The constellation Ursa Major is known commonly as the Great Bear, a constellation spanning the zodiac signs of Cancer, Leo and Virgo, encompassing the asterism known as the Plough or the Big Dipper. In this essay — which in actuality is less like a proper essay and more like my own jumble of notes — I would like to explore the folklore associated with Ursa Major, along with delving into how Ursa Major is depicted within the sabbatic current in texts such as ONE: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad and Azoetia: A Grimoire of the Sabbatic Craft. I would also like to briefly touch upon the ways in which Ursa Major are called upon in rites of sorcery and witchcraft in Babylonian times.
Folklore of Ursa Major
There is a variety of folklore associated with the constellation of Ursa Major throughout many cultures worldwide. I assume most people are familiar with the Greek myths associated with the Great Bear, so I would instead like to point out the less commonly known ones. All the following quotes are taken from Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth:
There are, indeed, too many traditions connecting Ursa and the Pleiades with this or that kind of catastrophe to be overlooked. Among the many we mention only one example from later Jewish legends, some lines taken out of a most fanciful description of Noah’s flood, quoted by Frazer: Now the deluge was caused by the male waters from the sky meeting the female waters which issued forth from the ground. The holes in the sky by which the upper waters escaped were made by God when he removed stars out of the constellation of the Pleiades; and in order to stop this torrent of rain, God had afterwards to bung up the two holes with a couple of stars borrowed from the constellation of the Bear. That is why the Bear runs after the Pleiades to this day; she wants her children back, but she will never get them till after the Last Day.
Tradition will show that the measures of a new world had to be procured from the depths of the celestial ocean and tuned with the measures from above, dictated by the “Seven Sages,” as they are often cryptically mentioned in India and elsewhere. They turn out to be the Seven Stars of Ursa, which are normative in all cosmological alignments on the starry sphere. These dominant stars of the Far North are peculiarly but systematically linked with those which are considered the operative powers of the cosmos, that is, the planets as they move in different placements and configurations along the zodiac.
The ancient Pythagoreans, in their conventional language, called the two Bears the Hands of Rhea (the Lady of Turning Heaven), and called the planets the Hounds of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Far away to the south, the mysterious ship Argo with its Pilot star held the depths of the past; and the Galaxy was the Bridge out of Time. These notions appear to have been common doctrine in the age before history-all over the belt of high civilizations around our globe. They also seem to have been born of the great intellectual and technological revolution of the late Neolithic period.
[…] of the Indians of Guiana: “All the legends relating to the constellations Taurus and Orion have something in common in the detail of an amputated arm or leg.” And that goes for parts of Indonesia too. But then, Ursa Major is the thigh of a Bull, and the zodiacal Taurus is so badly amputated, there is barely a half of him left. More peculiar still, in later Egyptian times it occurs, if rarely, that Ursa is made a ram’s thigh (see G. A. Wainwright, “A Pair of Constellations,” in Studies Presented to F. L. Griffith , p. 373); and on the round zodiac of Dendera (Roman period) we find a ram sitting on that celestial leg representing Ursa, and it even looks back, as befits the traditional zodiacal Aries. We must leave it at that.]
Others say that Ursa Major consists of a team of horses with harness; every night a black dog is gnawing at the harness, in order to destroy the world, but he does not reach his aim; at dawn, when he runs to a spring to drink, the harness renews itself.
In other tales the stars of the Great Bear are “seven wolves” who pursue those horses. Just before the end of the world they will succeed in catching them. Some even fancy that the Great Bear is also tied to the Pole Star. When once all the bonds are broken there will be a great disturbance in the sky
A very strange and apparently stone-old story is told by the Skidi-Pawnee about the end and the beginning of the world. Various portents will precede: the moon will turn red and the sun will die in the skies. The North Star is the power which is to preside at the end of all things, as the Bright Star of Evening was the ruler when life began. The Morning Star, the messenger of heaven, which revealed the mysteries of fate to the people, said that in the beginning, at the first great council which apportioned to star folk their stations, two of the people fell ill. One of these was old, and one was young. They were placed upon stretchers, carried by stars (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) [n5 The Sioux take Ursa Major for a coffin, accompanied by mourners. This picture is not too “obvious,” so it is significant that Ursa is banat na'sh with the Arabs, i.e., the bier and its daughters; the bier is formed by the chest of the wagon, El-na'sh, the handle of the Dipper being the daughters.
