Paleolithic Great Bear 3
Sketch of c. 12,000 BCE engraving of a bear in Les Trois Frères cave in southwestern France (Image Credit: H. Breuil via Don Hitchcock at

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In the article, “Denisovan Star Trails: Archaic Memory Of The Pleiades In The World’s First Story,”[1] Alistair Coombs writes:

In the northern hemisphere, Ursa Major’s “prowling” motion about the pole could be perceived as activating the sky and churning heaven, though this constellation could hardly be said to resemble a bear. Indeed, when European settlers arrived in North America, they were puzzled as to why natives identified this constellation with a bear reflecting their home stellar maps. Like the Seven Sisters, an orally-spread, hunter-gatherer tradition of Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic antiquity accounts for the pervasive identity of this constellation as a bear, and pertains to bear legends rather than independent observation.

The name Ursa Major is Latin for ‘Great Bear’. It derives from the Ancient Greek árktos ‘bear, north’ with an Indo-European origin (reconstructed PIE *hŕ̥tḱos ‘bear’) in common with the Sanskrit ṛ́kṣa ‘bear’. Both the Sanskrit and Ancient Greek terms are linked to a persisting underlying association of the bear with this constellation of stars.[2] A notable example can be found in the Arcadian myth of the “most beautiful” Callisto who was turned into a She-bear by Zeus and placed in the sky as Ursa Major.[3]

Notwithstanding the myopic and mythophobic perspective of philologists such as the late Max Müller—and irrespective of whether the conventional outline of the constellation resembles a bear or not—the present writer will take it as a given that one of the first zoomorphic representations, if not the first representation, of Ursa Major was as the name states and as certain ancient or founding prehistoric star-lore indicate:[4] a bear—the “Great Bear”—and likely a ‘She-bear’, at least originally. According to its perceived outline, this circumpolar constellation subsequently also became more commonly known as “the Plough”, “the Wagon” and “the Big Dipper”.

The Ancient Egyptians depicted Ursa Major as a thigh, haunch or later the masculine foreleg (possibly at a time when α UMa Dubhe was close to the pole), originally in zoomorphic form. This is an important typological detail.[5] In Ancient Egyptian mythos[6], the place of birth, coming forth or eschatological rebirth is often described as being “between the thighs” or “upon/above the haunch” (e.g. “I shall shine above the haunch as I come forth in heaven,” Book of the Dead, Ch. 74). And that which brings to birth is conceptualised as the ‘Mother’ (originally also in zoomorphic form). Accordingly, the feminine thigh or haunch became a sign of the birthplace and a symbol of source, origin or foundation, especially as pertains to the mythical Genetrix in whichever totemic form she may have found representation. Recall in the Ancient Greek myth when the pregnant Semele had died after being exposed to the blazing heat of Zeus’ lightning bolts; Zeus recovers the unborn Dionysus from her body, sews him up in his own thigh (i.e. according to the ‘type’ of the feminine mother), and then carries him to full term.[7] Following the feminine type of the Thigh/Haunch—which preceded and to some extent prefigured the masculine Leg or Foreleg of e.g. Set, Ptah, Osiris or Zeus—the Ancient Egyptian Ursa Major was named both Khepsh and Meskhet as the Constellation of the Thigh/Haunch, later also known as the Constellation of the Plough, Meskhetyū , which certainly looks like a stylised haunch and thigh.

It is worth exploring a probable etymological cognate of Meskhet in the noun meskhen which has various meanings, most notably as ‘birthplace, birth chamber, the beginning, resting place’, as well as ‘the abode of gods’. In verb form it means ‘to give birth’.  The word mes itself denotes that which is born, created, produced, or a descendent; khet refers variously to the belly/womb, temple/house and tree  (khet-n-ʿankh is the ‘tree of life’); and various related forms of khen or khent denote variously the abode, tent, household, chamber, way-station, resting place, interior, container, pouch, etc.

This is to say that Meskhet as the Constellation of the Thigh/Haunch can be viewed as a ‘type’ of celestial birthplace; a sign of the beginning and foundation; also a resting place or a place of rebirth. Similarly, the logogram for khepsh or khopesh ‘thigh/haunch’ is not only also the phonogram for khepsh as ‘power, force’, but on the basis of typological association it should be considered as an ideogram for power and force. One of the earliest expressions and conceptions of sacred power and force was the sexual/reproductive power and the life force in association with the womb of generation, of which, one of the key signs is that of the thigh or haunch. Similarly, the Ancient Egyptian sekhem not only denotes a sanctuary, shrine, or place of worship (e.g. ), but also ‘power’  . Again, one of the earliest signs for power (often associated with and conferred to the king or deity) was the hind part of the lioness or leopard, which naturally includes the thigh, as can be seen in another word for ‘power’, peḥty  , also often associated with the king or deity. All of this is relevant, in that the later and more abstract Seat or Throne as a place or sign of power and sovereignty (whether divine or royal) may be considered a typological development of the Haunch and Leg as a sign of source, origin, foundation or beginning (incidentally, within a representational context, there are equally significant geomorphic and phytomorphic analogues of the Seat and Throne, but that is another article for another time). Indeed, in some of the older depictions of the royal or divine Seat or Throne in Ancient Egypt, we see that these are supported—thus emphasising their ‘type’ as Foundation—on stylised canine or leonine legs and haunches.

