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Don Shoulderblade, Northern Cheyenne - Goal Spokesman

Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved

Grizzlies in the Heavens

No constellation is more famous than the Big Dipper, which is also known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear.  In French, Grande Ourse. Italian, Ursa Maggiore. German, Grosse Bar. Ursa Major and its neighbor Ursa Minor, the Lesser or Little Bear, are the first two constellations listed in the earliest star catalogues.

Some Native American people saw the bowl of the Big Dipper as the body of a bear, and the three stars of the handle as her cubs. The Big Dipper has been interpreted as a bear lying on its back in winter.  Crawling from its den in spring. Standing on its hind legs in summer. Tracking the seasons in its changing position in the night sky.


Stories of these constellations share a common theme: the richness of our connection with bears and nature. The Mother Bear has long been a symbol of care and nurturing, and her stories are full of generosity of spirit.

One of my favorites is the Greek myth about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor that centers on Callisto, one of the maidens of Artemis, goddess of the forest and the hunt. (Her name shares the same root word as the Latin name for bear, Arctos). Callisto was seduced by Zeus and bore a son, Arcas, who grew up to be a hunter. In revenge, Zeus’ jealous wife Hera turned Callisto into a bear. Coming upon her son one day in the forest, Callisto rushed to greet him. Not recognizing his mother, Arcas took aim and was about to shoot her, when Zeus saw what was happening. He turned Arcas into a bear and, to save them both, flung them into the heavens where they were transformed into stars. She became Ursa Major, he Ursa Minor.  


Ursa Major: Iroquois Tale

Here’s an interesting take on a bear hunt, attributed to the Iroquois. The Bear emerges from the stars in the Corona Borealis. He is pursued through the summer skies by seven hunters: Robin, Chickadee, Moose Bird (Grey Jay), Pidgeon, Blue Jay, Owl, and Saw-Whet (a kind of owl). As autumn nears, the four hunters farthest from the Bear lose the trail, with the stars setting one after the other. At last Robin fatally wounds the Bear with an arrow. The blood of the Bear colors the fall leaves red. One drop of the Bear’s blood falls on Robin, coloring his breast red.


The death of the bear in this story explains the cycle of the seasons. Yes, there is violence but it is not mean-spirited. It is part of the fabric of life and the ecology of the human imagination that ties Robin and the other birds to the Bear and the vibrant hardwood forests of the northeast.


Ursa Major: Zuni Tale

The Great Bear guards the land from the frozen gods of the north. In winter, the land is ravaged by the frozen breath of the ice gods as the bear sleeps. In the spring, when the bear wakes, she drives the frozen gods back and the land is refreshed.


This Zuni story gets to the heart of the meaning of the bear throughout our shared history: renewal and transformation. An animal that seemingly dies underground in winter and emerges with new life in spring is, indeed, a miracle. To people who watched bears disappear into the earth when it snowed and reappear when the plants sprouted, bears represented the changes of the seasons, and the rebirth of life.


It is still amazing: no matter how much scientists have learned about hibernation and the general lifeways of bears, they are still in awe at the power and mystery of the bear (link).


No matter which story you prefer, each night Ursa Major reminds us of the life-affirming connections with the earth and the cycles of the seasons. 

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