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A Retired Chariot Driver

Starwatch

To say Auriga is one of the strangest constellations is an astronomical understatement. Sorry about that awful pun! According to Greek mythology, Auriga is supposed to be a chariot driver with goats on his shoulders. It must have been quite a party when folks looked into the heavens and came up with that constellation!

Auriga is a member of my favorite group of constellations, which I call “Orion and his gang,” dominating the Butler winter heavens right now. It resembles a giant lopsided pentagon with the bright star Capella at one of the corners. This time of winter Auriga is perched very high in the early evening south-southeastern sky, practically overhead. The best way to locate it is to find Capella and trace out the rest of the pentagon from there. Capella is on the upper right corner of the deformed pentagon, pointing down at the legendary constellation Orion the Hunter.

Some lovely open clusters of new stars within Auriga can make for great telescope targets, even for smaller scopes. I have them included on the diagram as Messier or “M” objects, part of the Messier catalog. At first glance through a telescope, they are little “fuzzies,” but the longer you look, the more you can see some of the individual stars. The best and brightest, in my opinion, is M37, which is around 4500 light years away — with just one light equaling nearly six trillion miles!

So how do you make Auriga into a chariot driver hauling a mama goat with her baby kids? A mega imagination, aided with libations! Honestly, most constellations don’t really look like what they are supposed to be because they were more or less celestial props and visual tools to pass on stories and legends from generation to generation. Way back then there weren’t many books, Kindles and YouTube videos. Those things were still a few years off, so these poor excuses for pictures in the stars were used to pass on all the tales. People would see a formation or group of stars that approximately matched the character of a particular story and would name that constellation after the character. Different civilizations over the ages have different characters and constellations. The Greeks came up with Auriga, but in this case they went to extremes.

According to one of the Greek legends, there once was a mighty king named Oenomaus, a ruler of a powerful kingdom. He had a beautiful daughter, Hippodamia, who had many suitors who wished to marry her. King Oenomaus didn’t want his daughter to marry any of them. He went even further. He wanted them killed. Nice guy!

Here was his scheme. King Oenomaus was an excellent chariot racer and arranged chariot races with all the suitors. The first suitor to beat him in a race would win the hand of his daughter, but if he lost the race, he would be killed. Since Oenomaus had the fastest horses in the land, he routinely trashed all the young challengers and slayed the suitors one by one.

One of the few suitors left was Pelops, son of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. When his turn came to race for the hand of Hippodamia, he got some extra divine help from his father’s buddy gods. They provided a chariot that would sprout golden wings to ensure victory. Pelops didn’t stop there, though; he paid off Oenomaus’s chariot driver, Myrtilus, to betray the king. Myrtilus was to replace the lynchpins of the king’s chariot with copies made of wax. Pelops promised half the kingdom to Myrtilus in return for his betrayal after the king lost the race and was killed.

Oenmaus could keep up with Pelops when the race began, but the golden wings popped out of the crooked suitor’s chariot right on schedule. The king was left in a cloud of dust. Oenomaus ordered Myrtilus to force the horses to go faster, but Myrtilus had other plans. The once-faithful servant was ejected from the chariot just before the wax lynchpins gave way, and the chariot self-destructed. Oenomaus was then dragged to his death, cursing the name of Myrtilus.

Pelops proceeded to marry Hippodamia and live happily ever after with the Queen of the kingdom. Myrtilus was happy for the new couple but still wanted his half of the kingdom. A deal was a deal! He confronted Pelops, demanding his share, but crooked as ever, Pelops stalled him, claiming his lawyers were drawing up the papers and they’d be ready in a few days. Myrtilus was satisfied with this explanation and went walking off. Just as he turned around, Pelops, with his inherited godly powers, kicked Mytilus so hard he went flying into the heavens and magically became the constellation we know today as Auriga.

No one knows exactly how the betraying chariot driver got the mama goat and baby goats on his shoulder, but the leading theory is shepherds added them on as they watched their flocks by night. If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.

Again, look for Auriga, the charioteer turned goat farmer in the low eastern evening sky. See if you can spot the dim triangle of stars that make the baby goats just below Capella.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

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