A retired chariot driver

Without a doubt, one of the strangest constellations in the Marshall winter heavens is Auriga, the chariot driver with goats on his shoulder. It must have been quite a party when folks looked into the heavens and came up with that constellation. Libations must have been aplenty at that bash!

Auriga is part of my favorite group of constellations I call “Orion and his gang” that dominate the winter heavens, and is one of the constellations that leads in the winter shiners. 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 southern 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 positioned on the upper right corner of the pentagon that appears to be pointing down at legendary constellation Orion the Hunter.

So how do you make a lopsided pentagon into a chariot driver hauling a mama goat with her baby kids? A mega imagination! 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 would have different characters and constellations. The Greeks named Auriga, but in this case I think they went to extremes.

According to one of the Greek legends, there once was a mighty king named Oenomaus who was a ruler of a mighty kingdom. He had a beautiful daughter Hippodameia who had many suitors who wished to marry her. King Oenomaus didn’t wish for his daughter to be married to any of them, and in fact wanted them all killed. Nice guy! Now the king was an excellent chariot racer and arranged chariot races with all the suitors. The deal was this. 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 out raced the young lads and slayed the suitors one by one.

There was only one suitor left, Pelops, son of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. When his turn came to chariot race for the hand of Hippodameia, he got some extra divine help from the other gods. They provided a chariot that would sprout golden wings to insure 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. In return for his betrayal, Pelops promised half the kingdom to Myrtilus after the king lost the race and was killed.

When the race began Oenmaus was able to keep up with Pelops, but right on schedule the golden wings popped out of the crooked suitor’s chariot. 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 student ejected out of the chariot just before it 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 he 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 that his lawyers were drawing up all the papers that would be ready in a few days. Myrtilus was satisfied with this explanation and went walking off. Just as he did, Pelops, with his inherited godly powers, kicked Mytilus so hard that 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 that they were added on by shepherds as they watched their flocks by night.

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 professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.