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    Default Why does Ursa Major have a tail?



    This may be a silly question, but why does The Great Bear have a tail? Wikipedia notes Jewish astronomers thought the tail stars to be bear cubs and the Iroquois hunters, but doesn't appear to explain why an animal with a tail more closely resembling that of the constellation wasn't picked.
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    Good eye, and good point.
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  4. #3
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    Actually, it's a raccoon.
    The Long Tailed Bear

    The word raccoon was adopted into English from the native Powhatan term, as used in the Virginia Colony. It was recorded on Captain John Smith's list of Powhatan words as Aroughcun, and on that of William Strachey as Arathkone. It has also been identified as a Proto-Algonquian root *ahrah-koon-em, meaning "[the] one who rubs, scrubs and scratches with its hands".

    Similarly, Spanish colonists adopted the Spanish word mapache from the Nahuatl mapachitli of the Aztecs, meaning "[the] one who takes everything in its hands". In many languages, the raccoon is named for its characteristic dousing behavior in conjunction with that language's term for bear, for example Waschbr in German, orsetto lavatore in Italian and araiguma (アライグマ) in Japanese. In French, the washing behavior is combined with that language's term for rat, or raton laveur.
    In the first decades after its discovery by the members of the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who was the first person to leave a written record about the species, taxonomists thought the raccoon was related to many different species, including dogs, cats, badgers and particularly bears. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, placed the raccoon in the genus Ursus, first as Ursus cauda elongata ("long-tailed bear") in the second edition of his Systema Naturae, then as Ursus Lotor ("washer bear") in the tenth edition. In 1780, Gottlieb Conrad Christian Storr placed the raccoon in its own genus Procyon, which can be translated either to "before the dog" or "doglike". It is also possible that Storr had its nocturnal lifestyle in mind and chose the star Procyon as eponym for the species.
    Perhaps something got lost in the translation along the way.

    So that's why Ursa Major and Minor are portrayed as bears with long tails.
    Ursus cauda elongata magnus et minimus


    Little sidenote about the asterism big dipper in ursa major.
    In at least a couple of other cultures starlores, the "big dipper" is a constellation of a dipper and not just an asterism within another constellation like ursa major. In Chinese it's the constellation Northern Dipper. OTOH, In Navajo it's an asterism in the constellation Revolving Male.
    I guess it all depends on who ya ask.
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    The raccoon and bear are the same family. Hmm.. interesting point.

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    Very interesting question and extremely informative reply from Solrey. Thanks you Solrey.

    Don't mean to take this thread in a different direction but just thought I will add some information about how Big Dipper is seen in Indian Astronomy.

    In Indian astronomy, the Big Dipper (not the entire Ursa Major) is called Sapta Rishi (seven sages). While many of the other constellations like Aquarius, Pisces etc., the ones used in Astrology have equivalent Sanskrit names, the Big Dipper is not equated fully with Ursa Major (I may be wrong on this one, but I am going by what I know, some more research is needed and when I get that done, I will update on this post).
    The names of the stars in the Big Dipper in Indian Astronomy (in parentheses) are:

    Dubhe (Kratu)
    Merak (Pulaha)
    Phecda (Pulastya)
    Megrez (Atri)
    Alioth (Angiras)
    Mizar (Vasishta)
    Alkaid (Bhrigu)

    Vasishta is accompanied by Alcor (Arundhati).

    Here is an interesting tidbit. The Big Dipper or the Sapta Rishi also holds enormous significance in Hindu marriage rituals, especially in the Southern India where after the wedding, the bride and groom are asked to look at Mizar and Alcor. The belief is that if they are able to see both the stars, then they will have a happy marriage.
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    Quote Originally Posted by solrey View Post
    Actually, it's a raccoon.
    But the constellation appears to come from the Greeks, who had no clue what a raccoon is. Greece has European Brown Bears, but they don't have much of a tail to speak of.
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    You're right wintermute, that was a definitive statement when it should have been presented as a hypothesis.

    Most of the modern western constellation's are of Greek or Roman mythology, true, but I'm pretty sure winged horses like Pegasus never existed. Their empires covered large swaths of the globe for long periods of time so there is considerable mixing of various cultural stories and myths within both empires. Since tobacco was a scarce valuable item to Egyptians they must have had contact with peoples on the other side of the Atlantic and there's evidence that ancient Greeks made contact as well. I can see how stories of a long tailed bear from people on the other side of the big pond could work their way into a mythological bears form.

    The Mythology of the Constellations

    Ursa Major The Great Bear


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    Default Re: Why does Ursa Major have a tail?

    Your question assumes that the Greeks were the ones who first identified it as a bear, but that's incorrect. In fact, the Greeks invented few if any of the constellations on their star map. All or almost all were borrowed from other cultures. Ursa Major was likely first identified as a bear in the Caspian Basin long before Greeks existed. The basic motif saw the quadrilateral as the four paws of the bear, walking on the sky dome, pursued by three hunters. This motif is still recognized in original form by some Turkic, Yeniseian, and Tungusic groups in Asia, and by numerous groups in North America who migrated from Asia including Salishans, the Chinook, and Algonquians, and those who borrowed it from Algonquians including the northern Iroquois, the Cherokee, and the Plains Sioux. For all these groups the "tail" was a trail of hunters.

    The Greeks borrowed this motif in later times and obviously got it confused. It appears that the original Greek bear extended all the way to Arcturus, since that name means bear in Greek. At some point the enormous bear got truncated and was left with an implausible tail.

    By the way, some North American groups didn't like the long trail of hunters and changed the animal into a fisher, relative of the weasel and mink, which looks like a little bear but has a long tail. The Greek problem is that they were poor in mink and sable.

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    Default Re: Why does Ursa Major have a tail?

    No -- European cultures took constellations from Greek and Roman star lore but Greek and Roman star lore was not the origins of those constellations. Almost all Roman constellations came from the Greeks. Almost all Greek constellations came from either the east or the south, i.e. from Asia Minor, the Levant, or Egypt. The Great Bear originated in the Caspian region where the bear was only the four quadrilateral stars and was chased by three hunters. That the Greeks distorted this, first into a giant bear and then into a bear with a long tail was the result of a chain of mistakes. It never made sense to anyone.

 

 

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