Big Dipper

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This article is about the asterism. For other uses, see Big Dipper (disambiguation).
The asterism of the Big Dipper (shown in this star map in green) lies within the constellation of Ursa Major.

The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough,[1][2] is an asterism of seven stars recognized as a distinct grouping in many cultures. These stars are the brightest of the formal constellation Ursa Major; six of them are second magnitude stars, while only Megrez (δ) is of third magnitude. The North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star on Earth, can be located by extending an imaginary line from Merak (β) through Dubhe (α). Polaris is part of the "Little Dipper", Ursa Minor.



The constellation of Ursa Major has been seen as a bear by many distinct civilizations.[3] This may stem from a common oral tradition stretching back more than 13,000 years.[4] Using statistical and phylogenetic tools, Julien d'Huy reconstructs the following Palaeolithic state of the story: "There is an animal that is a horned herbivore, especially an elk. One human pursues this ungulate. The hunt locates or get to the sky. The animal is alive when it is transformed into a constellation. It forms the Big Dipper".[5]


The Hall of the Big Dipper in a Taoist temple, Wuhan

In Hindu astronomy, it is referred to as Saptarshi Mandal, meaning the "Collection of seven stars" or "Collection of Seven Great Sages", as each star is named after a Hindu mythological sage.

Throughout eastern Asia, the stars compose the Northern Ladle. They are colloquially known as the "Seven Stars of the Northern Ladle":

  • Chinese: 北斗七星,; pinyin: běidǒu qīxīng; Jyutping: bak1 dau2 cat1 sing1;
  • Japanese: 北斗七星, Hokuto Shichisei;
  • Korean: 북두칠성(北斗七星), Bukdu chilseong;
  • Vietnamese: Sao Bắc Đẩu;
  • Kazakh: Жетіқарақшы, Jetiqaraqshi(Seven Pirates);
  • Kyrgyz: Жетиген, Jetigen.

The seven stars are very important in Taoist astrology. Sometimes there are said to be nine stars — besides the seven visible stars, two invisible "attendant" stars, one on either side of the star Alkaid. Legend has it that there used to be 9 stars (北斗九星) but 2 had since faded and that those who can see the 2 unseen stars will lead a long life. The Goddess Doumu is said to have given birth to the nine stars which make up the asterism.

In Japan, the Big Dipper is called the "North Dipper" 北斗 (hokutô), and in ancient times, each one of the seven stars had a specific name, often coming themselves from ancient China:

"Pivot" 樞 (sû) is for Dubhe (Alpha Ursae Majoris)
"Beautiful jade" 璇 (sen) is for Merak (Beta Ursae Majoris)
"Pearl" 璣 (ki) is for Phecda (Gamma Ursae Majoris)
"Authority" 權 (ken) is for Megrez (Delta Ursae Majoris)
"Measuring rod of jade" 玉衡 (gyokkô) is for Alioth (Epsilon Ursae Majoris)
"Opening of the Yang" 開陽 (kaiyô) is for Mizar (Zeta Ursae Majoris)
Alkaid (Eta Ursae Majoris) has several nicknames : "Sword" 劍 (ken) (short form from "End of the sword" 劍先 (ken saki) ), "Flickering light" 搖光 (yôkô), or again "Star of military defeat" 破軍星 (hagun sei), because travel in the direction of this star was regarded as bad luck for an army.[6]

In Mongolia, it is known as the Seven Gods (Долоон бурхан). In parts of rural India, it is known as the Samantha formation. An Arabian story has the four stars of the Plough's bowl as a coffin, with the three stars in the handle as mourners, following it.

In Indonesia, the asterism is known as Bintang Biduk or "biduk star", biduk refers to a small ship or canoe used to transport objects.[7]Buruj Biduk (The Ladle) is the formation's name in Malaysia.


The Big Dipper seen from Kauai.
The "Starry Plough", used by Irish nationalists and leftists.

