by Ernest Thompson Seton
So far as there is a central point in our heavens, that point is the Pole-Star, Polaris. Around this star all the stars in the sky seem to turn once in twenty-four hours.
It is easily discovered by the help of the Big Dipper, or Great Bear, known to every country boy and girl in the northern half of the world. This is, perhaps, the most important star group in our sky, because of its size, peculiar form, the fact that it never sets in our latitude, and that of its stars, two, sometimes called the Pointers, always point out the Pole-Star. It is called the Dipper because it is shaped like a dipper with a long, bent handle.
Why it is called the Great Bear is not so easy to explain. The classical legend has it that the nymph, Calisto, having violated her vow, was changed by Diana into a bear, which, after death, was immortalized in the sky by Zeus. Another suggestion is that the earliest astronomers, the Chaldeans, called these stars "the shining ones," and their word happened to be very like the Greek arktos (a bear). Another explanation is that vessels in olden days were named for animals, etc. They bore at the prow the carved effigy of the namesake, and if the Great Bear, for example, made several very happy voyages by setting out when a certain constellation was in the ascendant, that constellation might become known as the Great Bear's constellation. Certainly, there is nothing in its shape to justify the name. Very few of the constellations, indeed, are like the thing they are called after. Their names were usually given for some fanciful association with the namesake, rather than for resemblance to it.
The Pole-Star is really the most important of the stars in our sky; it marks the north at all times; all the other stars seem to swing around it once in twenty-four hours. It is in the end of the Little Bear's tail; this constellation is sometimes called the Little Dipper. But the Pole-Star, or Polaris, is not a very bright one, and it would be hard to identify but for the help of the Pointers of the Big Dipper.
The outside stars (Alpha and Beta) of the Dipper point nearly to Polaris, at a distance equal to about five times the space that separates these two stars of the Dipper's outer side.
Indian names for the Pole-Star are the," Home Star," and "The Star That Never Moves," and the Big Dipper they call the "Broken Back."
The Great Bear is also to be remembered as the hour-hand of the woodman's clock. It goes once around the North Star in about twenty-four hours, the same way as the sun, and for the same reason-that it is the earth that is going and leaving them behind.
The time in going around is not exactly twenty-four hours, so that the position of the Pointers varies with the seasons, but, as a rule, this for Woodcraft purposes is near enough. The bowl of the Dipper swings four fifths of the width of its own opening in one hour. If it went a quarter of the circle, that would mean you had slept a quarter of a day, or six hours.
Every fifteen days the stars seem to be an hour earlier; in three months they gain one fourth of the circle, and in. a year gain the whole circle.
According to Flammarion, there are about seven thousand stars visible to the naked eye, and of these twenty are stars of the first magnitude. Fourteen of them are visible in the latitude of New York, the others (those starred) belong to the South Polar region of the sky. The following table of the brightest stars is taken from the Revised Harvard Photometry of 1908, the best authority on the subject.
The First Twenty Stars in Order of Brightness
1. Sirius, the Dog Star.
2. *Canopus, of the Ship.
3. *Alpha, of the Centaur.
4. Vega, of the Lyre.
5. Capella, of the Charioteer.
6. Arcturus, of the Herdsman.
7. Rigel, of Orion.
8. Procyon, the Little Dog-Star.
9. *Achernar, of Eridanus.
10. *Beta, of the Centaur.
11. Altair, of the Eagle.
12. Betelgeuze, of Orion's right shoulder.
13. *Alpha, of the Southern Cross.
14. Aldebaran, of the Bull's right eye.
15. Pollux, of the Twins.
16. Spica, of the Virgin.
17. Antares, of the Scorpion.
18. Fomalhaut, of the Southern Fish.
19. Deneb, of the Swan.
20. Regulus, of the Lion.
Orion (O-ri-on), with its striking array of brilliant stars, Betelgeuze, Rigel, the Three Kings, etc., is generally admitted to be the finest constellation in the heavens.
Orion was the hunter giant who went to Heaven when he died, and now marches around the great dome, but is seen only in the winter, because, during the summer, he passes over during daytime. Thus he is still the hunter's constellation. The three stars of his belt are called the "Three Kings."
Sirius, the Great Dog-Star, is in the head of Orion's Hound, the constellation Canis Major, and following farther back is the Little Dog star, Procyon, the chief star of the constellation Canis Minor.
