Tag Archive | North Star

More Star Gazing, Constellations, Legends, and Planets

A continuation of last weeks post with more Constellations and Legends as well as some planets that can be seen from the Northern Hemisphere.

The Little Dipper (Ursa Minor)

Little dipperUrsa Minor wih Overlay

Check this map to see how to locate Polaris, the North Star, in the Little Dipper.  Polaris is the important star in this circumpolar constellation.  That means it never sets in the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris also never moves from its spot in the sky. Ursa Minor was first cataloged by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century.

Polaris is a yellow-white supergiant.

Greek Myths and Legends

When Zeus, the supreme god of the Olympians, was small, his mother Rhea hid him on the island of Crete to protect him from his father Cronus. Two nymphs raised him.  One is Ida, who is represented by the Little Dipper and the other is Adrasteia, represented by the Big Dipper.

If your children should ask why Rhea had too protect Zeus, here is the rest of the story.  An old prophecy said that Cronus would be overthrown by one of his children, so he swallowed 5 of his children (Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Hestian and Demeter) When Zeus grew up, he fulfilled the prophecy and freed his siblings.  He then became the supreme god.

Another Greek legend says that Arcturs is identified with Arcas, son of Zeus and Callisto.  He was raised by his maternal grandfather, King Lycaon.  One day, Zeus paid a visit and had a meal with Lycaon. King Lycaon had seized the boy and cut him into pieces and then served him to Zeus for the meal. Lycaon didn’t really believe that Zeus was really Zeus, so this was a test.  Lycaon challenged Zeus to turn the pieces back into his son, Arcas.  Zeus was ferious and after bringing his son back to life, he changed King Lycaon into a werewolf, (the beginning of Lycanthropy).  Arcas became King of Arcadia and was a great hunter, particularly of wolves.  Arcus didn’t know that Hera, the wife of Zeus, had turned his mother, Callisto into a bear.  He was out hunting when he met up with a bear who was really his mother.  Zeus stopped Arcus from killing the bear and placed them both in the heavens. Callisto became Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Arus became Ursa Minor (the Little Bear).

In an older myth, the seven stars that form the Little Dipper were said to represent the Hesperides, seven daughters of Atlas, who tended to Hera’s orchard (Garden of the Hesperides) where a tree of golden, immortality-giving apples grew.

Other Cultures

Classical Old World mythology is replete with the bear in its role as Ursa Major and Minor. Ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all contain references to this motif.

A Paiute Legend (Native North American): can be read here.

In Hungarian mythology the constellation is called ‘Little Goncol cart’ (Göncöl szekér) after a legendary shaman. (Ursa Major is ‘Big Goncol cart.’) The shaman’s knowledge knew no limit. He invented the cart: His nation was wandering, so the cart was the biggest gift of the Gods to the country. Legends claim he knew everything about the world. Nobody saw his death; his body simply disappeared among the stars.

Norse Legends

Thor and Freya

Kvennavagn,” means woman’s chariot and is Little Dipper in the Norse language.  ”Karlvagn,” means man’s chariot and is the Big dipper.  This means that Thor might be the Man and Freya the woman, both traveling by chariots according to the myths. Thor is the god of storms and thunder.  Freya is a goddess of love, beauty, fertility, war and death.

For the Greeks: Ursa Minor was the Little Bear of Heaven.

In China: it was seen as a wagon.

In England: it is seen as a plough (plow).

Some Arabs: see it as animals in a field.

Some Native North American Peoples: it is seen as hunters chasing animals.


Another important use for constellations was navigation. Many seafaring cultures used the North Star (Polaris) as a guide. Using the height of the North Star in the sky, navigators could figure out their latitude helping ships to travel across the oceans.

Inuit Legends

The Inuit called the North Star, Never Moves.  Nuuttuittuq is the North Star Polaris, the star that never moves.

There is a beautiful Native American legend which tells a story of a group of hunters who got lost in the forest. They prayed to the spirits to send them help to find their way home. Suddenly a small girl appeared to the hunters and said she was the spirit of the pole star. She led them home after which, the star. Polaris was known as the star that does not move. When they died the hunters were placed into the sky where they forever follow the pole star.


Bootes-some stars identifiedBootes with overlay

Bootes with hunting dogs

Bootes (pronounced boo-oh-tees) is usually represented as a hunter, herdsman or shepherd.He has been represented in cave paintings depicting successful hunts. Bootes is a Greek word that means, Noisy.  Herders shout to the animals they are herding.