I would also like to briefly mention some local Thai folklore surrounding Ursa Major. In much of Thailand, the constellation (and its larger asterism of the Big Dipper) is viewed to be a crocodile constellation. The following is a folk tale about the crocodile constellation, taken from this blog:
According to the people of Thailand, we are looking at a crocodile. This comes from a story about a very wealthy old man who hid all his money buried in the ground in front of his house. After he died, he came to his wife in her dreamworld and told her where the money was and to give a sizable amount to the temple. While his wife was digging up the money, a lot of people said they saw a giant crocodile circling the house, as if to protect the property. As the boat, with the wife and money proceeded to the temple to present the gift, the crocodile was said to lead the procession. People said that the rich husband had been reborn as that crocodile. And to reward him for his generosity, he was reborn as a constellation of a crocodile in the sky! He is called Dao Ja Ra Kae. When people see him they are reminded to do good in this life and they will be rewarded.
The Sabbatic Current
When it comes to the sabbatic current — specifically the works of the Cultus Sabbati — the grimoires tend to focus on Ursa Major’s role as the mythic coffin (funeral bier) and wagon, along with the asterism’s depiction of being the plough.
In ONE: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad, one of the things a person can do with the toad bone gained from their toad rite is to use the ‘bone-charm’ as a way to essentially yoke the ‘sky-horse’. This rite I believe is rooted in the folklore of the Toadmen who are able to perform equine magic, calming and controlling horses with their witchcraft. In The Charm of Harnessing the Toad to the Seven Stars of the Plough, seven stars are explicitly mentioned: Al Benetnasch, Al Merak, Al Phecda, Al Magrez, Alioth, Al Mizar, and Al Dubhe. This is an explicit reference to the seven fixed stars of Ursa Major (Benetnasch being another name for the Behenian star Alkaid) who – by the nature of being stars in the Plough asterism — are able to act as a metaphorical plough-and-yoke.
In another grimoire, Lux Haeresis: The Light Heretical, Daniel Schulke has a vision of the seven stars wherein the stars appeared before him as godly figures. According to him:
The seven Genii of the constellation of the Plough, being Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid. On the eve of my departure from the abbey, these appeared to me in dream as robed sages bearing lamps, four men and three maidens, and had proclaimed themselves the ‘Seven True Gods’
In Azoetia: A Grimoire of the Sabbatic Craft, the stars of Ursa Major are explicitly addressed within the Conjurations and Formulae of the Nineteenth Holy Letter. Here, the seven stars are given the moniker of the ‘Stars of Khepesh’. A khepesh / khopesh in real life is a type of Egyptian, sickle-shaped sword. In this regard, a sickle would not seem out of place thematically, for sickles are tools used in harvesting, much like ploughs are. Yet, the form of the sickle-shaped sword evokes Saturnine imagery of a scythe. The foreboding sense of death and violence as associated with the so-called Stars of Khepesh could perhaps be explained by the figure whom the seven stars serve: Ononshu.
In the Adoration of the Triple Creatrix, Ononshu is given the titles of the ‘Most Ancient Queen of all the Night’ and ‘Most Aged and All-Wise Priestess of the High Sabbat’s Covine’, for she is said to represent the moon in its black and waning phases. It is here too in which she — along with the figures of Ieghea who represents the white and waxing moon and Albata who represents the red and full-shining moon — is invoked along with the names of ‘Arctos, Iuno, Kallisto, Nama’ and ‘Ash-ta-ur-te’.
These seem to be the archetypes — for a lack of a better word — associated with the Triple Creatrix, of which Ononshu is one of the three faces. Arctos could be a reference to the bear-star Arcturus, whilst Iuno may be a variation of the name Juno in allusion to the Queen of the Heavens. Kallisto obviously alludes to the myth of the woman who was cursed by Hera (Juno/Iuno?) to become a bear which then became the stars of Ursa Major. I am unsure of what ‘Nama’ refers to, but ‘Ash-ta-ur-te’ may very well be Astarte, the Ancient Near Eastern goddess often associated with Venus, Ishtar and Inanna (more on this later).
Additionally, in the First Call and Summoning of the Last Conjuration, Ononshu is also described to be ‘the Hag, the All-Wise Queen of the Sabbat, Our Lady of the Black Moon’, a figure inferred to be the consort to the the ‘Man in Black, the Devil of the High Sabbat’. This echoes the words of the Conjurations and Formulae of the Nineteenth Holy Letter, wherein Ononshu is described to be she who sleeps in the ‘Coffin of the Abyss’ (a reference to Ursa Major’s folklore of being the funeral bier perhaps), a figure who is hidden in ‘Death Itself’, lying in the ‘Darkest Nights of Winter’ with ‘He that Opposeth – with He whose Name may not be spoken’.
