Surprise! The Big Dipper Is an Asterism, Not a Constellation

The Big Dipper has been named by people for as long as we’ve been looking skyward; nobody is credited with “discovering” or “naming” the Big Dipper. In fact, not everyone even calls it by that name.

While those of us in North America might call it the Big Dipper because it looks like a ladle with a handle, this is not the only name for such a prominent group of stars. In the United Kingdom, it’s called the Plough, whereas the Germans call it the Großer Wagen or “Great Wagon.” Romanians and many other Slavic language speakers also refer to it as the “Great Wagon” in their languages.

The seven stars of the Big Dipper are Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Alkaid and Mizar.

Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)

To the Samí people of northern Scandinavia, it is referred to as Fávdnadávgi (“Fávdna’s bow”) or simply dávggát (“the bow”), referring to the great hunter Fávdna (the star Arcturus).

In early Chinese astronomy records, it is referred to as Beidou, or “northern dipper,” whereas Filipino speakers might call it tabo, referring to the one-handled water pot used ubiquitously in Filipino households and bathrooms for purposes of personal hygiene.

All this to say, many people refer to it in a name that is both familiar to them because of its shape, or part of their cultural mythology — and this is where many of the constellations get their stories too.

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