Stellar Among the Stars: The Circumpolar Constellations

Stellar Among the Stars: The Circumpolar Constellations

By Michael J. Caduto

How Fisher Went to Skyland

There was a time in the world when it was always winter. Snow was as deep as the treetops and the animals were starving. Fisher, who was among the most powerful of all the animals, journeyed to Skyland to bring warm weather to Earth so the animals would be able to find food. With help from Wolverine, Fisher chewed a hole into Skyland. Warm weather flowed down through the opening, melting the snow and causing flowers to bloom; bringing the first springtime. But when the Sky People discovered their warm weather was being stolen, they chased Fisher and cornered him atop a tall tree. When one of their arrows struck the tip of Fisher’s tail, he fell. But Fisher had made such a great sacrifice to help the other animals that Creator placed him in a place of honor among the stars.

In this Anishinabe (Ojibway) story of How Fisher Went to Skyland, which comes from the native peoples of the Great Lakes region, the stars of the Big Dipper don’t appear as part of the well-known constellation of the Great Bear, Ursa Major. Rather, those stars form the image of a “fisher” or “fisher cat,” a fox-sized animal in the weasel family that has chocolate-brown fur and is a powerful hunter.

Circumpolar Stars

The stars of the Big Dipper — the most recognizable constellation in the night sky and the star cluster closest to Earth — form the tail and rump of the larger constellation of Fisher or the Great Bear. The two “pointer” stars of the Big Dipper, which are farthest away from the tip of the handle, can be used to locate the North Star or Polaris. To locate Polaris, draw an imaginary line from Merak, (the star in the bottom corner at the far end of the dipper’s bowl) and up through Dubhe (the star on the rim of the bowl) and follow that line with your eye for about five times the distance between the pointer stars.

The North Star forms the tip of the bear’s tail in the constellation of the Little Bear (Ursa Minor). Because Polaris hovers almost exactly above Earth’s North Pole, it appears to be stationary while all of the other stars revolve around it. This puts the seven stars that form the image of the Little Dipper at the heart of the circumpolar constellations — those star-crossed mythological images that circle around the North Star and are high enough in the sky to be seen year-round. Other circumpolar stars include Ursa Major, Draco (the Dragon), Cassiopeia (the Queen) and Cepheus (the King).

Circumpolar Constellations

Of the 88 constellations, 41 can be seen from the Northern Hemisphere. Except for the circumpolar constellations, the constellations are visible only seasonally. The traditional calendars of many indigenous peoples are based on seasonal changes seen among the stars.

The North Star: Na-gah’s Mountaintop

According to one Paiute legend from the Great Basin range of the western states, a mountain sheep named Na-gah wanted to make his father proud by climbing a tall mountain. But the slopes were so precipitous that the trails ended in sheer cliffs. The only way up was through a steeply sloping tunnel that wound uphill through the heart of the mountain. As Na-gah climbed, he dislodged boulders that rolled down and blocked the tunnel behind him. When he at last reached the top of the mountain, it was a small space from which he could not escape. At that moment Nagah’s father, Shinoh — who was a powerful being — was traveling across the sky. When Shinoh looked down he saw that Na-gah would die because he was trapped on the mountaintop. Shinoh was so proud that he transformed Na-gah into a star and placed him in the center of the sky. To this day, all of the other animals keep trying to climb the mountain, constantly circling around Na-gah as they mount the steep trails.

If Na-gah’s mountaintop was viewed overhead from a great distance, it would appear flat, with Na-gah (North Star) in the center and all of the other animals (stars) circling around him. Similarly, from our vantage point on Earth — although the stars are so distant that the dome of the night sky appears two-dimensional — the stars are actually separated by vastly different distances from our home planet. Among the stars of the Big Dipper, the star Megrez is nearest (58 million light years away) and Dubhe farthest away (123 million light years).

More Tales

Cassiopeia — queen and wife of King Cepheus — had to be lovelier than any other woman. When she boasted of being more beautiful even than Juno, the wife (and sister) of Jupiter, word reached Neptune, god of the sea who sent a sea monster to attack the coast. Neptune demanded that the king and queen sacrifice their daughter, Andromeda, in order to stop the sea monster, but Perseus killed the creature and won Andromeda’s hand in marriage.

My favorite circumpolar constellation is Draco, the Dragon. Draco watched over the Golden Fleece that was sought by Jason and the Argonauts. In another tale, during the battle between the Titans and the gods of Mount Olympus, Athena flung the dragon heavenward, where it wrapped around the North Pole. To this day, Draco’s sinuous body and starry scales slither among the other circumpolar constellations as if ensnaring them in his celestial lair.

Michael J. Caduto is well-known as co-author of the landmark Keepers of the Earth® series. His children’s articles have appeared Cricket, Ranger Rick’s NatureScope, Instructor, Green Teacher and Clearing magazine. His website is www.p-e-a-c-e.net

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