The Seven Boys Who Turned Into Geese

is a legend of the Chumash people of the California coast. These people were created on Santa Cruz Island where they were made from seeds of a magic plant by the Earth Goddess Hutash. But that is a different story altogether.

Long ago, when animals were people, there was a little boy who lived with his mother and stepfather. He was unhappy because his stepfather gave him little to eat, and the boy had to dig for wild onions to relieve his hunger. One day, while he was hunting in the woods for food, another boy joined him. This lad was hungry, too, and the two boys spent the night in the open. Next day Raccoon found them and asked, “Why aren't you boys with your families?” “They don’t want us,” the boys replied. Just then a third boy arrived, and he too had a mean stepfather. Raccoon took the three to another place where another kind of root was growing, which was very good to eat. Four more boys came by, and they all ate until they were full. Now there were seven, and they all wanted to leave their homes because they were not wanted.

The oldest boy said, “I’m going to go north.” All the others decided to go along; Raccoon decided to go with them, and they set out along the coast. The oldest boy collected goose down and put some on the head of each boy, and on Raccoon, too. Then he taught them a song: “Turn around, like this, everyone. Turn around, like this, everyone. Spread out your arms.” And as they did so, they began to fly up into the air. All except Raccoon. The boys came down and covered Raccoon with more goose down, but still Raccoon stayed on the ground. Sadly, the boys knew that Uncle Raccoon would have to stay behind, and they flew off to the north. As they went higher and higher, they were no longer boys, but became geese.

When the oldest gave a loud cry, everyone in the village looked up. The seven mothers came out to look and saw their boys high in the air. The boys only flew higher, and the mothers—and Raccoon, too—began to cry. As the boys, now geese, continued to fly to the north and higher and higher, they became stars. And there they remain, the seven boys who turned into geese.

Johann Bayer published this drawing of Ursa Major in his Uranometria of 1603.

The stars of the asterism we know as the Big Dipper were recognized in different cultures in many different ways, and the group of stars has had many different names. These include the English Plough, the European Wagon, the Chinese Government, and the ancient Hebrew Coffin.

Each of the stars of the Big Dipper has a name. Beginning with the pointer star nearest the pole and moving around the bowl and along the handle, there is Dubhe (alpha), Merak (beta), Phecda (gamma), Megrez (delta), Alioth (epsilon), Mizar (zeta), and Alcaid (eta). Except for the first and last of these, they form an open star cluster, moving together with a common motion through space in a direction toward Sagittarius. This cluster is the nearest such to our Solar System, about 75 light years distant. The Sun has a similar motion toward Sagittarius, and an observer in a different part of the Universe may consider us a part of the cluster, although it is not certain that there is any physical association.

The entire constellation of Ursa Major, of course, includes much else than the Big Dipper. Seven Messier objects are located in this part of the sky, including five spiral galaxies. M81 and M82 can be found in binoculars. They are about a half degree apart. From Dubhe, look about 7½ degrees north and one hour west. M81 is similar to the Andromeda galaxy and to our own Milky Way, with a bright center and delicate spiral arms. It is about 36,000 light years in diameter and is about 7 million light years distant.

Conrad Jung recently captured this CCD view of M82 in Ursa Major from the new site of Chabot Observatory. The image is a composite of five 1-minute exposures.

M82 presents quite a different view. It is an irregular, “peculiar” radio galaxy, and in small telescopes looks like a curved splash of light. Detailed color views of this galaxy appear in the May 1999 issue of Astronomy and the June 1999 issue of Sky & Telescope. According to the latter source, the chaotic structure of M82 may be the result of “sustained supernova explosions associated with intense star formation [which] are blasting material outward.”




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