For most people, spring is a joyous time — a time of birth and new growth and a time when the cold winter gives way to the promise of summer.
For the stargazer, spring is often a painful time. It rains all the time, and when it isn’t raining, it’s cloudy.
Even when the clouds pass and the spring stars shine brightly, they fill me with an immense sense of loneliness and loss.
The little bear and his mother climb high in the spring sky. They tell a deeply poignant story, a story so old that it predates the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations to a time so long ago that it is lost in the abyss of human history.
On my first trip out in the spring, I always find the bears and think about their story. Why don’t you come along with me?
In the early evening, look high in the north. You will see the collection of stars we call the Big Dipper. It will be upside-down. The dipper seems to be pouring out its contents on the ground.
The dipper is part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The bowl of the dipper is her trunk. Her head sticks out toward the northwest. Her long tail consists of the bright stars that stretch to the east and make up the dipper’s handle. Her foreleg is the line of stars to the southwest of the bowl, and her back leg is the stars that stretch south.
Next, let’s find her son, Ursa Minor. Locate the two stars that make up the front of the bowl of the Big Dipper – the two bright stars the farthest west. Extend a line between them directly north, and you will come to Polaris, the North Star.
Polaris is the tip of the tail of the Little Bear – the end star in the Little Dipper. The tail of the little bear is three stars that curve eastward toward a rough square of four stars that make up the bowl of the little dipper and the body of the little bear.
Because we live in northern latitudes and the tip of the little bear’s tail is almost directly north, the sky seems to rotate slowly around that point. Polaris, the North Star, a fixed point in the ever-changing heavens, has been a refuge for travelers since humans have looked upward. Ancient mariners depended on it to tell them which direction they traveled.
You’ll never get lost at night if the stars are shining. In an inconstant and changing world, you’ll always be able to find the North Star.
Because it is almost directly north, it never seems to move like the other stars. Some Native Americans believed that Polaris was the place where the gods had nailed the bowl of the sky to heaven.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, others believed that the bowl of the Big Dipper was also a bear. The stars of the handle were hunters who endlessly chased it across the sky.
That quest is never-ending. Astronomers call the stars near Polaris, including both dippers, “northern circumpolar stars” because all the other stars seem to rotate around Polaris. Those stars, including the Big and Little Bears, never set below the horizon because they are close to the North Star.
Most of the other constellations rise and set into the horizon. Greece has long coastlines. For many Greeks, those constellations set into the ocean’s “great deep.”
As Homer writes in “The Odyssey,” the Great Bear:
“Looks ever toward Orion and alone,
Dips not in the waters of the deep.”
The phrase “waters of the deep” can also refer to our galaxy, the Milky Way, a river of light stretching to the west through the setting constellations Perseus and Auriga and to the east through the rising glory of Cassiopeia and Cygnus.
Therein hangs the bears’ tail, er, bears’ tale. Well, both actually, as we shall see.
Note: I love telling the story below, but I rarely get a chance to do so. In its most famous form, written by the Roman poet Ovid, the old myth is most definitely rated R.
Arcas was a great hunter, son of Jupiter, king of the gods, and a mortal woman named Callisto.
Callisto had gained the favor of Diana, the moon goddess who ruled over many domains. She was both goddess of wild animals and those who hunted them. She reigned over both childbirth and chastity.
Diana loved Callisto because she had made a vow of chastity.
To make a long, R-rated story short, Jupiter fell in lust with Callisto.
He appeared to her disguised as the goddess Diana. However, his ruse quickly fell apart when he lunged at Callisto and kissed her roughly.
Callisto remembered her vow to Artemis and struggled mightily against Jupiter’s unwelcome advances— but to no avail. The inevitable result was a son, whom Callisto named Arcas.
While Callisto was “heavy with child,” as the old saying goes, Diana saw that she was pregnant. Sadly, the moon goddess didn’t wait for an explanation.
Diana hastily concluded that Callisto had violated her sacred vow of chastity. As a result, Diana banished the unfortunate mortal from her sight.
In a fit of jealousy, Jupiter’s wife, Juno, changed Callisto into a bear. To make matters worse, Juno forced Callisto to wander the earth aimlessly, constantly pursued by hunters, for whom she was considered a grand prize.
Juno allowed Callisto to keep her human mind, making the next 15 years of ceaseless wandering even more distressing.
Because Juno hated Callisto with god-like fervor, the goddess kept the bear’s true nature a secret from Callisto’s son.
In that way, Hera set up her vicious revenge against Callisto. It was only natural that Arcas, the most fervent hunter of them all, should pursue the prized bear.
It was a poignant moment indeed when Arcas finally raised his spear to slay his own mother.
Jupiter, who usually cared very little for the lives of his cast-off mortal lovers, spared Callisto’s life and saved Arcas from the horror of matricide.
I am probably unqualified to criticize the actions of the gods. However, it seems to me that the obvious solution was to change Callisto back into a woman.
Arcas sees his mom. Tears flow, and everyone lives happily ever after. But no.
The gods are capricious, Jupiter most of all. He changed Arcas into a bear and pulled them up to the sky.
But in the end, Juno gets her final revenge. The big and little bears are frozen in time. Arcas, the little bear, is poised to kill his mother, his spear held in his clumsy paws.
Juno conspired to put the bears in the north — where they can never set into the great waters. Callisto must ceaselessly circle the North Pole, constantly pursued by her son, in a never-ending quest for sweet oblivion.
The myth exists in many forms, but none of them explain a bizarre aspect of the constellation. I have seen bears many times in my forest wanderings. Perhaps you have seen them in the zoo. None of them has the celestial bears’ long, luxuriant tails.
And thus, we must complete the myth in our own way, or rather, in a manner suggested by Thomas Hood, an English astronomy writer of the late 16th century.
As Jupiter reached down to save the bears, he realized that bears are challenging to hold on to because of their rotundness. In god-like desperation, he grabbed their stubby tails and hauled them upward.
It is a long, cold journey to be dragged by the tail from the warm, comforting earth to the cold, sterile heavens. Imagine the excruciating pain of their tails slowly stretching out.
In that agonizing way, the tails of the bear became much longer than the standard size.
Many were the spring nights when I stood with the public on the lawn at Perkins Observatory. Many were the times when the kids asked me to show them the North Star. And many were the times when they asked me about the long tails of the bears.
I could help but feel a catch in my throat as I tried to find a G-rated answer to the latter question, but perhaps not for the reason you are thinking.
On these warm, fragrant spring nights, I will again stand outside with the comfort of a steaming cup of coffee. As I have so many times before, I will see the telescopists earnestly observing around me in the dim glow of starlight.
My thoughts will turn to the cold winter that has just passed and the lonely wanderings of the Little Bear and his mother, who will never merge into the gloriously rising splendor of the summer Milky Way.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.