In both Ireland and the United Kingdom, this pattern is known as the Plough. The symbol of the Starry Plough has been used as a political symbol by Irish Republican and left wing movements. It is also occasionally referred to as the Butcher's Cleaver in northern England.

Known as Charles his waine in some areas of England, the Plough was formerly called by the old name of Charles' Wain[8] ("wain" meaning "wagon," and derived from the still older Carlswæn), as it still is in Scandinavia, Karlavagnen, Karlsvogna, or Karlsvognen. In the northeast of England it is sometimes known as Charlie's Waggon. A folk etymology holds that "Karlavagnen" was derived from Charlemagne, but this common Germanic name meant the men's wagon (the churls' wagon), in contrast to the women's wagon (the Little Dipper).[9][10] An older Odin's Wain may have preceded these Nordic designations.[8] Similarly, in Romanian and most Slavic languages it is known as "the Great Wagon", as opposed to "the Small Wagon," the Little Dipper. In German, it is called Großer Wagen (Great Cart) and less common Großer Bär (Big Bear).

The Big Dipper seen from Berlin (Germany) in June 2011.

In Dutch, its official name is Grote Beer (Big Bear, or "Ursa Major" in Latin), but often called Steelpannetje (saucepan), because of its resemblance to the utensil.

In Hungarian, it is commonly called Göncölszekér ("Göncöl's cart") after a figure in Hungarian mythology, a táltos who carried medicines in his cart that could cure any disease.[note 1] In Finnish, the figure is known as Otava and widely used as a cultural symbol. Otava is an archaic Finnish word a salmon net.[11] It also was a name for bear, since in Finnish mythology the bear was said to have originated from the constellation of Otava.[12][13]

These seven stars (septentriones, from the phrase septem triōnēs, meaning "seven plough oxen"[14]) are the origin of the Latin word septentriōnēs meaning "north" and now found as the adjective septentrional (northern) in English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. This etymology goes back to a passage in Varro (Marcus Terentius) who explains that triōn- (a word not attested elsewhere) means "plough ox" and derives the form from terō, one of whose meanings is "thresh grain by rubbing". The derivation is acceptable (Latin short vowels often syncopate before -r- in medial syllables), but the meaning, if Varro is right about the root derivation, is surely "threshing ox", as the seven stars (oxen) perpetually wheel about the pole star like oxen on a threshing floor. A different etymology appeals to *septem astr-iōn- "seven stars" (aster-), which is not obviously wrong (if lacking poetic inspiration), but the development of *-nstr- to -ntr- is not without problems.

North America[edit]

Big Dipper seen from Tampa, Florida

In Canada and the United States the asterism is known as the Big Dipper because the major stars can be seen to follow the rough outline of a large ladle or "dipper". This figuration appears to be derived originally from Africa, where it was sometimes seen as a drinking gourd. In the 19th century, runaway slaves would "follow the Drinking Gourd" to the north with hopes of freedom.

A widespread American Indian figuration had the bowl as a bear. Some groups considered the handle to be three cubs following their mother, while others pictured three hunters tracking the bear. The Dipper appears on some Tribal flags, while the flag of the state of Alaska features a stylized Big Dipper and North Star. The Anishinaabe or Ojibway First Nation know the Big Dipper as Ojig-anang or the Fisher Star (after the fisher cat).


Within Ursa Major the stars of the Big Dipper have Bayer designations in consecutive Greek alphabetical order from the bowl to the handle.

The Big Dipper's bowl and part of the handle photographed from the International Space Station.
Mizar and Alcor are at the upper right.
(L Yrs)
Dubhe α UMa 1.8 124
Merak β UMa 2.4 79
Phecda γ UMa 2.4 84
Megrez δ UMa 3.3 58
Alioth ε UMa 1.8 81
Mizar ζ UMa 2.1 78
Alkaid η UMa 1.9 101

In the same line of sight as Mizar, but about one light-year beyond it, is the star Alcor (80 UMa). Together they are known as the "Horse and Rider". At fourth magnitude, Alcor would normally be relatively easy to see with the unaided eye, but its proximity to Mizar renders it more difficult to resolve, and it has served as a traditional test of sight. Mizar itself has four components and thus enjoys the distinction of being part of an optical binary as well as being the first-discovered telescopic binary (1617) and the first-discovered spectroscopic binary (1889).

