Ursa Major is a group of seven stars that can be seen in the northern hemisphere but not in the south. The Old Testament book of the Bible (Amos5:8) refers to it as the seven stars.
The name Ursa Major is Latin for the Great Bear. It’s hard to see how it ever resembled a bear, but the bear image is quite widespread and may stem from a common oral tradition stretching back thousands of years.
Greek mythology has a legend of Zeus turning Callisto and her son into bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In the Bible the Jewish people also saw these stars as Arcturus ‘the Bear’.
Some Native American tribes saw the bowl as a bear and the handle as three hunters tracking the bear, other tribes saw it as three cubs following the mother bear. It’s also known in America as the Big Dipper as it looks like a large ladle or dipper.
In Hindu literature and other cultures, it is known as Saptarishi, after the seven rishis, or Sages, and in Finnish culture the stars are seen as a salmon weir.
It is known in Britain as the Plough and in Ireland as the Starry Plough. It became a symbol of the former Irish Citizen Army, and thus the title of Sean O’Casey’s famous play The Plough and the Stars, based on the Citizen Army’s role in the Easter Rising.
This constellation cannot be seen in the southern hemisphere, but we have instead the Southern Cross, not visible in the north. It consists of stars forming a cross, with two stars as pointers.
The Southern Cross appears in the flags of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Brazil among others. Its official name is Crux, Latin for cross.
In Central Australia, the Aboriginal people believed the cross to be the footprint of the wedge-tailed eagle – the pointers were a throwing stick. Other Aboriginal tribes saw the cross as a stingray pursued by a shark (the pointers). In the east, they called it Mirrabooka. The name Southern Cross has been adopted by many hotels and businesses in Australia and New Zealand.