The present writer is of the belief that the Ancient Egyptian rendering of Ursa Major as the Constellation of the Thigh/Haunch, although a comparatively late tradition, provides a key typological link to the original configuration and zoomorphic form of the stellar Great Bear as a type of the celestial Great ‘Mother’ (although, in the later Egyptian context, the mythical Genetrix or Creatrix as Originator, Source and Foundation is reduced to one of her primary symbols: the thigh or haunch as a sign of generation or regeneration). In this sense it is important to note that Ursa Major is not merely a She-bear according to some perceived outline of the extant constellation (although we will propose that it may actually have been perceived to be the Thigh of the Great Bear), but was already pre-conceived or pre-existing as a ‘Mother’-type totem[8] and projected into the celestial sphere above as a constellation-sign of the celestial Foundation—both Great Bear and Great ‘Mother’ as Originator, Source and Foundation: the Mother of Revolutions (in her nightly and annual circuits), the Mother of (astronomical) Time-Cycles, and the Mother of Generations (recall e.g. the Arcadians who considered themselves as originating from the She-bear Callisto).

According to the late Coching Chu, the ancient Chinese regarded Ursa Major as “the arbiter of the seasons.”[9] Chu adds: “The constellation Ursa Major was taken by the ancient Chinese as a standard clock to mark the time of the year; the tail of the ‘Great Bear’ served as the pointer.”[10] Similar seasonal associations, with both the celestial and earthly bears, are ascribed by the Algonkian Native Americans.[11] Moreover, regarding the northern, celestial polar region in general, the late Gerald Massey writes:

The Chinese paradise, like the Egyptian, is at the north pole, the apex of the celestial mount. The summit is the seat of the gods … In no country is the mount of the north more sacred than in China. For thousands of years the Chinese emperors have ascended the holy mountain T’ai to offer sacrifice to heaven. This mount is designated “Lord of the World” … The pole-star determined the one visible fixed centre of the starry universe, and the name of the Ainu as Ai-no-Ko is said to signify the “offspring of the centre”. That centre was the circumpolar paradise. The Japanese god of the pole-star, Ame-no-mi-naka-nushi-no-Kami, is likewise “the lord of the centre of heaven”. The tradition of the Ainu is that they came from the northern summit of the world. So high and inaccessible are those lofty tablelands that none of the living can attain them now. But the ancestral spirits go back to them after death. This, of course, identifies the circumpolar paradise of all the legends that had but one and the same origin – in the astronomical mythology. The region is identified still further by the bears. The ancestors of the Ainu are said to have married the bears of the mountains in this high homeland of the north (Griffis, The Mikado’s Empire, pp. 27–29). We have the bears today, seven in the lesser and seven in the larger constellation, still revolving round the stellar mount of glory.[12]

This suggests that the stellar Great Bear was simultaneously a chrono-type for, and an aeonic totem of, those ancient and Palaeolithic peoples who observed, reckoned and followed her circuits as knowledge of time cycles and associated seasons. Later, Ursa Major in her extant configuration would become as Mother and/or Consort to the successive pole-stars in the circuit of axial precession which marked the cycle of the Great Year (see image below):

Paleolithic Great Bear 1
The path of the north celestial pole among the stars due to axial precession (Image Credit: Tauʻolunga via Wikimedia Commons).