The brightest star in this constellation is Arcturus.  It is the fourth brightest star seen from earth (outshone only by Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri)  It is an orange giant whose end is near.  It can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere in the early evening beginning in March.  Arcturus is also a Greek word that means, Keeper of the Bear.

Some History:

This constellation is near Ursa Major, so to the Greeks, Bootes was the “Watcher or Guardian”. Homer, in his novel the Odyssey, called Bootes the Bear Driver.

the Arabs called Bootes the Lance Bearer and Keeper of Heaven.  It was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Job, so is often refereed to as Job’s Star.

Greek Mythology

Bootes was the son of Demeter.  She was the goddess of agriculture.  He invented the plough to support himself by tilling the soil. In honour of his service to mankind, he was placed in the sky, near Ursa Major, which is sometimes seen as a plough.

Another Greek legend says that Bootes is identified with Arcas, son of Zeus and Callisto.  This story is told in the previous section, Little Dipper.

Norse Mythology

Arcturus was called Dagstjarna, Day star.  Day star you say? (The Finnish name for Arcturus is “Aurinkontähti”, sunstar)  At the latitudes of Scandinavia, especially around the Arctic Circle, the sunrise follows star time during the first months of the year. So an intense star visible before sunrise during late winter and spring will indicate that the sun is coming and be referred to as the day star, Arcturus.

Arcturus is also called Day Star in some parts of Norway today.

Other Cultures

Most cultures associate the star Arcturus with Ursa Major.  It follows behind the Dipper, Wagon, Bear, Animals, at a safe distance as if driving or herding, guarding, tending or hunting, depending on which culture.

To the Arabs, Bootes is a shepherd of pastures in the sky

In ancient China, Bootes is a ploughman of celestial fields.

The ancient Egyptians called Bootes, Smat.  It means, One who Rules, subdues and governs.  He was also called Bau, The Coming One.


All information in this section on visable Planets is from this website: Earth/Sky

Wow! What a great month for planets! Watch Venus, Mars and Jupiter pop out at nightfall. Jupiter opposition February 6. Venus/Mars conjunction February 21. Mercury and Saturn before dawn.


Bright Jupiter in east at nightfall, then out all night At opposition to the sun on February 6, Jupiter enjoys its month of glory in February 2015. What is opposition? It simply means that Earth passes between Jupiter and the sun on this date, as we do every year. It means Jupiter is opposite the sun in our sky – at its best!

Around the time of opposition, Earth is closest to Jupiter. The distance between our two worlds is least. Jupiter, in turn, shines at its brightest and best in Earth’s nighttime sky – brighter than it will again until June 2019.

Once you see Jupiter over the eastern horizon at dusk or nightfall, it’s unmistakable. This world shines more brilliantly than any star. As evening falls, look for brilliant Venus in the west, then turn around to see Jupiter in the opposite direction: east. Jupiter is always the second-brightest planet after Venus. In February 2015, Venus sets in the west at early evening, leaving the king planet Jupiter to rule the night.


Brilliant Venus in west at nightfall. Venus – brightest of all planets, and third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon – climbs out of the glare of evening twilight all through February 2015. It puts on a spectacular show with Mars this month! You won’t want to miss these two worlds as they edge closer on our sky’s dome for the first three weeks of February.

Meanwhile, day by day, Venus will be staying out longer after dark (but still following the sun beneath the horizon by early evening). In early February, this dazzling world sets about two hours after sunset at mid-northern latitudes. The queen planet’s visibility improves throughout February, setting about two and one-half hours after the sun by the month’s end.

Do not miss Venus and Mars on February 19, February 20 and February 21, as the slender waxing crescent moon returns to the evening sky, and moves up past two planets in the western twilight.

Find an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunset, and bring along binoculars, if you have them, to enhance the view. It’ll be Venus’ and Mars’ closest conjunction on our sky’s dome until October 5, 2017. It’ll be spectacular! Unforgettable. Definitely photogenic, so snag your camera before going outside if you’re so inclined.


Saturn visible in February predawn. The golden planet Saturn rises in the southeast about two and one-half hours after midnight in early February and roughly one-half hour after midnight by the month’s end. Watch for the rather wide waning crescent moon to couple up with Saturn in the predawn hours on February 12 and February 13.

Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings. For that, you need a small telescope.

Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 25o from edge-on in February 2015, exhibiting their northern face. Several years from now, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.

Please find a time to get outdoors with your children and check out the night sky.  You may need to do some of this on a weekend as skywatching is a night time activity.  This website has some great ideas to plan your outing: Stargazing with Kids

Star Gazing and Legends

Have you ever looked up at the stars and sometimes wonder what their names may be? The nightime sky can be a wondrous, fascinating and mysterious world.   One cool way to identify, to children, which star or constellation you’re referring to, is to use a flashlight.  The beam will reflect through the atmosphere and act as a pointer stick!  A pair of binoculars are also a handy tool.  This activity can be used for both Girl Guides/Scouts and Boy Scouts for their Astronomy badge.

Let’s cover some of the major constellations in the Northern Hemisphere which are easiest to locate. They are: Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, the Milky Way and Pleiades.  I will also show how to locate the North Star in the Little Dipper.

How the Stars Came to Be

An Inuit Legend: 

The Inuit believed that the stars were living things who must wander through the heavens for an eternity, never straying from their path.  One story is about Pleiades (pronounced play-deez), in the constellation Taurus the Bull.

Pleiades locatepleiades-taken-from-las-brisas-observatory

Nanuk, (pronounced nan-ook) the bear, was out on the ice wandering and looking for food, when he came too close to a pack of hunting dogs.  He knew the dogs were a danger to him, so he tried to give them the slip, however, the hunting dogs gave chase.  Nanuk ran as fast as he could over the ice, but the dogs stayed close on his heels..  The chase went on and on with neither Nanuk nor the dogs noticing that they were at the edge of the world.  They all slid off and into the night sky and turned into stars.

Pleiades, is one of the brightest and closest star clusters to earth.  It contains nearly a thousand stars.  On a clear night, you may be able to identify 14 stars with the naked eye. The Seven Sisters are most prominent between October and April. In early November, the cluster rises in the east after sunset. In February it lies overhead in the evening. In May, it sets at sunset, before Orion.

Greek mythology

Pleiades is also known as the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology.  With them is their mother, the nymph Pleione. Their father is not with them as he is the Titan, Atlas.  Atlas has been doomed by Zeus to hold up the sky from the Earth forever.  By chance, Orion caught sight of these sisters and their mother.  He rather liked them, and started to chase them all over the face of the Earth.  Zeus felt sorry for the sisters and their mother, so he changed them into a flock of doves, which he set in the sky.  Zeus, was an Olympian God and Atlas was from an older set of gods, called the Titans.  The Olympians were at war with the Titans, so Zeus didn’t like Atlas much.   Atlas’ punishment was to hold up the sky from the Earth for eternity and Zeus thought that by putting Atlas’ wife and family in the sky, it would be a further punishment for Atlas.  The Pleiades are found not far from Orion, so he is eternally chasing them across the sky!

Only six stars are distinctly visible to the naked eye. The ancient Greeks have several stories about the disappearance of the seventh star.  One such story is about, Electra, an ancestress of the royal house of Troy.  After the destruction of Troy, the grief stricken Electra abandoned her sisters and was transformed into a comet.

In Chinese mythology, Pleiades is the mane of the White Tiger of the West. For me, I didn’t know that a tiger had a mane!



A Closer View of right image

Orion is a prominent constellation and one of the most recognizable in the night sky.  It’s most prominent and brightest stars are Betelgeuse (pronounced beetle juice), a red super-giant and Rigel, a blue-white star.  Side note:  If you follow off the star, Selph, bottom left side,at a downward angle, you will arrive at the star, Sirius, the brightest star seen from Earth.


A couple of Legends:

Greek: Orion is named after Orion, the hunter, from Greek mythology .  He was a hero who hunted with Athena, also a hunter, goddess of the Hunt and of the Moon. She was also known to hang out with heroes and is the creator of the olive tree. Athena was also credited with killing Orion.  Other legends say it was a scorpion (Scorpio) who killed him.  Zeus placed him in the night sky, after all, he was a hero!

NavajoThis tribe used Orion as a kind of calendar.  in May, when Orion sets (below the horizon) and was not seen again, the Navajo knew it was time to plant their crops.