4D proper moving in -/+ 150 000 years.3d glasses red cyan.svg 3D red cyan glasses are recommended to view this image correctly.

Five of the stars of the Big Dipper are at the core of the Ursa Major Moving Group. The two at the ends, Dubhe and Alkaid, are not part of the swarm, and are moving in the opposite direction. Relative to the central five, they are moving down and to the right in the map. This will slowly change the Dipper's shape, with the bowl opening up and the handle becoming more bent. In 50,000 years the Dipper will no longer exist as we know it, but be re-formed into a new Dipper facing the opposite way. The stars Alkaid to Phecda will then constitute the bowl, while Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe will be the handle.



Not only are the stars in the Big Dipper easily found themselves, they may also be used as guides to yet other stars. Thus it is often the starting point for introducing Northern Hemisphere beginners to the night sky:

  • Polaris, the North Star, is found by imagining a line from Merak (β) to Dubhe (α) and then extending it for five times the distance between the two Pointers.
  • Extending a line from Megrez (δ) to Phecda (γ), on the inside of the bowl, leads to RegulusLeonis) and AlphardHydrae). A mnemonic for this is "A hole in the bowl will leak on Leo."
  • Crossing the top of the bowl from Megrez (δ) to Dubhe (α) takes one in the direction of CapellaAurigae). A mnemonic for this is "Cap to Capella."
  • CastorGeminorum) is reached by imagining a diagonal line from Megrez (δ) to Merak (β) and then extending it for approximately five times that distance.
  • By following the curve of the handle from Alioth (ε) to Mizar (ζ) to Alkaid (η), one reaches ArcturusBoötis) and SpicaVirginis). A mnemonic for this is "Arc to Arcturus then speed (or spike) to Spica."

Additionally, the Dipper may be used as a guide to telescopic objects:

  • The approximate location of the Hubble Deep Field can be found by following a line from Phecda (γ) to Megrez (δ) and continuing on for the same distance again.
  • Crossing the bowl diagonally from Phecda (γ) to Dubhe (α) and proceeding onward for a similar stretch leads to the bright galaxy pair M81 and M82.
  • Two spectacular spiral galaxies flank Alkaid (η), the Pinwheel (M101) to the north and the Whirlpool (M51) to the south.
  • Projecting a line from Alkaid through the pole star will point to Cassiopeia.

Cultural associations[edit]

The Bible refers to it as "the seven stars" (Amos 5:8).[note 2]

Book XVIII of Homer's Iliad mentions it as "the Bear, which men also call the Wain."[15]

The Big Dipper is used as a part of the inescutcheon in the Swedish coat of arms.

In popular culture[edit]

In Tolkien's Middle-earth mythos, it is called the Valacirca (Sickle of the Valar), the sign of Hope signifying doom for Evil, while in T.A. Barron's Great Tree of Avalon series, it is called the Wizard's Staff, symbolizing Merlin's staff.

It is a prominent symbol in the Fist of the North Star manga/anime series; Kenshiro, has scars on his chest in the Big Dipper's configuration. In fact the original Japanese name "Hokuto no Ken" means "Fist of the Great Dipper". It is identified as an omen: "When the great bear appears, violence will follow."

In the manga X/1999 and its anime adaptation, it serves as a major recurring theme of the series mythos.

In the video game Devil Survivor 2, the seven stars of the Big Dipper (known as Septentriones) appear as the primary antagonists of the game, while Polaris serves as the game's final boss.

In the video game Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the player has to find the big dipper in the sky.

