who would scan the figured skies,
Their brightest gems to tell,
Must first direct his mind's eye north,
And learn the Bears stars well".
The Big Dipper is one of the oldest constellations in the world, recognized by nearly every ancient culture. More then just a constellation, the asterism played a serious role in the distant past, performing as a night time "sky clock", a navigational system, and as a religious icon.
"The sky is clear, Sothis lives, because I am a living one, the son of Sothis, and the Two Enneads have cleansed themselves for me in Ursa Major, the imperishable. My house in the sky will not perish." - Egyptian text
In Egypt, the Dipper was associated with the primordial mound that rose from the cosmic sea, the first land on which life appeared. Because of it's seven prominent stars, it was spoken that a mysterious group of seven sages, in some manner associated with the starry mound, assisted Thoth in the construction of the pyramids which the Egyptians called the "mansions of the gods". Sometimes the Dipper was called the "cart of Orisis", as it spun around in the sky with the circumpolar stars, and it was often depicted in reliefs as a mother Hippopotamus, goddess of birth or creation. The star Dubhe was also associated to the goddess Isis, and many of her temples aligned to this star.
"...And star dials pointed to morn...". Tennyson
In ancient Sumer, the Dipper was called Ma-God-Da, the flying Wagon, and in Hebrew, Agalah, which has the same meaning. In India, the Dipper was strongly associated with a mysterious seven of it's own, known as the Saptar Shayar, the Seven Anchors that hold down the pole, but was also called the 7 Sages, 7 Rishis, 7 Poets, and curiously enough, the 7 Builders which brings Egyptian lore to mind.
"Seven equal stars adorn the Greater Bear, And teach the Grecian Sailors how to steer."
It is from the Greeks that we have our own modern name for the Dipper, Ursa Major. It has been suggested that the "Ursa" comes from "versus", suggesting the movement of the asterism turning around the pole. Although the Greeks were familiar with the symbolic seven stars, calling them the 7 Wise Men of Greece, the association with a cosmic bear was present to a much stronger degree. Even the word "bear" comes from the older word "bare" which meant to "hold up", as in the Great Bear holding up the sky. Homer called the Dipper "the bear that never dips into the ocean", since as circumpolar stars they were never seen to set into the oceans surrounding the Greek shore. The Arctic Circle is likewise named after this constellation, the Great Bear, for Arctic itself means "bear", and this zone of land makes a similar circuit every 24 hours.
No ordinary creature, the ancient Greeks claimed Ursa Major was a maiden transformed into a bear. To their cousins the Norse, such transformations are strongly connected to the "bear-shirts" or "berserkers", the chosen men and women who fought in Odin's special guard and were also believed to have the ability to transform into bears. The bear was also an immortality symbol, as it hibernates in winter and revives in spring, simulating death and rebirth. The Greeks associated both the bear and the constellation with the goddess Artemis, also known as Callisto. It was said that Zeus and Callisto had a son named Arcas, and to protect them from his jealous wife, he turned them both into bears. Callisto became the Great Bear, who revolves around the sky protecting Arcas, the Little Bear, who we know as Ursa Minor. The real message here becomes apparent when one considers that Ursa Minor possesses something of particular interest, Polaris the Pole Star. Indeed, in the distant past, Ursa Major itself once contained the pole, which moves slowly over thousands of years due to the earth's wobble. Young girls in the service of Artemis were called "she-bears" after the constellation, and it has even been suggested by scholars that the origin of the Greek "round dances" were done to imitate the motion of the stars around the pole.
"Onward the kindred bears with footsteps rude, Dance 'round the pole, pursuing and pursued."
In Rome, the Dipper was called both the Septentriones, the "7 Plough Oxen" who pulled a cosmic plough, and the Plaustrum Magnum the "Great Cart". Italy later assumed the name, calling it the Carro, "Cart". In Scandinavia, the Dipper was Thor's Wagon or Karlsvagn "Karl's Wagon". To the Anglo-Saxon's it was Odin's Wain ("wagon") and to the German's, Heaven's Wagon. In the Dipper's handle are the double stars Mizar and Alcor, which the Germans said was Hans the Thumbkin, the tiny rider that drove the flying wagon. A Norse myth had another spin on Alcor, claiming it was the frostbitten toe of Orwandil (the constellation Orion), broken off by Thor and thrown into the sky. In Finland, the cosmos was believed to be a great world tree, which represented the celestial pole, and in the upper branches perched a great bear, representing Ursa Major. Ancient Finnish depictions often show a pine tree with seven stars near the top, or a picture of a bear nestled in it's uppermost branches.
". ..round and round the frozen pole, Glideth the lean white bear." - Buchanan
In England, due to Norse influence, the Dipper was commonly known as Charles's Wain, Charles being the English variation of Karl, though afterwards it was said to be named after Charlemange. Influenced by an older Indo-European mythology, and it was also well known as Aratus, Arcturus Wain, or Arthur's Wain, and associated to the legendary King Arthur, the circumpolar stars serving as his celestial round table. It has been discovered that at Glastonbury, a giant star map has been built into the very roadways in a pattern that depicts the zodiac, and nearby are seven special hills said to be the Wain. An artificial mountain nearby, the famed Tor, was actually an artificial island once reached by boat, which represented the celestial pole star and axis of the cosmos. Due to it's strong hold on local lore, the bear still appears in many old English signs and in traditional heraldry.