese times. It is usually said that the Chinese called this star Tianhuang dadi, meaning ‘great emperor of heaven’ or ‘high god of heaven’, referring to the ultimate sky god – presumably the authority from which the terrestrial Emperor took his mandate to rule on Earth.

Sources: Wikipedia and Ian Ridpath
Chinese constellations in Ursa Minor
Map based on

Purple Palace Enclosure

Purple Palace in Hue, Vietnam


The Cree call the seven stars that make up the Little Dipper Atima Atchakosuk, the Dog Stars.

Wilfred Buck tells us how dogs came to the people:

"Long ago, the people had no dogs. There was no companion for a lonely child or help for the Elders on long forced marches to new campsites in search of food during times of famine. The people were always surprised when visitors, raiders, and marauding animals entered their camps; they had no warning system that would tell them when danger was near.

Atima Atchakosuk; Source: Atchakosuk
Our natootim-uk, our relatives, the Wolf, Coyote and Fox saw this and were concerned.

The wolves held a council and it was decided that they would send two of their own to live with the people. The council of Coyotes and council of Foxes also decided this same action.

Two pups from each of the councils were sent to all the four directions of humankind. They came, adapted, changed and flourished. From these gifts came all the dogs that now inhabit the world. These dogs now guard our homes, communities, camps, and loved ones.

To honor this sacrifice made by our natootim-uk, the Creator placed a reminder of the dogs in the heavens, which would forever be a guardian for humans. Polaris anchors the dogs’ leash as the dog runs around the circumference of the sky-camp, alert and ever on guard.

The stars of this constellation, particularly those on the handle of the Little Dipper, represent the Wolf (Polaris), the Coyote (δ UMi) and the Fox (ε UMi); the four bowl stars represent the pups that were sent to the four directions of humankind.

Polaris is also known as Keewatin, the Going Home Star. It represents the northern direction and keewatinook – the north winds. It is an important star for people who live under the Ahkoop Atchakosuk, or blanket of stars.

The Plains Cree called this star Ekakatchet Atchakos, the standing still star,as this star stood still while all the other stars danced around it. It also represents the altar for the sweat lodge ceremony.

Source: Wilfred Buck: Ininewuk Stories of the Stars

With their Ojibwe and Dakota neigbors, the Cree share the legend "How Fisher went to Skyland."

Some anthropologists believe the legend dates back to a time of perpetual winter - the end of the last ice age, when the first people migrated to North America.

Ocik Atchakosuk, the fisher (Pekania pennanti) is a mamal belonging to the weasel family. While the Ojibwe placed Fisher in the sky as the Big Dipper, Cree astronomy visualized it as Ursa Minor.

An extended version of the story can be found at

Here is a shortened version, told on

"In the days of perpetual winter, the days were cold and the food was scarce. One day, Ojiig the Fisher and his strongest friends, Otter, Lynx, and Wolverine, decided to climb the highest mountain and break through the barrier around the Skyland and return the warm weather to the earth.

After several tries, Wolverine and Fisher broke through the sky and found the warm weather hoarded by the sky people. While there, he heard the beautiful songs of caged birds, and he realized if he freed these birds, and they flew down to earth, they would provide good food.

As he was releasing the birds, the sky people returned and tried to stop him from escaping. Rather than dive back through the hole, he waited and chewed the hole in the sky larger to let as much warm air out as possible. The Fisher had magic that protected him from the arrows the sky people fired, but eventually they hit the one vulnerable part of his body, the tail, and he started to fall from the sky.

The spirits took pity on him, and caught him before he hit the ground, and gave him a place of honor in the sky. That place is the visible constellation we were raised to call the big dipper, and the handle is the tail.
Fisher; Wikipedia

Ocik Atchakosuk; Source: Atchakosuk

Every year, he makes his journey up into the sky, and every winter he breaks through to free the songbirds and the warm weather. And, every winter he is struck by the arrow and begins to fall back first from the sky. But then, as he brings an end to winter, he returns to earth and the journey begins anew."