In old charts of the stars, Orion is shown with his hounds, hunting the bull, Taurus. This constellation is recognizable by this diagram; the red star, Aldebaran, being the angry right eye of the Bull. His face is covered with a cluster of little stars called the Hyades, and on his shoulder are the seven stars, called Pleiades.
Pleiades (Ply-a-des) can be seen in winter as a cluster of small stars between Aldebaran and Algol, or, a line drawn from the back bottom, through the front rim of the Big Dipper, about two Dipper lengths, touches this little group. They are not far from Aldebaran, being in the right shoulder of the Bull. They may be considered the seven arrow wounds made by Orion.
Serviss tells us that the Pleiades have a supposed connection with the Great Pyramid, because "about 2170 B. C., when the beginning of spring coincided with the culmination of the Pleiades at midnight, that wonderful group of stars was visible just at midnight, through the mysterious southward-pointing passage of the Pyramid.
On the opposite side of the Pole-Star from the Big Dipper, and nearly as far from it, is a W of five bright stars. This is called Cassiopeia's Chair. It is easily found and visible the year round on clear nights.
Thus we have described ten constellations from which the Woodcrafter may select the number needed to qualify, namely the Little Bear or Little Dipper, the Big Dipper or Big Bear, Cassiopeia's Chair, Orion, the Bull, Orion's Hound, Orion's Little Dog, the Pleiades and the Hyades; the Lyre (later).
The moon is one fourth the diameter of the earth, about one fiftieth of the bulk, and is about a quarter of a million miles away. Its course, while very irregular, is nearly the same as the apparent course of the sun. It is a cold, solid body, without any known atmosphere, and shines by reflected sunlight.
The moon goes around the earth in twenty-seven and a quarter days. It loses about fifty-one minutes in twenty-four hours; therefore it rises that much later each successive night on the average, but there are wide deviations from this average, as, for example, the time of the Harvest and Hunter's moons in the fall, when the full moon rises at nearly the same time for several nights in succession.
According to most authorities, the moon is a piece of the earth that broke away some time ago; and it has followed its mother around ever since.
The Stars as Tests of Eyesight
In the sky are several tests of eyesight which have been there for some time and are likely to be. The first is the old test of Mizar and Alcor. Mizar, the Horse, is the star at the bend of the handle of the Dipper. Just above it is a very small star that astronomers call Alcor, or the rider.
The Indians call these two the "Old Squaw and the Papoose on Her Back." In the old world, from very ancient times, these have been used as tests of eyesight. To be able to see, Alcor with the naked eye means that one had excellent eyesight. So also on the plains, the old folks would ask the children at night, "Can you see the papoose on the old squaw's back?" And when the youngster saw it, and proved that he did by a right description, they rejoiced that he had the eyesight which is the first requisite of a good hunter.
One of the oldest of all eye tests is the Pleiades. Poor eyes see a mere haze, fairly good see five, good see six, excellent see seven.
The rarest eyesight, under the best conditions, see up to ten; and, according to Flammarion, the record with unaided eyes is thirteen.
VEGA, OF THE LYRE
If one draw a line from through the back wall of the Dipper, that is, from the back bottom star, through the one next the handle, and continue it upward for twice the total length of the Dipper; it will reach Vega, the brightest star in the northern part of the sky, and believed to have been at one time the Pole-Star--and likely to be again. Vega, with the two stars near it, form a small triangle. The one on the side next the North Star is called Epsilon. If you have remarkably good eyes, you will see that it is a double star.
THE NEBULA IN ORION'S SWORD
Just about the middle of Orion's Sword is a fuzzy light spot. This might do for blood, only it is the wrong color. It is the nebula of Orion. If you can see it with the naked eye, you are to be congratulated.
ON THE MOON
When the moon is full, there is a large, dark, oval spot on it to the left, as you face it, and close to the east rim, almost halfway up; this is the Plain of Grimaldi; it is about twice the size of the whole State of New Jersey; but it is proof of a pair of excellent eyes if you can see it at all.
THE BOOK OF STARS, by R. F. Collins. D. Appleton & Co.
AROUND THE YEAR WITH THE STARS, by Garrett P. Serviss. Harpers.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.