I could go on and on about Her (the Call Unto Our Blessed Lady Ononshu gives more of an insight into her nature and who she may actually be), but to not digress too far from the main point, it is safe to say that the Seven Stars of Ursa Major is inextricably linked with Ononshu— a lunar deity-like figure, much like how the bear in Greek mythology is linked to the lunar deity Artemis. The Seven Stars of Ursa Major are described in the First Conjuration of the Nineteenth Holy Letter to be the veiled and masked guardians who oversee the path leading to the throne of Ononshu: a figure stated in the conjuration to be ‘She who is crowned with the baleful diadem of the Bear’. Thus, under the authority of Ononshu whose name is used to conjure the stars, the seven stars of Ursa Major are thereby the ‘Greater Servitors’ of Ononshu’s temple, performing a role akin to that of protectors and priests to Ononshu.
Furthermore, another noteworthy piece of information is the definition provided for the term Khepesh itself. The term ‘Khepesh’ is defined in the glossary at the very end of the grimoire to be ‘The Left-hand Palace of the Great Double House. The Seven Stars of Ursa Major’. In this case, the Great Double House refers to the concept of ‘Duality in Unity’: the fact that there is ‘One Intersection, yet by its symbols we observe the Duality inherent in the One Continuum’— the aforementioned duality being represented by the Great Double House itself. In my opinion, I believe this is something that links to the duality of Khepesh and Sah, of Zoa and Azoa, and — by extension — of Ononshu and Apethiui.
Just as Ononshu is (one of the aspects of) the ‘Queen of the Sabbat’, Apethiui is the ‘Black Man of the Sabbat’: the’ All-Father’, the ‘Honoured Lord’ and ‘Horned God’, ‘He who is crown’d with the Fourfold Glories of the Sun’ and ‘cloaked with the Star-laden Mantle of the Hunter’. Just as Ononshu is associated with the Seven Stars of Ursa Major, Apethiui is associated with the Seven Stars of Orion. Just as Khepesh is the ‘Left-hand Palace of the Great Double House’, Sah is defined to be the ‘ Right-hand Palace of the Great Double House’, synonymous with the ‘Stars of Orion’ much like how the Left-handed Palace is synonymous with the ‘Stars of Ursa Major’. Likewise, the duality of the Great Double House is said to be formed by the ‘Twain Powers of Zoa and Azoa’, the two forces which represent ‘the omnipresent polarities of the whole spectrum of occult creative energies’.
All of this would point towards some kind of duality or parallel between the constellations of Ursa Major and Orion. Perhaps it is merely that the Bear and the Hunter are linked through their mirroring (and revolving) roles of Beast and Man, of Prey and Predator? I have not been able to find much folklore explicitly explaining why Ursa Major and Orion are deemed to be opposites or two sides of the same coin. If anyone who is reading this has any additional insight, I would be grateful to hear them.
Finally, I would like to end this section of this piece of writing with an excerpt from the Dragon Book of Essex, pointed out to me by Briar during a discussion in Sasha Ravitch’s Discord server:
Ursa Major — the Great Bear, the constellation to which this star belongs, has numerous meanings in the context of Draconian and Sabbatic Mysteries. As a group of seven stars it is directly analogous to the Heptanomis of the Khu Rite (see Table of Correspondences) and may be utilised as a stellar region of votive significance in all manner of rites deriving from the complex there-of. As the Plough, this constellation may be interpreted as the Coulter-blade, the divine weapon of Cain. Here it may be seen as the celestial barrier, the whirling sword, which guards the region of the Heptanomis. As the Wain, Carls Wain — the Wagon of the King, it may be interpreted as the chariot which bears the Witch-master Mahazhael around the Circle of the Never-setting Stars in the North.
Ursa Major is also known as 'The Funeral Bier’, and in this context may be seen as the Bearer of the Sacrificed Body of the Seeker — as the Great Coffin of Habil, the Profaner, who is cast down ’neath the blade of his brother Cain or Kabil. This latter interpretation bears upon the specific star in question: Alcaid.
