The Wonderful Bear

From Zeus’ paramour to Arthur’s kingdom

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter on the 14th, appearing due south as the sun sets, well before 6:30 this week, and setting around midnight. Each night the moon appears 15 degrees farther east at sunset, and each evening it sets almost an hour later. The night of the 19th, the gibbous moon passes six degrees north of brilliant Jupiter. 

Jupiter, brighter than any star, beckons low in the east-southeast as darkness settles. Look for him high in the south around midnight and edging westward hour by hour before setting around 4am. 

In autumn, the familiar outline of the Big Dipper, a part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, commands the northern sky. Sunset, now before 6:30, reveals the Dipper above the northwest horizon. Above it is the Little Dipper, which looks as though it were pouring its contents into the cup of its larger counterpart.

While many stars set beneath the western horizon, Ursa Major is a circumpolar constellation, meaning it never sets from view here in the Northern Hemisphere. By midnight, the Dipper is due north and lies flat against the horizon. Hour by hour it creeps eastward and edges higher, until by dawn it is high in the northeast, the stars of its handle stretching toward the horizon.

Since the earliest days of civilization, the constellation Ursa Major has been seen as a she-bear. According to Greek legend, she was one of Zeus’ many star-struck lovers, the nymph Callisto, placed in the heavens, along with her son Boötes. In medieval England, the constellation was seen as the chariot of King Arthur, whose name is a derivative of the celestial bruin, Arth, meaning bear, and Uthyr meaning wonderful. Legend has it that the great king is not dead but only sleeping, awaiting his kingdom’s moment of need.