Ursa Major: The Oldest Story in the World

Since at least the early 1900s it has been recognized that there is a curious similarity between Eurasian and North American myths associated with the seven major stars of what is generally referred to as The Big Dipper. The most common motif involves a bear, which is of course the theme of Ursa Major, “The Great Bear”, the constellation of which the Big Dipper makes up the most significant portion.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major

In all likelihood, the story derives from a common source in Asia that spread through migration across the Bering land bridge. This is a rather staggering conclusion. If the linguistic and genetic trees derived by L.L. Cavalli-Sforza can act as a guide, the common ancestor of this myth may go back well over 20,000 years.

Its stars seem to have been called the Bear over nearly the whole of our continent when the first Europeans, of whom we have knowledge, arrived. They were known as far north as Point Barrow, as far east as Nova Scotia, as far west as the Pacific Coast, and as far south as the Pueblos.

- Stansbury Hagar, “The Celestial Bear”, The Journal of American Folklore (JAF), Apr.-Jun., 1900

Occasional local names notwithstanding, the possibility of the bear as Ursa Major having originated independently is inconceivable. Classical Old World mythology is replete with the bear in its role as Ursa Major. Ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all contain references to this motif.

- William B. Gibbon, “Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major”, JAF, Jul.-Sep., 1964.

The power of the bear motif can be seen in the very word “bear” itself, which is derived from an Old Germanic word meaning “the brown one.”

Linguists hypothesize that in old common Germanic, the true name of the bear was under a taboo — not to be spoken directly. The exact details of the taboo are not known. Did it apply to hunters who were hunting the bear and did not want to warn it? Or to hunters hunting other animals and did not wanting to rile up the bear and have it steal their prey? Or did it apply to anyone who did not want to summon the bear by its name and perhaps become its prey? Whatever the details, the taboo worked so well that no trace of the original *rkto- word remains in Germanic languages, except as borrowed historically in learned words from Greek or Latin.

» Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2006 | Comments (8) | Permanent Link


i think you should tell people the question that they asked like how did the star get its name!!!

» Posted by none of your buisness on April 1, 2008 06:44 PM

it would be nice to read a story, or even quote from a story, as spoken by the inhabitants of the countries PREDATING the arrival of the Europeans. Didn’t the Europeans even keep records of what natives of these countries said, instead of spinning every thing in their own words?

» Posted by Jayla on August 17, 2008 05:33 PM

I think hearing this story is inspring people to go find the stars with friends and makes you want to tell the story behind this star… So i will definetly go and try to find Ursa Major and tell the story hehind it. (:

» Posted by Coral on October 22, 2008 04:51 PM

is there some sort of meaning as why the ursa major is there????

» Posted by Anonymous on August 25, 2009 11:26 AM

This makes absolutly no sense at all. These people have no idea at all what they are talking about. My boy mike has a PhD in astronomy and he says that this is all a lie. i dont know who is right, but i have to belive my friend with an edjucaion.

» Posted by Brett & Adam on September 28, 2009 08:22 AM


» Posted by Mike on September 28, 2009 08:24 AM

it would be nice if you said how it got his name!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

» Posted by Anonymous on May 18, 2010 06:49 PM

i love the world

» Posted by jake on November 5, 2010 09:17 AM