The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper, an asterism within the constellation Ursa Major, is an important constellation in Chinese mysticism and religion. It is known as Bei Dou, the Northern Bushel or Dipper. There are many different stories about these stars, as befits something of such significance that anyone could look up and see in the night sky.

In Richard G. Wang’s essay “Four Steles at the Monastery of Sublime Mystery,” one of the four eponymous steles was sponsored by the Xuanji Association. Curious about what that association might be about, Wang uncovered the following research, which suggested that the Association may have been devoted to the Big Dipper:

The term xuanji originally referred to an instrument made of jade, and “unquestionably the term … came to be applied … to certain stars,” namely, the second and third stars (Celestial Armillary and Celestial Template) of the Big Dipper.

“Sometimes the two words form a compound used to indicate the group of four stars that form the bowl of the Dipper.” Thus, the Xuanji Association seems to have been dedicated to the cult of the Big Dipper, which, as the most potent of constellations, determines one’s fate.

In addition, according to Isabelle Robinet, “The Bushel [or, Dipper] also plays the role of a vehicle which transports the faithful to the heavens.”

More importantly, xuanji is a name of a type of Daoist ritual (xuanji fa, xuanji zhai) which appeared in the late Northern Song and was well known and performed in the Ming. The xuanji rite is associated with the cult of the Big Dipper and its features. The phrase, as well as the rite itself, is seen to function in various retreats (zhai), liturgies (yi), litanies (chan) and seals (yin), and sometimes the xuanji rite consumes an entire day. (55-56)

The jade implement known as a xuanji seems to be a “notched disk axe.”

Following up on the above-quoted Isabelle Robinet, I found her a preview of her book Taoist Meditation: The Mao Shan Tradition of Great Purity online. In it, she recounts some of esoteric magical techniques used by Daoists, that draw upon invisible stars surrounding the Big Dipper:

In the Taoist texts under consideration here, the stars of the Big Dipper constellation are surrounded by a network of stars which cast a “black light” or “light that does not shine.” These stars are inhabited by female deities who are invoked in many exercises to confer the power of invisibility.

They are called “(She Who) Hides by Transformation and Escapes into the Origin,” “(She Who) Changes Her Body and Transforms Her Brilliance,” and “(She Who) Hides Her Traces and Disperses Her True Form.” These deities are the “Nine Yin of the Lord Emperor.” Celestial counterparts to the nine subterranean obscurities, they assist in the transformation and multiplication of the adept, in his “concealment within the eight directions,” and in the “hiding (of his) body and the closing up (of his) light.”

During meditation, the adept makes these deities merge into a vision of a small child who is called “Impermanent” (wu-ch’ang) and is given the first name of “Metamorphosis” (pien-hua). Carrying the sun on his head, the moon in his mouth, and the Big Dipper in his hands, this child sets the adept’s body afire.

It may furthermore be said that the Big Dipper is particularly associated with transformation. Thus the stars of the Dipper are called the “moving lights of the seven stars” or the “seven transformations.”

We discover the connection between yin and metamorphosis in relation to the feminine deities of the Big Dipper, which is the northern constellation of the Great Yin. And let us also recall that the mirror, which causes true identity to appear, was traditionally reserved to women in China. (167)

Curious about these “invisible stars,” I found out that there is a possible black hole that seems to be tugging Alioth (in the handle of the Dipper) back and forth, and also an invisible star next to Alcor (also in the handle). Alcor B, as it has been named, is a red dwarf that orbits Alcor A. There are some charts where Alcor is not labelled at all, as it is “overshadowed” by its neighbor Mizar:

Alcor shares a position in the Big Dipper with another star, Mizar. In fact, both stars were used as a common test of eyesight — being able to distinguish “the rider from the horse” — among ancient people. One of Galileo’s colleagues observed that Mizar itself is actually a double, the first binary star system resolved by a telescope.

Many years later, the two components Mizar A and B were themselves determined each to be tightly orbiting binaries, altogether forming a quadruple system. Now, Alcor, which is near the four stars of the Mizar system, also has a companion.

The discoveries of modern astronomy provide some interesting possibilities for what these “invisible stars” might be.

The importance given to the Big Dipper has even led to the recognition of a Daoist-Buddhist goddess, Dou Mu. Dou Mu, the Dipper Mother, gave birth to the North Star and the seven stars of the Dipper (there is also a ninth son, possibly the star Vega in the constellation Lyra, as the image accompanying this article suggests). The Buddhist influence is easily noticeable in her common depiction with a lotus throne and multiple heads and arms.

5 responses to “The Big Dipper

  • Damocles Loraine

    This is also fascinating stuff. This is the third time I’ve come back to this post and every time the “notched disk axe” looks more and more like a gear wheel as found in the Antikythera mechanism and less like an axe. I don’t believe in visitors from space though it does not seem too incredible that these heathens of might have had some similar astronomical device


    Hey Damocles, I’m very glad you’re finding this site useful! And thank you for the comments, they definitely motivate me to post more!

    I didn’t really pay attention to it until you mentioned it, but you’re right: to function, an axe only requires a single blade. Not that it hurts to have extra, but…the wheel shape is very interesting, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

    I actually hadn’t heard of the Antikythera mechanism before, thanks for teaching me something new! And again, I hadn’t thought about it before, but the “why” and “how” of the name of a tool taking on astronomical and religious significance is indeed an intriguing mystery.

    Two stars alone don’t seem to suggest a circular axe to me, but then again, a lot of constellations both Western and non-Western require active use of the imagination.

    • Damocles Loraine

      Glad to give something back. If I had time for a blog it would be on the similarities between ancient religious beliefs and spiritual practices. In this trade, and it’s main artery “The Spice Road”, plus the Greeks being relative barbarians, has led me to speculate on an Indian origin for the first such mechanism.
      Just in case your oriental focus has led to your overlooking other western developments; have you seen the wonder that is Golbeki Tepi?

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