Auriga (constellation) - History and Mythology

History and Mythology

The first record of Auriga's stars was in Mesopotamia as a constellation called GAM, representing a scimitar or crook. However, this may have represented just Capella (Alpha Aurigae) or the modern constellation as a whole; this figure was alternatively called Gamlum or MUL.GAM in the MUL.APIN. The crook of Auriga stood for a goat-herd or shepherd. It was formed from most of the stars of the modern constellation; all of the bright stars were included except for Elnath, traditionally assigned to both Taurus and Auriga. Later, Bedouin astronomers created constellations that were groups of animals, where each star represented one animal. The stars of Auriga comprised a herd of goats, an association also present in Greek mythology. The association with goats carried into the Greek astronomical tradition, though it later became associated with a charioteer along with the shepherd.

In Greek mythology, Auriga is often identified as the mythological Greek hero Erichthonius of Athens, the chthonic son of Hephaestus who was raised by the goddess Athena. Erichthonius was generally credited to be the inventor of the quadriga, the four-horse chariot, which he used in the battle against the usurper Amphictyon, the event that made Erichthonius the king of Athens. His chariot was created in the image of the Sun's chariot, the reason Zeus placed him in the heavens. Erichthonius has been credited with inventing the chariot due to his lameness in other myths. The Athenian hero then dedicated himself to Athena and soon after, Zeus raised him into the night sky in honor of his ingenuity and heroic deeds.

Auriga, however, is sometimes named as Myrtilus, who was Hermes's son and the charioteer of Oenomaus. The association of Auriga and Myrtilus is supported by depictions of the constellation, which rarely show a chariot. Myrtilus's chariot was destroyed in a race intended for suitors to win the heart of Oenomaus's daughter Hippodamia. Myrtilus earned his position in the sky when Hippodamia's successful suitor, Pelops, killed him, despite his complicity in helping Pelops win her hand. After his death, Myrtilus's father Hermes placed him in the sky. Yet another mythological association of Auriga is Theseus's son Hippolytus. He was ejected from Athens after he refused the romantic advances of his stepmother Phaedra, who committed suicide as a result. He was killed when his chariot was wrecked, but revived by Asclepius. Regardless of Auriga's specific representation, it is likely that the constellation was created by the ancient Greeks to commemorate the importance of the chariot in their society.

An incidental appearance of Auriga in Greek mythology is as the limbs of Medea's brother. In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, as they journeyed home, Medea killed her brother and dismembered him, flinging the parts of his body into the sea, represented by the Milky Way. Each individual star represents a different limb.

Capella is associated with the mythological she-goat Amalthea, who breast-fed the infant Zeus. It forms an asterism with the stars Epsilon Aurigae, Zeta Aurigae, and Eta Aurigae, the latter two of which are known as the Haedi (the Kids). Though most often associated with Amalthea, Capella has sometimes been associated with Amalthea's owner, a nymph. The myth of the nymph says that the goat's hideous appearance, resembling a Gorgon, was partially responsible for the Titans' defeat, because Zeus skinned the goat and wore it as his aegis. The asterism containing the three goats had been a separate constellation; however, Ptolemy merged the Charioteer and the Goats in the 2nd century Almagest. Before Ptolemy's merge, Capella was sometimes seen as its own constellation—by Pliny the Elder and Manilius—called Capra, Caper, or Hircus, all of which relate to its status as the "goat star". Zeta Aurigae and Eta Aurigae were first called the "Kids" by Cleostratus, an ancient Greek astronomer.

Traditionally, illustrations of Auriga represent it as a chariot and its driver. The charioteer holds a goat over his left shoulder and has two kids under his left arm; he holds the reins to the chariot in his right hand. However, depictions of Auriga have been inconsistent over the years. The reins in his right hand have also been drawn as a whip, though Capella is almost always over his left shoulder and the Kids under his left arm. The 1488 atlas Hyginus deviated from this typical depiction by showing a four-wheeled cart driven by Auriga, who holds the reins of two oxen, a horse, and a zebra. Jacob Micyllus depicted Auriga in his Hyginus of 1535 as a charioteer with a two-wheeled cart, powered by two horses and two oxen. Arabic and Turkish depictions of Auriga varied wildly from those of the European Renaissance; one Turkish atlas depicted the stars of Auriga as a mule, called Mulus clitellatus by Johann Bayer. One unusual representation of Auriga, from 17th-century France, showed Auriga as Adam kneeling on the Milky Way, with a goat wrapped around his shoulders.

Occasionally, Auriga is seen not as the Charioteer but as Bellerophon, the mortal rider of Pegasus who dared to approach Mount Olympus. In this version of the tale, Jupiter pitied Bellerophon for his foolishness and placed him in the stars.

Some of the stars of Auriga were incorporated into a now-defunct constellation called Telescopium Herschelii. This constellation was introduced by Maximilian Hell to honor William Herschel's discovery of Uranus. Originally, it included two constellations, Tubus Hershelii Major , in Gemini, Lynx, and Auriga, and Tubus Hershelii Minor in Orion and Taurus; both represented Herschel's telescopes. Johann Bode combined Hell's constellations into Telescopium Herschelii in 1801, located mostly in Auriga.

Since the time of Ptolemy, Auriga has remained a constellation and is officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union, although like all modern constellations, it is now defined as a specific region of the sky that includes both the ancient pattern and the surrounding stars. In 1922, the IAU designated its recommended three-letter abbreviation, "Aur". The official boundaries of Auriga were created in 1930 by Eugène Delporte as a polygon of 21 segments. Its right ascension is between 4h 37.5m and 7h 30.5m and its declination is between 27.9° and 56.2° in the equatorial coordinate system.

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