Myth and History
The Polaris has been one of mankind’s most favored navigational icons for ages and has always been helpful to sailors in determining latitude and locating the direction of North. Making itself only visible in the skies of the northern hemisphere, the angle between the northern pole star and the observer’s horizon is equal to the latitude of the observer.
This visible star has gone by so many names in its past - The Steering Star, the Lodestar, Stella Mars (aka Star of the Sea), the Ship Star, and Tou Mu in China (a Chinese majesty of the Polaris). The ancient Greeks referred it as Kynosoura (aka Dog’s Tail), a presence, which drew strong attention due to its central location. In other cases, Indian astronomers named it as the Pivot of the Planets while the Moguls thought this star held the Universe together as one and called it the Golden Peg.
- The North Star is prominently close (about two thirds of a degree) to the north celestial pole which is directly overhead of the viewer at the North Pole on Earth.
- Its visual magnitude is 1.97, which makes it the brightest star in the Little Dipper.
- One common way of pinpointing the northern pole star in the Earth’s sky is by following the line of ‘pointer’ stars - i.e. the two stars that are furthest from the ‘handle’ of the easily viewable ‘Big Dipper’ (a section of the Ursa Major constellation).
- There’s no South Star that works in the same vein as this star, however, the constellation of Crux (aka the Southern Cross) does point in the direction of the South Pole.
- From the perspective of someone observing from the North Pole, this northern pole star would appear directly overhead.
- The star appears approximately 45 degrees off the horizon, due north, at 45 degrees North Latitude.
- It is the 40th brightest star in the night sky.
What Scandivian, Arab and Indian Myths Say About the Northern Pole Star?
The ancient Arabs saw Polaris as a hole in the sky, an evil star called Al Kiblah. According to them, the star killed the great warrior of the sky who forever resides in a giant coffin that is outlined by the stars of the Big Dipper. The other stars are in mourning for their fallen hero and march slowly around the night sky, forever in funeral procession. Meanwhile, the northern pole star acts as a villainous outcast, forever motionless and fixed at the coldest corner of the northern sky.
Scandinavian mythology indicates that the Norse gods saw this star as a great dome in the sky that was forever fixed on a jeweled nail-head of an enormous ‘World Spike’ called Veralder Nagli which was hammered into the center of the Universe with the sky revolving around it. This originated from the Norse gods creating the Universe from the bits and pieces of their enemies’ hacked-up bodies and this ‘Spike’ with Polaris on top of it was to symbolize the completion of their enemies’ defeat.
In other myths, according to the Omaha Indian Story, the star acted as a guide back to home for the lost son of an Indian chief. This tale took place during an era of tribal conflict between an Omaha tribe and its rivals. One of their sons ran away from the village and engaged in a hunt in the forest but had unfortunately lost his way while doing so. As the council of chiefs negotiated a peace treaty, the disorientated young boy found northern pole star in the sky after moving back a brush in the forest. In this story, however, the North Star is referred to as Mika Em Thi Ashi (The Star That Does Not Walk).
More Interesting Facts
The title role of the northern pole star is passed from one star to the next due to the precession of the equinoxes - this process indicates slow but continuous change of the direction of Earth’s axis. Since this precession is so slow (we are talking about roughly 26,000 years for the completion of a single cycle here), a lone star usually holds the North Star title for centuries.
In 3000 B.C., the faint star of Thuban, in the constellation of Draco, used to be the North Star at a magnitude of 3.67, but it was only one fifth as bright as our present northern pole star. Come 3000 A.D., Gamma Cephei (aka Alrai), a star that currently sits forty five light years away from us, is scheduled to become the next Polaris as it gets closer to our northern celestial pole.
“Polaris” Constellation of Words: https://www.constellationsofwords.com/stars/Polaris.html
“Polaris: The North Star” (Maclure, Bruce) https://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/polaris-the-present-day-north-star
North Star: Encarta Encyclopedia: https://eev2.liu.edu/e3/stargazer/QKA/Encarta_Links/N_star.htm
Image Credit: Astronomy Picture of the Day - https://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/image/0911/AnnapurnaStartrails_hao.jpg