Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, CO, is an excellent place to observe night skies free from light pollution. When it comes to constellations, one of the most famous is Ursa Major, meaning “The Big Bear,” which includes “The Big Dipper.”
From mid-northern latitudes, Ursa Major never dips below the horizon. It descends toward the northern horizon in winter and rises up again in spring. You can identify it when it rises in the early evening to the northeast.
One reason Ursa Major is so iconic is because different cultures have placed great significance upon it. The mythology of this constellation, as implied by its name, was often associated with bears.
The origin of the name Ursa Major itself goes back to ancient Greek mythology. The nymph Callisto was transformed into a bear after a dalliance with Zeus, King of the Gods, by Zeus’ jealous wife. Before Callisto’s son Arcas mistakenly slew his own unrecognizable bear-mother, Zeus likewise transformed him into a bear and placed them both in the night sky. Callisto became Ursa Major, and Arcas became Ursa Minor, “The Little Bear.”
A continent away, many Native American tribes also imagined Ursa Major as being bear-like. Tribes of the northeast sometimes identified the three main stars of Ursa Major’s tail as hunters pursuing the great beast across the night sky.
Conversely, in mythology from the Great Plains, the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major were seven sisters (or seven brothers) who escaped into the heavens and became stars after being pursued by a giant bear. In other variations of the same tale, the siblings instead become the “Seven Sisters” (aka Pleiades) star cluster.
Bears were once found on every single continent inhabited by people, except Australia. They are powerful, charismatic animals that seemingly share many human-like traits, such as walking upright or nursing from a sitting position. Bears influenced many human cultures, particularly when people contemplated the night sky.
Although American Black Bears are currently denning, the big bear herself can often be seen presiding in the night sky above the Black Canyon.