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Ursa Major & Minor Constellation Myths Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

Have you ever spotted the Big Dipper in the night sky? If you have, you've seen part of the constellation Ursa Major. In this lesson, you'll learn about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and what they have to do with the Big and Little Dippers.

Bears All Around!

The constellations called Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are named after bears! Ursa Major actually means 'great bear' and Ursa Minor means 'smaller bear.' They're found close together in the night sky.

You might know these constellations as the 'Big Dipper' and the 'Little Dipper' because parts of each of the bears look like ladles, or dippers. The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper aren't constellations; they're called asterisms. An asterism is a pattern of stars that is easy to recognize.

Bears in the Sky
bigdip

It's difficult to look into the night sky and actually see the bears, but it's much easier to find the dippers. The handle of the Big Dipper is Ursa Major's tail, while the cup part of the dipper is part of the bear's leg. The tip of the Little Dipper's handle is the star Polaris, which is also called the 'North Star.'

Greek Mythology

As with many other constellations, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are related to Greek mythology because they were given their names by Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer.

Ursa Major was named after Callisto, who was very beautiful. Zeus, the king of the gods, fell in love with Callisto and they had a son named Arcas. Hera, Zeus's wife, was angry and jealous, so she changed Callisto into a bear. After that, Callisto spent many years hiding from hunters so she wouldn't be killed.

One day, Arcas was in the forest and saw Callisto. He didn't know it was his mother because she was in the form of a bear, so he pulled out a spear to kill her. Luckily, Zeus was watching and he quickly blew both Callisto and Arcas into the heavens. Arcas became the constellation Bootes, which is a herdsman, and Callisto became Ursa Major. Some versions of the myth say that Arcas became Ursa Minor.

Ursa Major Drawing
ursa

The stories about Ursa Minor's name stories aren't as clear. Ursa Minor was first known as Cynosura, which means 'dog's tail' in Greek. At some point, because it looks like a smaller version of Ursa Major (great bear), Cynosura given a new name: Ursa Minor (lesser bear).

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