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The Charioteer

December 15, 2018

The tales that describe many of the ancient constellations can be romantic, tragic, heroic, or majestic. But some are just weird.

A prime example is Auriga. The constellation is low in the east-northeast as night falls right now, and climbs high across the sky later on. It’s marked by a pentagon of stars. And it’s easy to pick out thanks to the brightest member of that figure, Capella — one of the brightest stars in the entire night sky.

Although Auriga is described as a charioteer, the character usually isn’t depicted with a chariot. But he is shown with a goat and her two kids on his shoulder.

There are several versions of his story. In one, he was Erichthonius, an early king of Athens. He was raised by the goddess Athena. Among other things, she taught him how to tame horses. He was so good at it that he became the first person to harness four horses to a chariot, like the chariot that carried the Sun across the sky. Zeus, the king of the gods, was so impressed that he placed the charioteer in the stars.

The goat, which is represented by Capella, isn’t actually a part of any of the legends of Auriga. It may represent the goat that suckled the infant Zeus, who placed her and her children in the sky in gratitude.

The goat and kids may once have formed their own small constellation. Today, though, they ride on the shoulder of the charioteer — who rides on nothing at all.

We’ll have more about the charioteer tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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