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Bedouin star lore

As the sun sets in the south-west, the Great Bear rises in the north-east, though it’s hard to see a bear and most will see only a big dipper, the English like to see a plough.

To get the bigger picture, you need to go beyond the seven bright stars of the dipper and link up the dimmer stars to give the bear a snout, belly and legs. The oddest thing however is the tail – because bear’s don’t have tails. The Native Americans also saw a bear but weren’t so stupid as to give it a tail and related that the three stars Alkaid, Mizar and Alioth were dogs in pursuit.

But go to the paws of the bear. These are marked by three sets of twinned stars. It’s recorded by Al Biruni in the 11th Century that the Bedouin of the time believed these to be the tracks left by a leaping antelope.

But he also had another story which was still being related as recently as the 1970’s when Clinton Bailey was doing anthropological work on star lore with the Bedouin of the Negev and Sinai. They believed that the spoon of the dipper was the coffin of a man who had been murdered. The three stars of the handle were mourners leading the coffin in a cortege. The perpetrator of the crime was Polaris, the North Star, though in a perversion of justice, the bright star, Canopus, was being blamed and forced to flee. That’s why Canopus, one of the brightest stars in the southern sky, just off-centre from the southern pole, is seen to rise and quickly set again. The Bedouin, marginalized by the state, regarded as bandits and outlaws, have always identified themselves with Canopus, misunderstood, mistrusted and forced to keep moving.

Opposite Ursa Major, circling round the North Star is the zig-zag constellation of Cassiopeia, recognized by the Bedouin as a camel – and you must admit, they have a point!

Bedouin star lore