Alcaid, as the chief star of Ursa Major, possesses the full name Al Ka’id Banat al Na’ash, meaning ‘The Governor of the Daughters, the Chief of the Mourners’. In this context, Alcaid may be understood to represent Azh run, as the Sister of the Slain One, the Chief of the Sisters or Witch-mothers who mourn his death. Yet it must be remembered that Azh run is also the Bride and Sister of Kabil, who is the First Magician, the Victor over Profanity. As the Bride of Cain —the Self-Transmuted One, She is the Secret Up-raiser of Habil in the season of Hua, the hour of final resurrection. For the shedding of Her and Her Sisters’ tears upon the place of burial — the seasonal falling of stellar dews upon the earth — cause the downcast substance of the Profaner to alchymically transform — to be redeemed from exile and thus be worthy of ascent — to be born anew as the Revenant Qinaya Habil-Zhiva: the Begetter of Qayin at the End of all Days. Thus the Fallen One comes forth anew at the Threshold of Ka, once more to meet his appointed bride: the Serpent-woman Calmena-Azh’run. These arcana, here summarised, are revealed through the course of the Great Rites.
The text is self-explanatory.
What struck me though, was the implications that Ursa Major may also have a role in tending to the Seeker — us — on our spiritual journey should we decide to work with the sabbatic forces. Sethos, the daimon of the grimoire Azoetia, is stated to be ‘ a mediator between Abel, Cain and Seth, that is, between, the Sacrificed Man of Clay (the Uninitiate Self), the Transformative Man of Fire (the Initiating and Becoming Self), and the Self-Transformed Man of Light (the Initiatic Self-existant One)’. Could it be possible that whilst the Self goes from the Uninitiate Self to the Becoming and the Initiatic, it is Ursa Major — the Funeral Bier — who tends to the ashes of our past selves, the cadaver of who we once were, keeping safe the corpses of who we used to be?
Ursa Major in Ancient Practices
Outside of the Sabbatic current, ancient sorcerers and witches and magicians since ancient times have been invoking the star of Ursa Major in their spells and rituals. Most people may be familiar with the Bear Charm from the Greek Magical Papyri, but before the Greco-Egyptian times, the Babylonians were calling upon Ursa Major for aid in many workings, from medicinal magic to witchcraft.
In Astral Magic in Babylonia by Erica Reiner, two divinatory rites involving Ursa Major are mentioned:
Two prayers to Ursa Major are prescribed in the instructions for "fortune-telling" to help obtain a reliable portent through a dream. The first runs:
O Wagon star, Wagon of the pure heavens!
Your yoke is Ninurta, your pole is Marduk,
Your side-pieces are the two heavenly daughters of Anu.
You rise in Assur, you turn toward Babylon.
Without you the dying man does not die and the healthy man cannot go on his journey
If I am to succeed on this journey I am undertaking, let them give me something (in my dream),
If I am not to succeed on this journey I am undertaking, let them accept something from me (in my dream).
And the second:
O Wagon star, heavenly Wagon!
Whose yoke is Ninurta, whose pole is Marduk,
Whose side-pieces are the two heavenly daughters of Anu.
She rises toward Assur, she turns toward Babylon.
Let a dream bring me a sign whether so-and-so, son of so-and-so,
will become healthy and well!
In Babylonian Star-Lore: an Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia by Gavin White, the beneficent and nefarious uses of Ursa Major are mentioned:
More than any other star, the healing powers of the Wagon are invoked into medicinal herbs and potions. The medicine is typically left exposed to the stars overnight, so that the concoction may absorb their qualities. The text speaks of celestial influence as some form of radiation emanating from the stars.
Sorcerers could also harness the powers of the Wagon to cause illness or even death. There was a form of sorcery called the ‘cutting of life’ (zikurudu-magic), in one surviving source it was used against aman using a mongoose. The details are absent, but the cure involved placing the mongoose before the Wagon and presumably invoking the powers of the constellation and its presiding goddess to affect a cure— whatever malady a star has created that same star may cure.
Hence, it can be surmised that the magic one could do by harnessing the powers granted by Ursa Major may be much more diverse and powerful that what many would initially expect, capable of both healing and harming and divining and potentially much more.
This essay is an attempt to understand more deeply the nature of the Ursa Major constellation. If all goes to plan, I hope to eventually form a personal devotional relationship with the seven stars with the aid of Sethos, the daimon of the grimoire Azoetia. Then, perhaps my path will lead me to working with the stars of Orion as well (as someone with a paran with the fixed star Rigel, I would be intrigued to do so). At that point, it is likely that I will be unable to talk as freely about my faith and practice as I do so now.
Only time will tell.