In the video game Monster Hunter 3, the seven stars of the Big Dipper appear as names of weapons of different classes all titled as the name of the star followed by Asterism in reference to this constellation.

The last track of Mannheim Steamroller's Fresh Aire 7 album is inspired by Chip Davis' sights of the Big Dipper when a child, and named after the constellation.

In the Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal anime, the Seven Barian Emperors have names based on stars of Big Dipper.

In the 13th Movie of the Case Closed Anime (Detective Conan) the Big Dipper plays a vital role for the criminals actions.

In the Disney Channel's animated series Gravity Falls, the main character's name is Dipper, due to the Big Dipper birthmark on his forehead.

In addition to appearing on the flags of political entities, the Dipper has also been used in corporate logos.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In order not to be confused with the Little Dipper, our asterism is also called Nagy Göncöl or "Big Göncöl".
  2. ^ As per the King James Version. Other translations have "the Pleiades," which also has seven stars visible to the naked eye.


  1. ^ Stern, David P. (23 April 2008). "Finding the Pole Star". Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Rao, Joe (9 May 2008). "Doorstep Astronomy: See the Big Dipper". Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  3. ^ Gibbon, William B. (1964). "Asiatic parallels in North American star lore: Ursa Major". Journal of American Folklore 77 (305): 236–250. doi:10.2307/537746. 
  4. ^ Bradley E Schaefer, The Origin of the Greek Constellations: Was the Great Bear constellation named before hunter nomads first reached the Americas more than 13,000 years ago?, Scientific American, November 2006, reviewed at The Origin of the Greek Constellations; Yuri Berezkin, The cosmic hunt: variants of a Siberian – North-American myth. Folklore, 31, 2005: 79-100.
  5. ^ d'Huy Julien, Un ours dans les étoiles: recherche phylogénétique sur un mythe préhistorique, Préhistoire du sud-ouest, 20 (1), 2012: 91-106; A Cosmic Hunt in the Berber sky : a phylogenetic reconstruction of Palaeolithic mythology, Les Cahiers de l'AARS, 15, 2012.
  6. ^ The Bansenshukai, written in 1676 by the ninja master Fujibayashi Yasutake, speak several times about these stars, and show a traditional picture of the Big Dipper in his book 8, volume 17, speaking about astronomy and meteorology (from Axel Mazuer's translation). See too the Japanese Wikipedia link:北斗七星
  7. ^ KBBI
  8. ^ a b Hinckley Allen, Richard (1963). "Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning – "Ursa Major"". 
  9. ^ Bågenholm, Gösta. "Astro ordlista: Karlavagnen" [Astrological glossary: The Big Dipper]. 150 ord och begrepp inom astronomisk navigation (in Swedish). Archived from the original on 3 December 2005. "Som pendang till Karlavagnen kallas Lilla björn (latin Ursæ Minoris) för kvinnovagnen..." — as an appendix to the Men's Wagon, the Little Bear is called the Women's Wagon 
  10. ^ Hellquist, Elof (1922). Svensk etymologisk ordbok [Sewdish etymological dictionary] (in Swedish). Karlavagnen: "I stället sammansatt" ... – "Instead composed from the appellative karl [man] in opposition to Icelandic kvennavagn [women's wagon]" 
  11. ^ Kaisa, Häkkinen (2007). Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja (in Finnish) (4th ed.). WSOY. ISBN 978-951-0-27108-7. 
  12. ^ Hämäläinen, Pirjo (11 November 2013). "Otavassa on orjan merkki". Kansan Uutiset (in Finnish). Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
  13. ^ Mykrä, Sakari. "Kahdensadan nimen kontio". (in Finnish). Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
  14. ^ Merriam-Webster
  15. ^ Homer. "Book XVII". The Iliad. translated by Samuel Butler. 
  16. ^ Allen P. Adamson; Martin Sorrell (2007). Brandsimple: how the best brands keep it simple and succeed. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-4039-8490-6.  For an example see Iridium Satellite LLC.