The Big Dipper is one of the most recognizable groupings of stars in the sky, and perhaps the most familiar (at least to those who dwell in the northern hemisphere of our globe). It is composed of very bright stars which appear to form a very distinctive shape from our vantage point here on earth.
Not only does almost everyone know how to trace its outline, but nearly everyone also knows that it is located near the north celestial pole, and can be used to locate the point around which the entire sky appears to rotate. Its front two stars in the bowl, Dubhe and Merak (alpha and beta Ursae Majoris, in the Bayer system of star designation), are known as "the Pointers," because an imaginary line traced through them (starting at Merak and going up and through Dubhe and beyond) will direct the eye to Polaris, the North Star, situated almost on top of the point around which the entire heavens appear to rotate due to the rotation of the earth on its axis.
The names of the "Seven Stars" of the Dipper, along with the Greek letters of their Bayer designation, are shown below. The star next-to-last in the "handle" is actually a multiple star. Its name is Mizar (or zeta Ursae Majoris) and in the image below (and above) if you look closely you can detect Alcor (which appears smaller and situated "above" Mizar from the perspective of the dipper's orientation) right next to it. These two have often been called "The Horse and Rider" due to this arrangement, and have long been used as a traditional test of eyesight (if you can detect both Alcor and Mizar with the naked eye, you have good vision). In fact, there are not two but four stars in the immediate vicinity of Mizar, as shown in this excellent web page from a website called Catching the Light by Jerry Lodriguss.
The nearness of the Big Dipper group to the Pole Star means that it can almost always be seen by those in the northern hemisphere, as it circles that central point of the turning sky. In the "analogy of the dining room" introduced in this blog post and portrayed in this video presentation, the Big Dipper is "on the ceiling" and thus visible any time of the year for those in the northern half of the globe, in contrast to groupings of stars "on the walls" which are occasionally obscured by the bright light of the sun as our earth goes around it (viewers in the southern hemisphere can always see the stars that are "on the floor," although they can't see "the ceiling" at all once they move south of a certain latitude). The stars that can be seen throughout the year were known as the "imperishable" or "undying stars" to the ancient Egyptians.
The location of this distinctive star-grouping (properly speaking, the Big Dipper is not an actual "constellation," as it is part of the larger constellation Ursa Major or the Great Bear) near the central pivot of the heavens led the ancients to encode it in myth as playing a causative role not just in the turning of the heavens as the earth rotates on its axis each day, but even more importantly as playing a causative role in the ages-long mechanics of precession. In this, they were not mistaken, as the changing ages of precession and the motion of the north celestial pole caused by the principles of physics (in particular, the law of conservation of angular momentum) are in fact related.
In this role in mythology, these stars usually appear as "Seven Sages" or wise and powerful beings. For example, the Seven Rishis described in the ancient Vedas of India are identified with the stars we call the Big Dipper, and many Vedic texts ascribe to them the power of turning the heavens and, by extension, driving all the celestial machinery of the cosmos (including precession). In Hamlet's Mill, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend tell us that in this role they are responsible for creating the measurements of both time and distance -- which shows that the ancients were completely aware that the rotation of the earth gives us the connection between time and distance, which you can observe for yourself if you think of the concept of a "minute," which is a term that can be used to express both:
Tradition will show that the measures of a new world had to be procured from the depths of the celestial ocean and tuned with the measures from above, directed by the "Seven Sages," as they are often cryptically mentioned in India and elsewhere. They turn out to be the Seven Stars of Ursa, which are normative in all cosmological alignments on the starry sphere. These dominant stars of the Far North are peculiarly but systematically linked with those which are considered the operative powers of the cosmos, that is, the planets as they move in different placements and configurations along the zodiac. 3.De Santillana and von Dechend also note that the ancient Vedic texts inform us that these Seven Rishis have a sister (and wife) named Arundati, who is Alcor (footnote on page 301).
To illustrate the heaven-moving power of these Seven Rishis, de Santillana and von Dechend cite for example the Vishnu Purana, which in chapter 8 of Book II tells us:
On the north of Agastya, and south of the line of the Goat, exterior to the Vaiswánara path, lies the road of the Pitris. There dwell the great Rishis, the offerers of oblations with fire, reverencing the Vedas, after whose injunctions creation commenced, and who were discharging the duties of ministrant priests: for as the worlds are destroyed and renewed, they institute new rules of conduct, and reestablish the interrupted ritual of the Vedas. Mutually descending from each other, progenitor springing from descendant, and descendant from progenitor, in the alternating succession of births, they repeatedly appear in different housed and races along with their posterity, devout practices and instituted observances, residing to the south of the solar orb, as long as the moon and stars endure. (See Hamlet's Mill pages 407-408, in Appendix 29).This "destroying and renewing" of worlds, Hamlet's Mill explains, refers to the changing of the celestial ages through the motion of precession.
The texts of ancient Sumer and Babylon also ascribe great power to the "Seven Sages," explaining that they were the ones who founded or laid out the plan of the sacred city of Uruk (tablet one, line 19 -- also discussed in pages 300-302 in Hamlet's Mill). There, we read:
Go close to the Eanna Temple, the residence of Ishtar,In Keeper of Genesis, Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval outline the connections between the Seven Sages that laid out the plans for Uruk and the Seven Sages described in the Edfu Building Texts (texts inscribed at the Temple of Edfu), whom that text tells us were "the only divine beings who knew how the temples and sacred places were to be created" (200).
such as no later king or man ever equaled!
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not (even the core of) the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area(?) of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area(?) of Uruk it (the wall) encloses.
Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval note that:
In the whole corpus of ancient Egyptian writings, the Edfu Building Texts preserve the only references to the 'Seven Sages' that have survived to the present day. Egyptologists have therefore paid little attention to the identity of these beings beyond conceding that they appear to have played a part in 'a much wider and more general theory concerning the origin of sacred domains and their temples.' In our opinion, however, there is something notable about the context in which the Texts describe the Sages. This context is marked by a preponderance of 'Flood' imagery in which the 'primeval waters' (out of which the Great Primeval Mound emerged) are depicted as gradually receding. We are reminded of Noah's mountain-top on which the Ark settled after the Biblical Deluge, and of the 'Seven Sages' (Apkallu) of ancient Babylonian tradition who were said to have 'lived before the Flood' and to have built the walls of the sacred city of Uruk. Likewise is it an accident that in Indian tradition 'Seven Sages' (Rishis) are remembered to have survived the Flood, their purpose being to preserve and pass down to future generations the wisdom of the antediluvian world? 200-201.This connection to the world-destroying flood that Messrs. Hancock and Bauval perceive is quite insightful and important. If the seven stars of the Dipper are preserved in wide-ranging ancient traditions as turning the sky and of turning the precessional ages, then their association with the world-destroying flood is an important clue to the connection between an understanding of precession and the globe-altering events that would have accompanied the global flood described by the hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown.
Of course, it could be argued that the "world-ending catastrophes" that usher in new precessional ages are merely mythological conventions to encode celestial events (this is the gist of the argument of de Santillana and von Dechend). However, as there is extensive geological and other evidence to support an actual catastrophic flood (the latest post to discuss such evidence is here, and the post before that one is here). It is therefore possible that the connection of the Seven Rishis to the flood is not merely celestial but encodes an understanding of an actual flood and its impact on the heavens.
In any event, an awareness of these issues can give us a greater appreciation for that familiar constellation in our sky, the Big Dipper. It may be enjoyable to memorize the mysterious-sounding names of each of the stars that form the Seven Rishis, and their sister-wife Alcor / Arundati, and to identify each as you look at the sky.