Iota aurigae

Iota aurigae

High in the northern sky stands a forlorn-looking charioteer. With his right hand he grasps the reins of a chariot, while on his left arm he carries iota aurigae goat and its two kids.

Of his chariot itself there is no sign. Mythology offers several identifications for this prominent constellation, although the presence of the goat is not accounted for by any of them. The bright star Capella lies in the body of the goat. Its two kids are cradled on the charioteer’s forearm.

The most popular interpretation is that he is Erichthonius, a legendary king of Athens. Erichthonius was the son of Hephaestus the god of fire, better known by his Roman name of Vulcan. Hephaestus was too busy smithying to be bothered with his son, who was instead raised by the goddess Athene, after whom the city of Athens is named. When he grew up, Erichthonius instituted a festival called the Panathenaea in her honour.

Athene taught Erichthonius many skills, including how to tame horses. Zeus and assured him a place among the stars. There, according to this story, Erichthonius is depicted at the reins, perhaps participating in the Panathenaic games in which he frequently drove his chariot to victory. Another identification is that Auriga is really Myrtilus, the charioteer of King Oenomaus of Pisa and son of Hermes. The king had a beautiful daughter, Hippodamia, whom he was determined not to let go. He challenged each of her suitors to a death-or-glory chariot race. They were to speed away with Hippodamia on their chariots, but if Oenomaus caught up with them before they reached Corinth he would kill them.

A dozen suitors had been beheaded by the time that Pelops, the handsome son of Tantalus, came to claim Hippodamia’s hand. Hippodamia, falling in love with him on sight, begged Myrtilus to betray the king so that Pelops might win the race. Myrtilus, who was himself secretly in love with Hippodamia, tampered with the pins holding the wheels on Oenomaus’s chariot. Hippodamia was now left in the company of both Pelops and Myrtilus.

Pelops solved the awkward situation by unceremoniously casting Myrtilus into the sea, from where he cursed the house of Pelops as he drowned. Hermes put the image of his son Myrtilus into the sky as the constellation Auriga. A third identification of Auriga is Hippolytus, son of Theseus, whose stepmother Phaedra fell in love with him. When Hippolytus rejected her, she hanged herself in despair. As he drove away his chariot was wrecked, killing him.

Aratus did not identify the constellation with any character. From this Greek name comes the Latin transliteration Heniochus, used for the constellation by some Roman writers such as Manilius. It lies 43 light years away. According to Aratus it represented the goat Amaltheia, who suckled the infant Zeus on the island of Crete and was placed in the sky as a mark of gratitude, along with the two kids she bore at the same time. Ptolemy described them as lying on the charioteer’s left wrist. Ptolemy and the mythologists were clear that there were only two kids. According to Ptolemy, Epsilon Aurigae actually marks the charioteer’s left elbow.