Today, we often call it the North Star or Polaris. Vikings called it the “lodestar” and Navajo Indians called it a name that translates to “the star that does not move”. China referred to it as “the Great Imperial Ruler of Heaven”.
No matter what you call it, in the Northern Hemisphere of Earth, it’s one of the most well-known and used stars in the sky. It’s always in the same place, no matter the year, season, or time of night. In the Northern Hemisphere it never sets, it is there even when the sun is out. You just can’t see it.
Finding the North Star
To find it, most people located the Big Dipper (also known as Ursa Major) and then line up the far side of the dipper to find Polaris at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Minor). This image shows how the lineup. The Big Dipper rotates around it every 23 hours and 56 minutes, a near match for our 24-hour day. Those who know the stars and the math, can compute the exact time by their positions in the sky. It’s like a night time clock, just like the sun’s position in the sky during the day can be used to tell time.
Ursa Major and Minor
The Big Dipper is part of a constellation called Ursa Major (the Great Bear). The Little Dipper is Ursa Minor (the Little Bear). The handle of the dipper is the bear’s tail. Like most constellations, there is a myth of legend about these bears. Here is an excerpt from the GSCM’s telling of the myth in their Night Owl At Home instructions.
“A beautiful mother called Callisto had a son whom she named Arcas. Callisto was so beautiful that she awakened the anger of Juno, who changed her to a bear. When her son grew up he became a hunter, and one day would have killed his transformed mother. Jupiter seeing the danger of this crime caught the two up into the heavens and set them there as shining stars. But Juno was still vindictive, so she cast a spell, which never allowed these stars to rise and set like the other stars, but kept them always moving around and around.”
Juno put another family in the sky as well in a different myth. You can see the constellations about this tale in this image online. Queen Cassiopeia bragged that she and her daughter Andromeda were far more beautiful than any other goddesses that ever were. Juno and Jupiter were upset and set their whole family in the sky. Queen Cassiopeia’s Chair (also known as Lacerta) is on the opposite side of the North Star. It looks like a W with the top toward the North Star. Her husband, King Cepheus, sits with one foot on the North Star, but his stars are dimmer, not quite as brilliantly shining as his wife. Andromeda is farther away from the North Star and can’t be seen in the first image, but you can find her in this image if you look for Cepheus and Cassiopeia’s constellations first. As you go from left to right, it goes Cepheus, Cassiopeia, and then Andromeda.