The Milky Way

skymap Milky way080603-milky-way_big

For a close-up view of the image on right

The Milky Way is the name we give our Galaxy.  It was once thought that it was a barred spiral with  four star-forming arms, named  Norma, Scutum-Centaurus, Sagittarius and Perseus. In June of 2008, images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that the Milky Way is a barred spiral with only two major arms, thereby demoting the Sagittarius and Norma arms to minor arms. Our Sun lies in a minor arm, named the Orion Arm, or Orion Spur, sandwiched between the Sagittarius minor arm and Perseus arm. Check the larger image and you can see the location of our Sun.

To spot an arm of our galaxy, look up into the sky, find the trail across the sky.  It contains a lot of stars so appears milky.  You can find the constellations, Cassiopeia,  Cygnus the Swan, and the upper arm of Orion in this band of light. The star Sirius is close by.

How the Milky Way came to Be

A Cherokee Legend from http://www.firstpeople.us

Long, long ago, when the world was young, there were only a few stars in the sky.  During this time there lived an old man and his wife.  To make a living they ground corn into cornmeal.  They stored it in large baskets.  During the winter, the people of their village would trade other things for the cornmeal.  From the cornmeal they would make bread, bannok, and mush.

One morning, the old man discovered that the cornmeal baskets had been gotten into.  He and his wife were very upset.  They knew that the Cherokee people did not steal from each other, so who could it be?  Then, they noticed cornmeal scattered on the ground with giant dog paw prints there as well.  They told the people of their village and it was decided it had to be a spirit dog.  They needed to scare it away or it would eat all their food.  That night, all the people took their drums and shell rattles and hid in the bushes.  Late in the night, they heard a whirring sound.  They looked up and saw the giant dog swooping down from the sky.  They waited until the dog started eating the cornmeal, then jumped up and banged their drums and shook their rattles.  The sound was so loud, it sounded like thunder.  The giant spirit dog was so scared, he ran to the top of a hill and jumped back into the sky. The cornmeal he still had in his mouth, started spilling out the sides as he ran.  Each grain of spilled cornmeal became a star.

The Cherokee people call this pattern across the night sky “gi li’ut sun stan un’yi” It is  pronounced, gil-lee-oot-soon stan-unh-yee.  It means “the place where the dog runs.”

A Vietnamese Legend  from http://www.vietnam-culture.com

There lived a very beautiful and charming princess, named Chuc-Nu. She was one of the many daughters of the King of Heaven.

Chuc-Nu was very hard-working and was often seen sitting on the shore of the Silver River to sewing clothes for her younger sisters.

One day a young man herded his buffaloes to the river. His name was Nguu-Lang. He was very handsome. He fell in love with the princess at first sight, and she loved him, too. The King of Heaven, fully aware of their love, consented for his daughter to marry Nguu-Lang. But the couple had to promise to continue their work after their marriage.

They enjoyed being married so much they forgot their promise. The King became furious and ordered them to separate. Each of them would live on one side of the river and could only look at each other from across the river. The King allowed them to meet once a year in the seventh month of the lunar year. This month is called “The Month of Sudden and Short Showers”. When they meet each other, they usually cry for joy. They cry even more bitterly when it is time for separation.

That is why there are torrential rains at the beginning of the seventh lunar month in Vietnam. If you happen to be in the countryside during this month, do not expect to find any ravens. They are believed to have flown to the sky to help carry the bridge across the river for the reunion of Chuc-Nu and Nguu-Lang and if you look at the sky on clear nights, you may see the Silver River which looks like a long milky white strip. Therefore, it is called “Ngan ha” (The Milky Way)


CassiopeiaCCCasseopeiacassiopeia_constellation with overlay

For a Close-up view of star names

In Greek legend

Queen Cassiopeia (Cass-ee-o-pea-ah) was married to King Cepheus, and they ruled Ethiopia. She often bragged that she and her daughter, Andromeda, were the most beautiful women in the land, even more beautiful than the sea-nymphs, the Nereids.  The Nereids were upset by this and complained to the sea god, Poseidon.  Poseidon threatened to send a sea monster and a flood to destroy the land of Cassiopeia and Cepheus.  Cepheus and Cassiopeia discovered that the only way to save their land was to sacrifice their daughter, Andromeda, to the sea monster.  They tied her to a cliff by the sea.  Before the monster could eat her, along came Perseus, and saved her.   He slew the sea monster, and then married Andromeda.  It is said, that Poseidon chained Cassiopeia to her throne to punish her for being so boastful.  To remind others to not be so boastful, she hangs upside down for part of the year.