It is within this context that the present writer proposes there was originally a much larger configuration of the Great Bear, regarding which, our archaeoastronomical records or ethnographic investigations only retain or recall the symbolic or ideographic Thigh/Haunch. In the reconstituted Great Bear of the Palaeolithic Era, it is proposed that Ursa Major is the thigh, Cepheus is the head, and Draco forms the foreleg and belly (see pic below):

Paleolithic Great Bear 2
The Stellar ‘Great Hippo/Bear’ of the Palaeolithic Era. Image Credits: Top Left: SkyMap sourced and adapted from “Astro Bob” Bob King: | Top Right: Image by Tauʻolunga via Wikimedia Commons | Bottom Left: Ancient Egyptian context – the Tree/Mount of the Pole – sketch from the works of Gerald Massey, originally sourced from (currently offline) | Bottom Right: Sketch of c. 12,000 BCE engraving of a bear in Les Trois Frères cave in southwestern France (Source: H. Breuil via Don Hitchcock at

At this stage it should be noted that the debate as to whether or not the Constellation of the Thigh refers to Ursa Major or to Cassiopeia, or that the hybrid-Hippo Reret represents Draco and not Ursa Major, is not a major concern here. It is likely that over time as the astronomical mythos developed in relation to the circuit of axial precession (the slow, revolving, axial tilt of the earth) and the respective pole stars, so too the prominence attached to certain circumpolar constellations shifted accordingly. The fact is, over significant periods of time and as a result of axial precession, the celestial sphere shifts relative to our observational point on earth, and in that sense, astronomical mythos is somewhat flexible—as it must be, since we are largely dealing with chronocentric mythos as pertains to observed astronomical circuits and associated time-cycles.

Furthermore, although we are very familiar with the northern traditions of the Great Bear, it should be pointed out that the mythical functions represented by the She-bear as “Great Bear” might also be typologically represented by other animals as co-types according to other cultural renditions. Moreover, it is possible that the Great She-bear was preceded and in some aspects prefigured by the Great Hippopotamus Cow who churned the waters of the celestial sphere above; typological remnants can be found in the Ancient Egyptian “Reret the Great” who is an astronomical rendering of Taweret ‘The Great’ (AKA “Ỉpy/Ỉpet the Great”) who additionally bears the epithets “Lady of the Birth-House” and “Lady of Heaven”. Along similar typological lines, the “prowling” She-bear may have been succeeded by a prowling Lioness or She-wolf, etc, but each would fulfil a similar if not the same totemic, mythical and typological functions.

It is also worth adding, that as Homo sapiens’ rational and noetic intellect developed in the late Upper Palaeolithic and the Neolithic—especially as eventually leading to the linguistic and writing skills and social and agricultural technologies of the early civilizations—so to in the associated mythology and typology there would have been a gradual and parallel shift in focus from—to give an example—the Thigh/Womb (or generational ‘Seat’) as a sign of physical power and bio-social sovereignty, to the Head/Mind (or cognitive ‘Throne’) as a sign of metaphysical or abstract power and psycho-spiritual sovereignty.


[1] (Retrieved 2017-12-19)
[2] Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, New York: Dover Publications, 1963, pp.419–446. See also: John E. Mitchiner, Traditions of the Seven Ṛṣis, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982,  pp.262–270.
[3] George A. Davis, Jr., ‘The Origin of Ursa Major,’ Popular Astronomy, Vol. 54, 1946, p.111.
[4] Alistair Coombs, ‘Denisovan Star Trails: Archaic Memory Of The Pleiades In The World’s First Story,’ (Retrieved 2017-12-19). To add (courtesy of Alistair Coombs): William B. Gibbon, ‘Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major,’ The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 77, No. 305 (July–September, 1964), pp. 236–250; Brian Hayden and Suzanne Villeneuve, ‘Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic?,’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21:3 (2011), p.342. See also Allen, Star Names, pp. 419–446.
[5] Typology is the study of the classification and development of various ‘types’ or ‘kinds’ based on the association of similar characteristics. Characteristic types include prefigurative signs, symbols, motifs or themes (e.g. mythical and religious typology). Typological development occurs not only across time, within any given tradition, but includes development across different traditions and across different mediums and modes of expression and communication.
[6] The word ‘myth’ (mythos) is used throughout this article in the non-pejorative, traditional sense of mûthos (narrative).
[7] (Retrieved 2017-12-19)
[8] For example see the section ‘The Goddess and the Bear (I): The Sacred Bear as an Ancestor Spirit,’ in Joan Marler and Harald Haarmann, 2007, ‘The Goddess and the Bear: Hybrid Imagery and Symbolism at Çatalhöyük,’ Journal of Archaeomythology 3/1, pp.48–79. (Thanks to Alistair Coombs for subsequently bringing this excellent article to my attention).
[9] Coching Chu, ‘The Origin of Twenty-Eight Mansions in Astronomy,’ Popular Astronomy, Vol. 55, 1947, p.70.
[10] Ibid., p.75.
[11] Frank G. Speck and Jesse Moses (Delaware Nation), 1945, ‘The Celestial Bear Comes Down to Earth: The Bear Sacrifice Ceremony of the Munsee-Mahican in Canada, as related by Nekatcit,’ Scientific Publications, Issue 7, Reading, PN: Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery, p.57.
[12] Gerald Massey, Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907, p. 379.

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