Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation, is a yellow-white supergiant and the brightest Cepheid variable star in the night sky, ranging from an apparent magnitude of 1.97 to 2.00. Beta Ursae Minoris, also known as Kochab, is an aging star that has swollen and cooled to become an orange giant with an apparent magnitude of 2.08, only slightly fainter than Polaris. Kochab and magnitude 3 Gamma Ursae Minoris have been called the "guardians of the pole star". Planets have been detected orbiting four of the stars, including Kochab. The constellation also contains an isolated neutron star—Calvera—and H1504+65, the hottest white dwarf yet discovered, with a surface temperature of 200,000 K.
In the Babylonian star catalogues, Ursa Minor was known as the "Wagon of Heaven" (MULMAR.GÍD.DA.AN.NA, also associated with the goddess Damkina). It is listed in the MUL.APIN catalogue, compiled around 1000 BC among the "Stars of Enlil"—that is, the northern sky.
According to Diogenes Laertius, citing Callimachus, Thales of Miletus "measured the stars of the Wagon by which the Phoenicians sail". Diogenes identifies these as the constellation of Ursa Minor, which for its reported use by the Phoenicians for navigation at sea were also named Phoinikē. The tradition of naming the northern constellations "bears" appears to be genuinely Greek, although Homer refers to just a single "bear". The original "bear" is thus Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor was admitted as second, or "Phoenician Bear" (Ursa Phoenicia, hence Φοινίκη, Phoenice) only later, according to Strabo (I.1.6, C3) due to a suggestion by Thales, who suggested it as a navigation aid to the Greeks, who had been navigating by Ursa Major. In classical antiquity, the celestial pole was somewhat closer to Beta Ursae Minoris than to Alpha Ursae Minoris, and the entire constellation was taken to indicate the northern direction. Since the medieval period, it has become convenient to use Alpha Ursae Minoris (or "Polaris") as the north star, even though it was still several degrees away from the celestial pole. Its New Latin name of stella polaris was coined only in the early modern period. The ancient name of the constellation is Cynosura (Greek Κυνοσούρα "dog's tail"). The origin of this name is unclear (Ursa Minor being a "dog's tail" would imply that another constellation nearby is "the dog", but no such constellation is known). Instead, the mythographic tradition of Catasterismi makes Cynosura the name of an Oread nymph described as a nurse of Zeus, honoured by the god with a place in the sky. There are various proposed explanations for the name Cynosura. One suggestion connects it to the myth of Callisto, with her son Arcas replaced by her dog being placed in the sky by Zeus. Others have suggested that an archaic interpretation of Ursa Major was that of a Cow, forming a group with Bootes as herdsman, and Ursa Minor as a dog. George William Cox explained it as a variant of Λυκόσουρα, understood as "wolf's tail" but by him etymologized as "trail, or train, of light" (i.e. λύκος "wolf" vs. λύκ- "light"). Allen points to the Old Irish name of the constellation, drag-blod "fire trail", for comparison. Brown (1899) suggested a non-Greek origin of the name (a loan from an Assyrian An‑nas-sur‑ra "high-rising").
An alternative myth tells of two bears that saved Zeus from his murderous father Cronus by hiding him on Mount Ida. Later Zeus set them in the sky, but their tails grew long from being swung by the god.