The Big Dipper: Your Key To The Sky


A constellation is an officially recognized group of stars used by astronomers to locate objects in the heavens.  There are  a total of 88 constellations spanning the entire sky from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere.  Each constellation has a Latin name of a person,  animal, or object in Greek or Roman mythology.

Probably the most famous and easily identified group of stars is The Big Dipper (the British call it, The Plough or plow if you prefer the other spelling).  The Big Dipper is not officially recognized as a constellation; instead, it is part of the constellation Ursa Major which in Latin means The Greater Bear.  Of course there is also The Little Dipper which is the main part of the constellation Ursa Minor, The Smaller Bear.   Such an arbitrary group of stars  (which are usually only a part of a constellation or pieces of several constellations) is called an asterism

An interesting tidbit.  Curiously, in ancient American Indian folklore, the star patterns comprising Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are also referred to as The Greater Bear and Lesser Bear!  Not only that, but just as in Greek and Roman mythology, aborignal Americans imagined both bears to have long tails.  Real bears only have a tiny stub of a tail. 

You may wonder how Americans came to give the most famous of all asterisms the name Big Dipper, when the mother country refers to it as The Plow.  Indeed, in early colonial times in America it was also called The Plow.  A dipper, for those of you who are not American, is a large ladle for dipping and pouring liquids for drinking.  From the historical pieces I have been able to put together, the American  name  appears to come from a term African-Americans inherited from their original homeland.  In western Africa, The Big Dipper is referred to as The Drinking Gourd, a large spoon shaped utensil carved from the shell of a dried gourd fruit.  In fact, before the American Civil War, slaves were aided in their trek north to freedom by remembering the phrase “follow The Drinking Gourd”.  Because The Big Dipper is the most noticeable asterism in the northern sky, this advice worked very well.  In the southern U.S., only slaves drank from drinking gourds; therefore, their masters came to call this star group The Big Dipper since dippers were the metal or glass equivalents of drinking gourds used at high social occasions for pouring liquid refreshments.  So ultimately, we have African-American lore to thank for the uniquely American term.  Indeed, the name “Big Dipper” seems to fit the asterism better than “Plow” when you consider that the blade of the plow would be unrealistically large and out of proportion when compared to the size of the handle.

Almost everyone can find The Big Dipper.  Even so, I have seen people misidentify the constellation Orion as The Big Dipper.  You won’t have this problem if you remember that The Big Dipper only appears in the northern part of the sky, while Orion will be seen in the southeast, south, or southwest.  In most parts of the North America, Europe, and Asia, at least part of The Big Dipper is visible year round regardless of the time of night.  The evening observer will only see Orion from late autumn until early spring, though it will be visible early in the morning at other times of the year.  Furthermore, once you have identified both of these constellations, the difference in shape between the two is so obvious that it will be impossible for you to mistake one for the other from then on.


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