A Celtic legend

In the ancient Celtic world Anu was the mother goddess and considered to be the mother of all the gods; the Tuatha de Danann.  Some say that she is the mother earth goddess or the Goddess of fertility. On the Cork Kerry border are two mountains called the Paps of Anu (pap is another word for breast.) On the top of each mountain are stone structures or cairns that when viewed from a distance make the two mountains look like a pair of breasts. Anu was known, in the Celtic World, by several similar names: Danu or Don being the most popular.  She was a Mother-Goddess, the wife of the Sun God, Belenos, and considered to be the ancestor of all the Gods, the Tuatha dé Danann, who found themselves obliged to reside in the Otherworld when Miled brought the Celts to the British Isles. She still looks down on us from the night’s sky where she appears as Llys Don, better known as the constellation of Casseopeia.

The Big Dipper

BigDipperUrsa Major

Ursa-major with overlay

The Big Dipper is only a part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major, the Big Bear.  It can be difficult to distinguish the other parts of the bear especially if the seeing (upper atmosphere) is cloudy.  However, most of the stars in the Big Dipper portion are often clear and easy to identify.

This constellation pattern of 7 (8) stars is the oldest recognized pattern in the night sky.  Its legends may go back as far as the Ice Age.  It has been many different objects in many cultures.  A plow, a wagon (German), coffin (Arabic), chariot (Irish), skunk, shark, grain measure (Chinese peasants). canoe, hog’s jaw and many others.  Several cultures see it as a bear, and many mythologies show a kinship between bears and humans, perhaps because the bear can stand on two feet.  As Ursa Major travels through the sky, sometimes the bear is quadrupedal and sometimes bipedal.  Stories in some cultures have people taking the form of bears and in some, bears are gods.

A Cool Army Story  Long ago, when warriors fought with clubs, swords and bows, the army captain needed to know whom of his bowmen had the best eyesight.   How he determined this was to have his bowmen look up at the handle of the Big dipper.  He asked them to look and tell him how many stars made up the handle of the dipper. They were not to include the star where the handle joined the pot.  Those who said there were only 3 stars did not have good eyesight, but those who said 4 stars did.  The bowmen with good eyesight were further back in the formation, while those with poor eyesight were in the front row.  Better to be in the back rows I say!  So…where is that 4th star?  Look where the highest point is on the handle curve (the second last star).  There is really two stars there!  There names are Alcor and Mizar.  Mizar is the brighter of the two. They are binary stars, which means they are caught in each others gravitational pull and revolve around each other.


For a closer look

A Micmac and Iroquois Legend (First Nations tribes in Canada)

In this story, the four stars that form the quadrangle of the dipper, represent the bear.  This bear is being chased by 7 hunters.  The 3 closest hunters are the handle of the dipper.  As fall approaches, the 4 furthest hunters (stars) dip below the horizon and it is said that these hunters have given up the chase.  The 3 closest hunters are named after birds.  The closest is Robin, followed by Chickadee and then Moose Bird.  Chickadee is carrying the pot to cook the bear in.  Remember the double stars of Alcor and Mizar?  Alcor is the pot! In the fall, the bear looks to be standing on two feet, so has stopped running.  Robin shoots and wounds the bear with an arrow.  The wounded bear sprays blood onto Robin who then shakes it off.  As the blood falls to earth, it covers the trees, turning the leaves to red.  Some  of the blood stays on Robin and he is then called Robin Redbreast.  The bear dies and the hunters then eat the bear.  The bears skeleton travels across the winter sky on his back.  In spring, a new bear leaves the den and the chase begins again!

An Arab Myth

This star formation to the Arabs is a funeral.  the 4 stars of the quadrangle is the coffin and the stars in the handle are the mourners following the coffin.  The two stars (Mizar and Alcor) are the son and daughter of the man in the coffin.  His name is al-Naash.  al-Naash was murdered by al-Jadi (the north star).

A Greek Legend

The god Zeus hid the nymph Callisto from his wife Hera by changing her into a bear. Her son, Actas, did not know she was now a bear and while hunting one day came across Callisto. To keep Actas from accidentally killing his mother, Zeus placed them together into the sky as the Big and Little Bear (we know them better by the names Big and Little Dipper).

Using the “pointer” stars in the Big Dipper to locate the North Star (Polaris) and other major stars in other constellations.

 bigdipperdirections and pointer stars

For a larger view of this map

I do hope you enjoy star gazing!  Next week I will cover a few more constellations and a few planets that are visible this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere!