Saturday, May 14, 2011

Temple Symbols - Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) and Polaris

Temples built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contain many symbols. The constellation Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) is carved onto the Salt Lake Temple's west central tower.  This symbol has a lot of meaning and is used in a few other temples.  I'd like to highlight the symbol's meaning and how and where it is used.

The first temple to have this symbol was the Salt Lake Temple.  The west central tower lacks windows on the top story allowing for the big dipper sculpture.  While there are other stars depicted on the temple, this sculpture uses them differently.  The stars are six sided instead of the other stars which are five sided.  They are also arranged in a group.  On the Salt Lake Temple the big dipper stars point towards the actual north star.

The big dipper's symbolism can be understood in several ways.
1. The big dipper points to the north star, Polaris, the only star that doesn't move during the night.  As the big dipper is used to find the north star, the temple is used to help us find God who doesn't change.
2. As the big dipper helps us find our way, the temple guides us through life and to eternity.
3. The symbol can represent progression if used in conjunction with other temple symbols.  The temple lowest stones are the earth stones (originally to show the earth rotating through hours of a day).  The next stones are moon stones going through phases which can represent days and months.  Next up are the sun stones.  The sun goes through seasons so it could represent seasons and years.  The big dipper sculpture is higher on the temple and hints at Polaris, the star that doesn't change.  It represents infinity, eternity.  So as we go up we get hours, days, months, years, and finally eternity.  As we progress in the temple we approach the infinite and eternal.
4. The eternity symbolism can also represent going from a temporal, mortal state to an eternal, immortal, resurrected state.
5. The big dipper as a guiding constellation can be seen as a symbol for the Holy Ghost which guides us through life.
The next temple (I know of) to display the big dipper is the Washington D.C. Temple.  This temple is a stylized version of the Salt Lake Temple.  The symbolic sculptures from the Salt Lake Temple were depicted in the detailed doors of the Washington D.C. Temple.  Among the panels is one on the bottom right corner showing the big dipper and the north star (over the Seal of Melchizedek).  Because this temple also depicts the north star, it hints that the symbol is supposed to be understood with the north star.  I'm glad they added this symbolism to the Washington D.C. Temple.

The Anchorage Alaska Temple also contains the big dipper symbol.  The Alaska state flag is just the big dipper and north star.  So including the big dipper symbol from the Salt Lake Temple was one way to make this temple fit in locally.  The stars are eight sided on this temple and are carved into the stone rather than projecting out of it.  You can see the big dipper and north star carvings in this photo.  You will need to look closely.  The north star is on the left top and is larger than the other stars.  The next star is a little more than half way down the wall on the other side of the first window.  It may take you a minute, but you can find all the stars.  The last two are at the top of the wall with one between the last two windows and the other to the right of the last window.  I think the carvings are on the celestial room wall, but I may be wrong.

The Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple also includes the big dipper and north star (see this Church News article).  They are in the stained glass in one of the dressing rooms and are positioned as they would have been on April 6, 1830, the day The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized.  Here is a photo showing stars, although I don't think this is the big dipper one (it has too few stars).

I don't know of any other temples that have used the big dipper symbol.  If you know of any others please comment.  Comment also and let us know what you think of this symbol and how it is used on temples.  I am glad that the church has used this symbol on more than just the Salt Lake Temple.  I hope it continues to be used from time to time.


KirbyLue said...

Another fun thing that I heard about the big dipper stars on the SLC temple is that they are not attached to the stones, they are actually a part of the stones. Rather than carving a block, carving and star, and sticking them together, the builders carved the block with the star. It's harder to do it that way, but the stars aren't going to fall off. :)

But that's just something I heard. Does anyone want to confirm or deny that for me?

Scott said...

The stars and blocks are one solid piece. Interestingly, there is a star stone inside one of the towers that has the star carved into the stone rather than projecting out of it. Apparently they didn't like the look because they didn't use the stone for the exterior but instead carved the other sides and placed it inside the temple in one of the towers so it is rarely seen by anyone.

