Ursa Major is probably the most famous constellation, with the exception of Orion. Also known as the Great Bear, the body and tail of the bear make up what is known as the Big Dipper.
Stonehenge consists of large carved stones assembled about 4000 years ago. Long before modern England was established, ancient inhabitants somehow moved 25-ton rocks nearly 20 miles to complete it. From similar constructs of the era, people could learn the time of year by watching how the Sun and Moon rose and set relative to accurately placed stones and pits. The placement of the boulders at Stonehenge, however, is not impressively accurate by today's standards, nor even by the standards of that time. Therefore, modern scholars interpret Stonehenge as a colossal monument to the Sun in celebration of the predictability of the seasons.
The Sun shining through the Stonehenge monument. Sunrise on the summer solstice was the most important time the Sun would shine through the monument.
Mayan kings were keenly aware of the heavens, synchronizing their accession rituals to the position of the stars and the Milky Way and reacting to planetary alignments that portended the proper time to go to war. This photo is a view of the Milky Way from above. When viewed from above, the Milky Way looks like a spiral galaxy.
The Flint Boys is the name given to the Pleiades by the Navajo. According to Navajo myth, after the Earth was separated from the sky, Black God had a cluster of seven stars on his ankle. This image shows a sketch of the face of Black God, the Navajo sky god who is depicted as a schematic sky map with a crescent moon on his forehead, the sun as his nose, and the line between them would represent the ecliptic astride where the Pleiades appear.
Ancient Cultures and the Stars
The heavens were a source of both mystery and continuity to the people of ancient civilizations. In the centuries before the printed word, electric lights, and modern communications, prehistoric populations looked up to the stars as a calendar of the changing seasons, a calculator for astronomical phenomena not quite understood, and as a portent to explain their lives and reinforce their religious beliefs.
The "observers", shepherds, farmers and priests, of these early cultures, through their meticulous observations of the heavens, began to notice that the Sun, Moon, and stars followed certain paths through the skies that corresponded to their seasons while others, namely the planets, followed a different rhythm. The ancient Egyptians recognized that the rising of the brilliant star Sirius corresponded to the annual flooding of the Nile River, while the Persians and others counted the phases of the Moon to serve as a calendar.
Such realizations led to the study of the apparent rules that governed the movements of these bodies, which, the ancients believed, signaled the start of their growing season, the onset of winter or the time when rivers overflowed their banks, literally matters of life and death for an agrarian society. Often, they determined that nothing or no one on Earth had the power to control such forces; therefore, these movements must be influenced by some higher power or god.
The ancient Greeks were fascinated with the heavens and developed elaborate myths to correspond with the patterns, or constellations, they perceived to be formed by the stars. The constellation known as Taurus "the Bull" contains two star clusters, the Hyades and the Pleiades, famous both in Greek mythology and modern astronomy.
The Hyades were daughters of Atlas, the giant who carried the heavens on his shoulders and the sisters of Hyas, the hunter. One day, Hyas was killed by a lion and the Hyades were so overcome by grief that they committed suicide. The god Zeus transformed the sisters into a star cluster and placed them in the constellation Taurus. Since the Hyades rose in the sky during the rainy season, the Greeks believed their appearance to be harbingers of spring showers, the rain representing their tears of grief for their lost brother Hyas.
The Hyades had seven other sisters, known collectively as the Pleiades, who were being pursued by Orion, the mighty hunter, in an attempt to win their affection. After several years, Zeus again interceded and converted the sisters into doves to help them escape. They flew into the heavens and joined their sisters, the Hyades, in the constellation Taurus.
The Greeks were not the creators of mythology "to accompany" their astronomical "observations". One of the most recognizable star formations, commonly referred to today as the "Big Dipper" (or in England, the "Plough"), was widely recognized by ancient civilizations. Separated by distance and time, a number of these cultures independently perceived these stars to take the shape of a bear as part of a larger constellation known as "Ursa Major", the Great Bear.
Stone Age cultures, such as the prehistoric people of what is now Siberia, created star drawings of a bear with a very long tail (the dipper's "handle") some 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. These far northern regions, where the Great Bear rises high in the heavens, became known as the "Arctic", translated from the Greek as the residence of "Arktos", or "bearish."
The ancient Navaho people of North America told the story of the Changing Bear Maiden who accepts a bear to be her husband. The girl's father kills the bear, so the maiden then changes herself into a bear as revenge. When the girl's seven brothers try to flee, the bear changes back into a girl and eventually kills six of her brothers, who flew into the sky to become stars that formed the shape of a bear. The Navahos also had a legend surrounding the Pleiades, which they called the "Flint Boys."
On the other side of the planet, the Greeks conveyed the legend of Callisto, the river goddess and her son, Arcas. The god Jupiter threw Callisto and Arcas into the skies to form the constellations Ursa Major, the Great Bear and Bootes, the Bear Warden, where Arcas stands forever next to his mother.
A star in the Big Dipper's "handle" or the Great Bear's "tail" was used by the 13th century Persians as an eye test long before the invention of optometrists or corrective lenses. The center star of the "handle" is actually a pair of two stars, described by the ancient Arabs as the "Horse and Rider", the brighter star known as Mizar, its very faint partner is named Alcor. The two stars appear virtually inseparable except to those with perfect eyesight; in fact, a 14th century Arabian writer referred to Alcor as "Al Sadak", meaning "The Test" or "The Riddle."
One of the most recognizable symbols of an ancient culture's awareness of the stars and their importance in daily life and religion is a prehistoric stone circle standing on the Salisbury Plain in England, about 50 miles west of London, called Stonehenge. Built by the Druids (pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain), Stonehenge is a complex arrangement of huge rocks, ditches and holes, dating back to the Middle Neolithic era of about 2950 BCE.
Although the reasons for its construction have been lost over the millennia, Stonehenge is commonly believed by archaeoastronomists (scientists who study ancient writings, buildings with astronomical alignments, and other artifacts dealing with astronomy) to have been used by the Druids for their religious beliefs and practices, including the calculation of astronomical phenomena. Stonehenge's massive stone pillars are precisely aligned so that the first rays of the mid-summer sun rise above its so-called "Heel Stone" and shine directly into the center of the horseshoe-shaped complex.
A pre-Columbian civilization, the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, built elaborate stone temples and observatories, designed to monitor astronomical phenomena and the cyclical movements of heavenly bodies. Mayan kings were keenly aware of the heavens, synchronizing their accession rituals to the position of the stars and the Milky Way and reacting to planetary alignments that portended the proper time to go to war.
Maya priests were profoundly knowledgeable about astronomy, meticulously documenting their observations and handing down their knowledge from generation to generation. The Maya developed a remarkable astronomical calendar that could precisely predict eclipses and the movements of Venus with an error margin of only one day every 6,000 years.
Observations and theories developed in part by the great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, added to the body of knowledge developed in Egypt and Babylonia, began the transformation of old ideas and mythology into a visualization of an ordered universe, the birth of modern astronomy. Gradually, the study of heavenly movements led to an understanding of mathematics and physical laws that replaced superstitious beliefs in gods and mystical forces.
Famed American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, whose influence on modern astronomy is so profound that NASA's great orbiting observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, is named after him, explained humankind's timeless fascination with the stars and their relevance to modern civilization in his 1936 work Realm of the Nebulae.
"From our home on the Earth, we look out into the distances and strive to imagine the sort of world into which we were born….Our immediate neighborhood we know rather intimately. But with increasing distance our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly, until at the last dim horizon we search among ghostly errors of observations for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and it will not be suppressed."
Hubble, Edwin P., The Realm of the Nebulae. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1936.
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