With the winter Milky Way mounting high in the sky in late January evenings, it is a good time to locate a bright constellation that represents both a star lore mystery and high mythological drama. I'm speaking of Auriga the Charioteer, a pentagonal figure that resembles either a squatty roofed house or a crude baseball home plate, whichever form you prefer.
For people at mid-northern latitudes (30-40°N), Auriga is first seen early December evenings rising just after sunset, following first the zigzag pattern of Cassiopeia then the giraffe-shaped Perseus into the sky.
By early January, Auriga is almost straight overhead at 8 o'clock. Just walk outside and look up. In the Southern Hemisphere at latitude 33° S, Auriga stradles the north meridian this week around 9 o'clock, but, even then, it has a median altitude of only 22°.
The most prominent stellar member in Auriga is a brilliant yellow-white star on the northwest side of the pentagonal pattern. This is Capella, third-brightest star in the northern sky, sixth-brightest in all the sky, and the nearest of the brightest stars to the northern pole star. Capella's name means 'Goat Star,' and indeed, the Charioteer is usually depicted in ancient star maps clutching a goat in his arms. Just south of Capella, the goat motif is continued by a distinctive triangular group of stars called 'the kids.'
But who is this charioteer and why is he tending goats? The second question was addressed by star lore expert Julius D. W. Staal in his book The New Patterns in the Sky. Staal tells us that ancient charioteers, in addition to driving the chariots of their rulers, also watched over the animals kept in the royal stalls. Capella, he writes, may represent Amalthea, a female goat said to have sustained the young Jupiter with her milk during his stay on the island of Crete, where Ops, his mother, had hidden him from his cruel father, Saturn.
Another possibility is suggested by Richard Hinkley Allen, author of Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning. He too notes that Capella in some star tales represents the goat Amalthea. But Allen also cites an earlier version in which Amalthea is personified by a nymph who feeds the infant Jove goat milk and honey on Mount Ida. And in still another interpretation, also mentioned by Allen, Capella represents neither nymph nor goat, but a goat's horn broken off by young Jupiter while romping playfully with the animal. In the heavens, the horn becomes the Cornucopia, or the Horn of Plenty.
So much for the identity of the goat star. Now who or what is the charioteer? Donald Menzel, reviser of Martha Evans Martin's classic work, The Friendly Stars, proposes that Auriga may delineate the chariot driven by Neptune or Poseidon, god of the sea, pulled by a team of sea horses. The beauty of this explanation is that it brings to the celestial stage this deity of the sea who, though not normally represented in the famous mythological star tale 'The rescue of Andromeda' (see October 11 - 17), plays a catalytic role.
Several other charioteers in ancient literature are said to represent Auriga, but the two most popular are Erichthonius and Myrtilos. Erichthonius, son of Vulcan and Minerva, had inherited his father's lameness. To acquire greater mobility, Erichthonius devised the chariot. Zeus was so impressed with the boy's ingenuity that he placed the inventor and his invention in the sky.
The saga of Myrtilos, however, is a rather sordid tale of betrayal and hapless love worthy of a Shakespearean drama. In short, Myrtilos, son of Hermes, was a charioteer who betrayed his master King Oenomaus of Pisa on behalf of the king's daughter, the beautiful Hippodamia.
The tragedy was set in motion when word reached King Oenomaus that an oracle had predicted Hippodamia's husband would be responsible for the king's untimely death. Hippodamia, however, had no husband because she had yet to marry. To prevent her from doing so, King Oenomaus decreed that anyone vying for Hippodamia's hand in marriage must first compete with him in a chariot race. Since Oenamaus had only the best-bred horses, which were kept in prime condition by Myrtilos, his victory, and Hippodamia's marital status, would remain foregone conclusions. (The losers, by the way, were put to death.)
One day, Pelops, who claimed to be the son of Tantalus, king of Lydia, offered to compete for Hippodamia's hand in the deadly chariot race. Hippodamia immediately fell in love with this handsome youth, but she knew what the outcome of the race would be unless she took matters into her own hands. Knowing of Myrtilos' infatuation for her, Hippodamia deluded him into thinking that she would love him if he did her one little favor: sabotage the king's chariot. Blind with love, Myrtilos readily did as she asked. He removed the brass lynch pins in the king's chariot and replaced them with wax. During the race, the king was dragged violently to the ground by his own horses, and in his dying breath cursed Myrtilos.
With the king now out of the way, Hippodamia and Pelops were free to marry, which they did in Myrtilos' presence. Feeling the sting of betrayal, the star-crossed Myrtilos later tried to rape Hippodamia while Pelops was away, but he was caught in the act by the enraged husband, who threw Myrtilos to his death into the sea. Pelops ultimately became ruler of all Pisa.
And, I suppose, they lived happily ever after.
As intriguing as these star myths are, when I see Auriga and Capella this time of year, I prefer to think of the constellation as a sign that warmer weather is on the way. (Indeed, Capella was considered by some ancient cultures to be a harbinger of spring.) While winter's grip is still firmly in place, it's reassuring to look just south of the constellation, beneath the wheels of the chariot in Taurus, and know that, come early June at midday, the Sun will be there.
Also this week:
• Regulus, brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion, rises by 8 o'clock.
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