Sources:, Atchakosuk, Stewart, Williamson: They dance in the sky


In Inuit astronomy, the three brightest stars - Polaris, Kochab and Pherkad - were known as Nuutuittut "never moving", though the term is more frequently used in the singular to refer to Polaris alone.

While the Pole Star was used for navigation al over the northern hemisphere, in the far northern latitudes of the arctic regions, it is almost exactly over head - too high to be of use in navigation.

Sources: Wikipedia, John MacDonald: The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend


The North Star, called Náhookòs Bikò‘, the Central Fire, depicts the central fire of a hogan, a Navajo home.

This star never moves and thus provides stability to the cosmic home. The constellation is the central light and eternal fire that brings comfort to the home. It also represents human consciousness. This star provides the relationship that unites the two other Náhookòs constellations into one.

The star gives centrality, balance and guidance to all other stars in the sky. It provides dynamic stability within the cosmic process as a star that appears stationary, not wandering.

All ceremonial songs of the Navajo start with Náhookòs Bikò‘.

Sources: Navajo Skies,

Náhookòs Bikò‘ © Melvin Bainbridge


On the Ojibwe Star Map, Ursa Minor is depicted as Maang, the Loon.

The loon is one of the Ojibwe clans and is seen as a very important messenger. Loon and crane are both leaders in the clan system, they work together.

The loon stands at the doorway between the water and the land or the material and the spirit world.

Source: Ojibwe Constellation Guide

© Native Skywatchers


The Skidi Pawnee saw the stars of the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper as stretcher-bearers who carried the sick and the death.

Ursa Minor, the "Little Dipper" was seen as Small Stretcher Bearing a Sick Child, while Polaris, the Star That Does Not Walk Around was seen as a chief watching over the the Stretcher-Bearers as they traversed through the sky.

Sources:, George E. Langford: Reachable Stars,
Stewart, Williamson; They dance in the sky: Native American star myths, p. 52, Ralph N. Buckstaff: Stars and constellations of a Pawnee sky map,

Big Dippwer and Little Dipper in the Pawnee Star Map
Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Flags and Coat of Arms
The state flag of Alaska displays eight gold stars, forming the Big Dipper and Polaris, on a dark blue field. The Big Dipper is an asterism in the constellation Ursa Major which symbolizes a bear, an animal indigenous to Alaska. As depicted on the flag, its stars can be used as a guide by the novice to locate Polaris and determine true north.

The design was created by Benny Benson of Seward and selected from among roughly 700 entries in a 1927 contest.

Source: Wikipedia
Alaska State Flag; Wikipedia

The official flag of Nunavut was proclaimed on 1 April 1999, along with the Territory of Nunavut in Canada. It features a red inuksuk - a traditional Inuit land marker—and a blue star, which represents Niqirtsuituq, the North Star, and the leadership of elders in the community.

The colours blue and yellow represent the riches of the land, sea and sky.

Source: Wikipedia
Nunavut Territory Flag; Wikipedia

The flag of the Community of Madrid is crimson red, with seven silver, five-pointed stars. The stars represents each of the administrative areas of the province of Madrid.

The stars are also thought to represent the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellations, in reference to the bear of the City of Madrid's coat of arms.

Source: Wikipedia
Community of Madrid; Wikipedia

In 1212, the Council of Madrid used an ensign that shown a bear with the seven stars of Ursa Major or Ursa Minor. This flag was used in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

In 1222, the ensign was changed showing the bear, which had been displayed grazing, now standing on its hind legs, rampant, to eat fruits from a tree. Seven eight-pointed stars where shown on a bordure Azure.

Throughout the centuries, the ensign has been modified several times. The current version was adopted in 1982.

Source: Wikipedia
1212 1982

Modern Day Fiction

In the best selling comedy science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Light City, the only city on the planet Ursa Minor Beta is where the headquarters of the editorial offices of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are situated.


When you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta you are tired of life
Source: Shirt Woot

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