The Little Bear was said by the Greeks to have been first named by the astronomer Thales of Miletus, who lived from about 625 to 545 BC. The earliest reference to it seems to have been made by the poet Callimachus of the third century BC, who reported that Thales ‘measured out the little stars of the Wain by which the Phoenicians sail’. Certainly Homer, two centuries before Thales, wrote only of the Great Bear, never mentioning its smaller counterpart.
However, it is not clear whether Thales actually invented the constellation or merely introduced it to the Greeks, for Thales was reputedly descended from a Phoenician family and, as Callimachus said, the Phoenicians navigated by reference to Ursa Minor rather than Ursa Major. Aratus points out that although the Little Bear is smaller and fainter than the Great Bear, it lies closer to the pole and hence provides a better guide to true north. We have the word of Eratosthenes that the Greeks also knew Ursa Minor as the Phoenician.
Ursa Minor from the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729). Polaris, the north pole star, lies at the tip of its unnaturally long tail.
Aratus called the constellation Cynosura (Κυνόσουρα), Greek for ‘dog’s tail’. In his commentary on Aratus, the classicist Douglas Kidd comments: “Dog’s Tail is an apt name for this little star group, and must have been the original Greek name before it became the Μικρὰ Ἄρκτος [Little Bear] of Eudoxus”. This is the origin of the English word cynosure, meaning ‘guiding star’. Cynosura was still in use as an alternative name to Ursa Minor in Tycho Brahe’s star catalogue published in 1602.
According to Aratus the Little Bear represents one of the two nymphs who nursed the infant Zeus in the cave of Dicte on Crete. Apollodorus tells us that the nurses’ names were Adrasteia and Ida. Ursa Minor commemorates Ida while Adrasteia, the senior of the two, is Ursa Major.
Ursa Minor has a similar ladle shape to Ursa Major, and so it is popularly termed the Little Dipper. At the end of the Little Bear’s tail (or the dipper’s handle) is the star Alpha Ursae Minoris, commonly known by the Latin name Polaris because it is currently the nearest bright star to the north celestial pole.
Polaris and the north celestial pole
In Ptolemy’s day (2nd century AD) there was no bright star near the north celestial pole. The star we know as Polaris was then some 11° away. Kochab (Beta Ursae Minoris) was closer, but only by a couple of degrees. Over the ensuing centuries, though, the effect of precession slowly moved the celestial pole towards Alpha Ursae Minoris.
According to the German star-name expert Paul Kunitzsch (private communication), the first known usage of the name “stella polaris” applied to this star in print was in an edition of the Alfonsine Tables published in Venice in 1492. (The Alfonsine Tables were an updated version of Ptolemy’s Almagest prepared in Toledo, Spain, around 1260 on the order of King Alfonso the Wise. The first printed edition of the Tables was in 1483; earlier copies were in manuscript form only.) The name Stella Polaris also occurs on a globe of 1493 by Johannes Stöffler and in books by Stöffler and Peter Apian in the early 16th century. At that time, Polaris was still over four times farther from the celestial pole than it is at present but was clearly becoming accepted as the pole star. Prior to that, the closest star of any note to the pole was 5th-magnitude Struve 1694 in Camelopardalis (labelled 32 Camelopardalis on old charts).
Contrary to common belief, Polaris is not particularly bright. It is in fact of second magnitude. Currently it lies within a degree of the exact north celestial pole, close enough to make it an excellent guide star for navigators. Polaris will reach its closest to the north celestial pole around AD 2100, when the separation will be less than half a degree. After that, precession will just as inexorably move the celestial pole away from it again.
Other stars of Ursa Minor
The second star in the Little Bear’s tail, Delta Ursae Minoris, is called Yildun, a mis-spelling of the Turkish word yildiz meaning ‘star’. According to Paul Kunitzsch this was wrongly thought to be a Turkish name for the pole star in Renaissance times, and it has since been arbitrarily applied to the star nearest to the true pole star. According to Kunitzsch, an Arab tradition saw the arc of stars forming the handle of the Little Dipper as representing one side of the body of a fish, the other side consisting of much fainter stars including 4 and 5 Ursae Minoris and Struve 1694 in Camelopardalis (the pole star of its time).
Two stars in the bowl of the Little Dipper, Beta and Gamma Ursae Minoris, are sometimes referred to as the Guardians of the Pole. Their names are Kochab and Pherkad, and they were seen by the Arabs as a pair of calves. Paul Kunitzsch has been unable to trace the origin of Kochab, but thinks that it may come from the Arabic word kaukab meaning ‘star’. Pherkad is from al-farkadan, meaning ‘the two calves’.
In ancient China, the polar region of the sky took on immense symbolism because of its literally pivotal position, mirroring the central authority of the Emperor on Earth. The area including the modern Ursa Minor plus parts of Camelopardalis, Draco, Cepheus and Cassiopeia was known to the Chinese as Ziwei, the Purple Palace Enclosure or Central Palace. Surrounding it was a wall delineated by 15 stars, divided into western and eastern sections. The eastern wall started in present-day Draco and went through Cepheus into Cassiopeia, while the western section was in Draco, Ursa Major and Camelopardalis.
Within this central enclosure lived the Emperor and his immediate family, depicted as an arc of five stars called Beiji, the North Pole Office. In sequence polewards they were: Taizi, the Crown Prince (Gamma Ursae Minoris); Di, the Emperor himself (Beta UMi), described as “the reddest and brightest star of the group”; Shuzi, son of a concubine (5 UMi); and Hougong, the Imperial Concubine or Empress (4 UMi). At the end of the chain, over the border in Camelopardalis, was Struve 1694, known as Tianshu, the Celestial Pivot or Niuxing, Pivot Star, because it was closest to the celestial pole and hence acted as the pole star in those times despite being a mere 5th magnitude. Keeping with the domestic theme, six faint stars in southern Ursa Minor and Draco formed the Emperor’s bedroom, Tianchuang.
Although Chinese astronomers did not recognize the Little Dipper we know today, they did have a similar dipper shape called Gouchen (‘curved array’) formed by some of the same stars: Zeta, Epsilon, Delta and Alpha Ursae Minoris, plus two other unlabelled stars in Cepheus. What Gouchen represents is unclear, though – it is variously described as the Empress, the residence of the Emperor or even six generals.
Note that Gouchen contains the present-day Polaris, although it was not known as that in ancient Chinese times. It is usually said that the Chinese called this star Tianhuang dadi, meaning “great emperor of heaven” or “high god of heaven”, referring to the ultimate sky god – presumably the authority from which the terrestrial Emperor took his mandate to rule on Earth. However, Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker suggest in their book The Chinese Sky During the Han that this name actually applied not directly to Polaris but to a much fainter star or even a blank area of sky near to it, since the ultimate deity should be mysterious and invisible.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved