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January 30, 2010

Most of the constellations visible in northern skies were first drawn thousands of years ago, by the civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Some of these ancient sky pictures are easy to understand. Scorpius really does look like a scorpion, for example, and Leo like a lion.

But many of the constellations make you wonder what those folks were drinkin'. Not only do they not look like their namesakes, some of their stories are bizarre.

A prime example is Auriga, which rides high across winter's evening skies. To find it, look for its brightest star, Capella, which stands high overhead in mid-evening. Capella's one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and shines pale yellow.

Auriga is supposed to represent a charioteer -- perhaps the son of a Roman god and goddess. According to legend, he was lame, so he invented the chariot to carry him.

But as he's drawn in the sky, the charioteer has neither chariot nor horse -- only a man's upper body and arms. What's more, he has a female goat on his shoulder, and he's carrying two baby goats in the other arm. And there's no reasonable explanation for why the goats are there. They have their own story, but it doesn't relate to the charioteer's at all. So like much about the universe, the origin of the charioteer and his goats -- and the elixir that inspired them -- remains a mystery.

We'll have more about the charioteer tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2004, 2009

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