The Big Dipper

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map of the Big Dipper

The Big Dipper is an asterism of the seven brightest stars in the constellation Ursa Major, commonly known as the Great Bear. This distinct grouping of stars is one of the most well known throughout human history and cultures.

Lore & Names


In American folklore, the term "Drinking Gourd" was code for the Big Dipper as it would point to Polaris (and thus north) in the song "follow the Drinking Gourd" during the time of the Underground Railroad to help slaves to freedom. The first publication of the song occurred in 1928.[1]

Many American Indian tribes referred to the asterism as Okuari and Paukunawa, words for Bear, before any contact with Europeans.[2] The Iroquois specifically view the "cup" of the asterism as the bear and the three stars of the "handle" as three hunters in pursuit.[3]

Today a stylized version of the Big Dipper and the North Star adorns the state flag of Alaska.


In the British Isles the asterism is called the Plough, but also as the Starry Plough in Ireland, and the Butcher's Cleaver in northern parts of Isles. Charles's Wain was another popular name, Charles here referring to Charlemagne, originally written as Carleswæn. Although it is often mistakenly thought as meaning "peasant's cart" from the Medieval word carle.[2][4] This name is still used in Scandinavia as Karlavagnen, Karlsvogna, or Karlsvognen. The Dutch call it Steelpannetje (saucepan), in southern France that word Casserole is used with the same meaning.

The Big Dipper is referenced to in the King James Version of the Bible.[5]

The ancient Greek words ἄρκτος and Ἅμαξα originally referred to the seven stars of the Big Dipper alone when mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey respectively, and later to the entire constellation of Ursa Major.[2]


In Arabia, the "cup" of the Big Dipper was seen as a Coffin, with the sons of the deceased representing the three stars of the "handle", who are following Polaris, seeking revenge against the star for killing their father.[3]

Throughout east Asia, the stars of the Big Dipper are termed as The Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper, written as 北斗七星 in Chinese (běidǒu qīxīng), and Japanese (hokutoshichisei, sometimes written with the Hiragana ほくとしちせい), and in Korean as 북두칠성, (Bukduchilseong).[6]

The Stars

The seven stars that make up the Big Dipper are as follows:

  • Dubhe - Alpha Ursae Majoris (α UMa)
  • Merak - Beta Ursae Majoris (β UMa)
  • Phecda - Gamma Ursae Majoris (γ UMa)
  • Megrez - Delta Ursae Majoris (δ UMa)
  • Alioth - Epsilon Ursae Majoris (ε UMa)
  • Mizar - Zeta Ursae Majoris (ζ UMa)
  • Alkaid - Eta Ursae Majoris (η UMa)

All the stars of the Big Dipper except Alpha & Eta Ursae Majoris (Dubhe and Alkaid) are part of the Ursa Major Moving Group. Because of this, the Big Digger will slowly lose its shape. In 50,000 years it will appear to be facing the opposite way.