Despite another “Super Moon” and the Geminid Meteor Shower this week, I’d like to talk about the constellation Ursa Major, and its better-known asterism the Big Dipper.
Every year in December the Big Dipper appears with the tip of its handle as though resting right on the Earth, the cup high above it, open to the west. If you had nothing else in the world to rely on, then this position alone would reveal you to that the winter months are at hand. You can actually read the seasons of the year according to the position of the Dipper, and when its handle appears to fall from the sky toward Earth, then the cold is coming.
But here’s something that I also just learned: There are two stars at the bend of the Dipper’s handle, Alcor and Mizar. I’ve heard that these two stars are used in Hindu wedding ceremonies to indicate intimacy in marriage or as a celestial eye test for would-be warriors; but what I just learned is that the star Alcor was thought by the Ancient Greeks to be the Lost Pleiad Electra.
The Pleiades is a star cluster in the region of the constellation Taurus, and they are most famously known as the seven sisters. But over time, some of the stars in this cluster will dim and disappear, hence the tale of the Lost Pleiad. Electra, it was believed, had wandered away from her sisters in the region of Taurus to reappear further north in the region of the Dipper, where she became known as the Fox~our star Alcor.
And here’s where the storytelling comes in: There’s a fox in the handle of the Dipper, and in this season these stars are as though falling to Earth. These are two key ingredients for the English tale “Chicken Little” who convinces all of her barnyard friends that the sky is falling because she saw it with her eyes and heard it with her ears, and part of it fell on her tail! So turkey and goosey and ducky and rooster and even Henny Penny, all set off, running through the forest to tell the king this terrible news. Then they happen upon the Fox, who knows a good meal when she sees one!
It’s a good tale for this month’s stargazing, capturing in the simplest of ways the sublime wisdom of what can happen when we think the sky is falling.