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The Constellation Auriga: Stars and Mythology
Auriga the Charioteer is perhaps one of the most ancient constellations still recognized. The figure rides the northern skies throughout the autumn and winter and into the spring. A pleasing figure composed of relatively bright stars, it can be prominent even in urban skies. Once seen it is easily recognized. The Milky Way runs through the constellation and provides a backdrop of faint stars and deep-sky objects to the observer with a telescope.
Auriga the Charioteer
Star atlases show Auriga as a young man, holding either reins or a whip in his right hand and a bunch of baby goats in the other. Sometimes the goats are in a bag or basket, sometimes not. An adult goat is often included on the figures left side. The chariot itself is not often shown in ancient or modern sources. Star charts of the middle ages, however, often include the chariot and depict it as being drawn by improbable teams of animals, such as the one shown in the Hyginus of 1488, where the car is yoked to two oxen, a horse, and a zebra.
The identification of this star-group with this idiosyncratic figure seems to be nearly universal among Western cultures. There are of course always exceptions. The scholarly work of Richard Allen, the lovely but dense Star-Names and their Meanings, tells us that among the "Teutonic peasantry" of his time (1899) the figure was known as a plowman with oxen, called Fuhrmann. This interpretation of the constellation was found in other parts of Europe as well, being known in Old English as the Wainman, in French as Cocher, and in Italian as Cocchiere.
In addition, pious users of the ecclesiastical star-charts could find in its place variously the figures of St. Jerome, Jacob deceiving his father, or the Good Shepherd tending his flock (of lambs, usually, instead of goats).
Auriga is known by its Latin name. This is a rough transliteration of the Greek Erechtheus, one of the early kings of Athens, said to be the son of Hephaestus and Athena. Born lame like his father, he built the first chariot to overcome his handicap. The historical accuracy of this identification is very dubious. The story is very likely an attempt to give a Greek context to a celestial figure which was already ancient in their time and whose story had long since been lost to memory.
In addition, the constellation has been identified at one time or another with any notable charioteer from Greek mythology you can name. This list includes relatively well-known figures such as Phaethon and Bellerophon, but also includes much more obscure characters such as Myrtilus, Cillas, Hippolytus, Trochilus and others of whom the name is all that survives.
So Who is this Guy Supposed to Be?
Aside from an affinity for chariot rides, this crowd of random Greeks has one thing in common: they have nothing to do with goats. It is not known why this figure is always depicted with a goat, nor do baby goats seem like a logical thing to carry around in a bag on a chariot. It appears that the constellation originated thousands of years ago in this form. Artifacts found in the remains of Sumerian cities include sculptures of this figure, goats and all. It seems likely, then, that Auriga has its roots in some long-forgotten story once told among the ancient peoples living in the lands along the Euphrates.
The archaeologist has discovered in Egypt astronomical evidence of comparable date in the remarkable fresco of the Zodiac preserved on the ceiling of the ancient temple at Denderah. In this representation of the heavens the place of Auriga is occupied by the figure of a mummified cat, held in the hand of what appears to be a man covered with feathers. Like most discoveries of mummified cats, this one presents the discoverer with more questions than answers.
The Constellation Itself
Auriga appears in the sky as a large irregular polygon straddling the Milky Way in the northern sky. From its southern limit, where it shares a star with Taurus the Bull, it stretches thirty degrees towards Camelopardus. From east to west it covers forty degrees between Lynx and Perseus. A large part of the sky contained within the modern boundaries of the constellation is empty of conspicuous objects.
Principal Stars and Star Clusters
- α Aurigae : Magnitude 0.1, spectral type G8, 42 light years away
This is Capella, the sixth-brightest star in the sky, and the most northerly of the first-magnitude stars. Its position means that it is visible for some part of the night throughout the year in the northern hemisphere. Though similar in color and spectral type to our sun, Capella is a much larger star. A much dimmer companion star can be seen with a powerful telescope.
The name is a diminutive form of the Greek for "she-goat", and has become the current name of the star throughout the world. Occaisionally the Greeks referred to the star by the name Amalthea, in reference to the nymph who, along with her sister, cared for the infant Zeus on the slopes of Mount Ida.
Among the Arabs of earlier times the star was known as Al Rakib, which means "the Driver." Rising with the Pleiades, it was pictured as watching over this flock.
- β Aurigae : 2nd magnitude variable binary, spectral type A2, 72 light years away
This star is known by the Arabic name Menkalinan, which translates as "his shoulder that holds the reins". It is an eclipsing binary, meaning that from our perspective the stars pass in front of one another as they orbit around their common center of mass. The stars appear to be nearly identical and lie very close to one another, being separated by a distance of only seven million miles or so. They eclipse each other every two days, causing a slight variation in brightness.
- γ Aurigae: Magnitude 1.7, spectral type B7, 130 light years away
This bright white star is more properly considered to be part of Taurus, although it is usually still depicted as part of Auriga as well. Its common name, El Nath, and Arabic term meaning "the butting one" reflects this fact.
- δ Aurigae: Magnitude 3.7, spectral type K0, 165 light years away
This yellow-white star forms the head of the charioteer. Though relatively inconspicuous in our skies, it is a giant star more than ten times larger than the sun and many times more luminous. It has no proper name in modern astronomy, or indeed in most astronomical systems. The Hindus of antiquity, it seems, were the only people to bother naming this star, which they called Prajapati, meaning "Lord of Created Beings". No one knows why such a grandiose title was given to this star. The Hindu astronomers did not in any case give names to very many stars.
- ε Aurigae: Magnitude 3.0, spectral type F0, 4600 light years away
This star, known sometimes but the Arabic name Al Ma'az or Al 'Anz (He-Goat) is one of the brightest in our galaxy, though at its enormous distance it is of only average brilliance in our sky. It is composed of a system of five stars orbiting a common center. Two of these form another eclipsing pair, causing the star to vary slightly in brightness over the unusually long period of 27 years.
Three star clusters are easily visible in Auriga with the aid of binoculars or a small telescope. They are arranged in a nearly straight line along the center of the Milky Way as it passes through the polygon of bright stars forming the figure of the constellation:
- M36, a group of perhaps 60 stars spread over an area of a fifth of a degree, lying about 3,700 light years from Earth.
- M37 is an association of about 150 stars spanning an area of a third of a degree
- M38 is somewhat dimmer than the others, consists of around 100 stars and is also about a third of a degree in diameter.
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