Ursa Major, the Big Bear, is probably one of the most well known of all the constellations. Look for the Big Dipper in the northern sky and you've found Ursa Major. The Big Dipper only represents the hindquarters of the Bear but once you become familiar with its stars you will easily see the entire Bear.
How did this Big Bear get into the sky? Greek myth says that King Lycaon of Arcadia had a daughter named Callisto. She was an attendant to the moon goddess Artemis. Zeus was smitten by Callisto's beauty and after they were together she had a son who she named Arcas. Hera (Zeus' wife) found out about his affair and in a jealous rage she turned Callisto into a bear. From then on Callisto roamed the countryside around Arcadia. Her son, Arcas, was raised by King Lycaon. One day when Arcas was hunting he came upon a bear and, not knowing it was really his mother, he killed it. Zeus was sad and to honor Callisto he turned her into the beautiful Big Bear constellation. Later in his life Arcas too was placed in the sky as the constellation we now call Boötes.
In a variation of that story it is said that before Arcas could kill his bear-mother Zeus changed him into a little bear . Then Zeus placed both of the bears into the sky out of the reach of Hera. Hera did get some revenge though. She arranged it so Callisto (Ursa Major) and Arcas (Ursa Minor) would be placed in the far north sky so that they could never rest in the ocean like the other constellations (they were circumpolar constellations - they never set below the horizon, at least from the latitude of Greece).
Although Ursa Major is made up of many stars much mythology only deals with the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The Snohomish Indians (USA Pacific NW) explain the Big Dipper this way:
A long time ago the land around Puget Sound was a wonderful place to live but it did have one problem - the sky was too low. It was so low that sometimes tall people bumped their heads on it! The tribes in the area all agreed that the sky must be raised up. A message was sent to all the people to get as many giant fir trees as possible. They brought the trees to a gathering place and were told what to do. Everyone was to hold the base of a fir tree and shove its top against the sky. Then they were all supposed to push up the sky and move it away from the earth. The sky was quite heavy and so everyone had to push up at the same time. Each tribe spoke a different language but fortunately there was a word that all of them knew. That word was "ya-hoh" and it meant "lift together." When everyone was ready the chiefs yelled, "ya-hoh!" and everyone pushed upwards but the sky didn't budge. Again the chiefs yelled, "ya-hoh!" and everyone pushed upwards and this time the sky moved a little. Again and again the chiefs yelled "ya-hoh!" and again and again the people pushed the sky a little more upwards. Finally the sky was pushed as high as it is today and the people celebrated.
Now it so happens that while the people were pushing up the sky there was a hunting party that had gone far afield to find food for their tribe. There were three hunters and a dog in the hunting party and they did not know about the sky raising. They had found four large elk and were chasing them across the land. The chase lasted many days and took them to the edge of the earth - where the ground almost touched the sky. Having nowhere else to go the four elk jumped up into the sky and kept on running. The hunters wasted no time in following the elk and they too jumped up into the sky. It was then that the people pushed up the sky leaving the elk and hunters with no way to get back down to earth.
You can still see the hunt going on today. The four stars of the Big Dipper's bowl are the four elk. The three stars in the Dipper's handle are the hunters. The little star next to the middle hunter is his dog.
The Wasco Indians (USA Pacific NW), like the Snohomish, saw individuals creatures in the stars of the Big Dipper.
A long time ago there lived five wolf brothers who loved to hunt. Each night they would gather together and stare at something up in the sky. Coyote came along and asked, "What are you staring at?" "Nothing," the wolf brothers replied. "We are staring at nothing." The wolf brothers were worried about what Coyote would do if he found out what they were looking at. But finally, after much pestering, the wolves said, "Well Coyote, we see two animals of some kind in the sky but they are too far away for us to tell what kind of animals they are. Can you figure out a way for us to get closer?" "That is easy!" said Coyote, who was very curious himself. He took his magic bow and shot an arrow into the air. It came straight down and landed in the ground. Then he took another arrow and shot it into the sky. It came down and stuck into the end of the first arrow. He took another arrow, shot it into the sky, and it came down and stuck into end of the second arrow. Coyote continued shooting arrows in this manner for many days. Finally the arrow ladder was tall enough to reach the two sky animals. The wolf brothers climbed up first and the eldest took his dog along. Coyote was the last to climb up because he was a little afraid of what they would find at the top of the arrow ladder. After days of climbing the youngest wolf brother was able to clearly see the sky animals. "They are two grizzly bears!" he said. That frightened everyone. "But look, they are just sitting there, staring at us. I don't think that it will hurt to get closer." So the youngest wolf brother continued up the ladder followed by his four brothers with Coyote trailing far behind. The wolf brothers got right up close to the grizzly bears. They sat down and stared at the two bears. The grizzly bears didn't move. They just sat there and stared back. All the while Coyote stayed at the top of the arrow ladder. "Those grizzly bears might be dangerous," he thought. "I'm not going to get any closer! Hmm..... you know..... those wolf brothers and grizzly bears look kind of nice sitting there in the sky. I think I will leave them there so everyone can see them. Then people will tell this story about me." Coyote climbed down the arrow ladder removing the arrows as he went. The wolf brothers and grizzly bears were stuck in the sky forever. You can still see them where they are sitting and staring at each other. The three stars in the handle of the Dipper are the elder wolf brothers. The middle star of the handle is the oldest brother and his dog is sitting next to him. The two stars in the bowl, nearest the handle, are the two youngest wolf brothers. Opposite them, and pointing to the North Star, are two more stars which are the grizzly bears.
A curious thing about the celestial bears is that each has a very long tail. One story says that the sky bears have such long tails because when Zeus placed Callisto and Arcas into the sky he pulled them up by their tails, stretching them in the process!
Native American myth tells us that a long time ago all bears had lovely long tails, that is until Bear was tricked by Fox. Bear and Fox were friends but they still liked to tease each other. One day when Fox saw an Indian ice fishing he got an idea for a joke to play on Bear. Fox grabbed a fish that the Indian had caught and ran off with it to find Bear. When he found Bear Fox said, "Look at this fine fish I caught for dinner!" "But wasn't the lake frozen?" said Bear. "How did you catch that fish?" Fox replied, "I put my tail into a hole in the ice and when a fish bit it I pulled my tail out with the fish still hanging on!" Bear was jealous - he wanted fish for dinner too. "Come on", said Fox, "I will show you where the hole in the ice is." They came to the lake and Bear put his long tail into the water. Bear waited a long long time but no fish would bite his tail. Night was coming and it was getting very cold but Bear kept his tail in the water hoping to catch a fish. Finally it got so cold that the hole in the ice froze solid and Bear's tail was stuck. Fox saw that Bear couldn't move and he laughed and laughed. Then Fox began to dance around Bear and tease him. Fox said, "What a silly Bear! Your tail is frozen in the ice!" That made Bear very angry and he tried to leap at Fox. Bear jumped so hard that his long tail broke off and he was left with only the stubby tail that all bears have today.