Elder Zach Nelson said...

Thank you for the interesting post I'm getting ready to go to the MTC soon and have been hanging about SLC. I noticed the big dipper on the temple and no one was able to tell me what it was there for. your ideas make sense thank you for sharing them

Bryan said...

The San Antonio Temple has the Big Dipper represented on the lowest stained glass panel on the west side of the tower. It is not visible from ground level. Another meaning of the Big and Little Dippers is symbolism of the Greater and Lesser Priesthoods. Since ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood occur in the temple, only the Big Dipper is represented.

Unknown said...

I was pleasantly surprised at the photo of the stars you posted in the Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple. You are right, that is not the Big Dipper, but rather the Pleiades, which is used to represent the creation. It does not included all the stars of this constellation, but I think the design is unmistakable. See Amos 5:4,8
4 ¶For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live:
8 Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning…The Lord is his name.

The seven stars referred to are the Pleiades (see the footnote). The same reference is made in Job 38:31. The 8 sided star is the star of redemption. This is a common juxtaposition -- Jesus Christ as Creator and Redeemer of the world.

Anonymous said...

What I understand is thet the Bug Dipper is used to point to God. The Mormons believe that the star Polaris is Kolob where their god elohim lives.

Scott said...

Actually Polaris is simply the North Star. In Mormon teachings the location of Kolob is unknown other than that it is stated that it is the closest star to God. It is only mentioned in a few verses of scripture and is way way less important in LDS belief and teachings than you'd think by reading statements by others trying to sensationalize this. Also, Elohim is just the Hebrew word that is translated as God, so it is just a star near to God. It is the same God as the Jews and other Christians worship.
Polaris may be symbolic of God as it is the one star that is fixed and unchanging, similar to God who is eternal. So the symbol can show that we need to find our way to God and do in the Temple.

Anonymous said...

The neat thing about the Big Dipper is that there are 7 stars in this constelation. The study between the symbols in the Temple and astronomy is actually quite amazing! We learn that stars are people. Kolob is the person nearest to God the Father, hence Kolob is a symbol of Christ. The seven stars or the seven Prophets that head up each of the dispensations of time. From Adam, to Enoch, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ (who led the dispensation of the meridian of time), and Joseph Smith (who introduced the dispensation of the fullness of times) they point to the North Star, Kolob or Christ. So the Salt Lake Temple is oriented on earth pointing to the North Star, or "The Nail" or Kolob for which all the ordinances of the temple are possible because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

El Mucho Grande said...

That last anonymous comment is really interesting.

I just wanted to point out that in your point #3, you mentioned the different stones on the temple. It is little known that there are also Saturn stones on the temple placed in an unusual position. If you start at the base of the temple and move upward, you have the Earth stones, and then the moon stones, then the sun stones, and then above that you have the Saturn stones.

Anonymous said...

The Saturn stones represent Kolob per the The big dipper points to the north star. This is used to help us understand ancient cosmology see

Unknown said...

This is all well and good, but the north start Polaris in actually part of constellation of Ursa Minor (the little dipper) but I'm guessing they don't teach astronomy in the Mormon church. And actually the constellation on the back of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City is the Little Dipper which is guiding you east?

Unknown said...

This is all well and good, but the north start Polaris in actually part of constellation of Ursa Minor (the little dipper) but I'm guessing they don't teach astronomy in the Mormon church. And actually the constellation on the back of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City is the Little Dipper which is guiding you east?

Unknown said...

Actually, the stars on the Salt Lake Temple and the Anchorage Alaska Temple are the Big Dipper & Polaris. There are a total of 8 stars in an arrangement similar to the Alaska flag.

Anonymous said...

The constellation on the Salt Lake temple is Ursa Major (big dipper). The article didn't say that Polaris was "in" the constellation, rather that the constellation is used to find Polaris (the north star.) Also, the constellation is on the West side of the temple. Ifnwe follow the front rim of the cup it points North.