Tom Burns: Auriga, the Mighty Charioteer


Auriga, the Charioteer, is one of those constellations that would have been instantly recognized by our ancient forebears. Sadly, the stalwart Charioteer is noticed today only by the most dedicated of astronerds. Too bad. It has a lot going for it.

You’ll see it as a rough pentagon of stars low in the northeastern sky in the early evening.

To the ancients, it represented the great horse trainer Erichthonius, who was the son of Vulcan, the god of the forge. I’ll call him Erich for short. (You try typing Erichthonius 15 times. Geesh.)

Erich invented the four-horse chariot, which was to the old-style chariot as a Porsche is to a Prius today. He stole the idea from the god Apollo, who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky, using four very sunburnt horses.

Stealing ideas from the gods was a bold step, but Zeus, the king of the gods, sometimes admired such rashness. (Sometimes he didn’t. That’s where thunderbolts came in handy.) Anyway, he eventually put Erich up in the sky as the constellation Auriga.

The topmost star of Auriga is called Capella, the “She Goat.” It is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Because Capella spends a lot of time close to the horizon during autumn, its light is jerked around by our constantly churning atmosphere. As a result, the star twinkles like crazy and is sometimes identified as an Unidentified Flying Object. Just for the record, although it may indeed be an object, it is neither flying nor unidentified. It’s Capella.

Capella represented the goat Amaltheia to the ancients. How our poor charioteer got stuck carrying livestock around on his left shoulder is an interesting story.

To the ancient Greeks, Zeus was the most powerful of all the gods. (He was called Jupiter by the Romans.) But Zeus almost didn’t survive to adulthood. His father, Kronos, was afraid that the infant Zeus was going to supplant him as king of the heavens, so he planned to swallow Zeus whole. To protect him, Zeus’s mother spirited him away to the island of Crete, where he was suckled by the goat Amaltheia.

Warm milk straight from the goat’s udder was fine for a while – although the whole thing sounds pretty disgusting to our modern sensibilities. Luckily, Amaltheia was a magic goat. She was said to have a horn that filled with whatever food and drink Zeus wished. The Romans called this horn the “Cornucopia,” and it survives to this day on the dinner tables of some of you who worship the Great Turkey around the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

When Zeus grew up, he killed his father and took over as the master of Mount Olympus and the world. But he didn’t forget his surrogate mother, who helped him survive his lonely exile on Crete. To honor her, he put her in the sky, where she is forever released from the burdens of life, resting on the strong shoulders of the mighty charioteer.

Auriga isn’t so lucky. You try carrying around a smelly old goat for all eternity.

Auriga is also burdened with the offspring of Capella. The “Kids,” or Haedi, as they are called, are represented by the small right triangle of stars down and to the right from Capella. The Kids are an example of how important the stars were to the ancients. Sailors used them as a rough weather forecaster.

As the poet Callimachus wrote around 240 B.C.:

Tempt not the winds forewarned of dangers nigh,

When the Kids glitter in the western sky.

The twinkling of the Kids suggested the atmospheric turbulence that signaled the beginning of the stormy winter season. Be forewarned, fellow and sister stargazers. They were twinkling like crazy when I observed them last night.


Don’t forget about the lineup of planets in the morning sky right now.

Around 5 a.m., look low in the east for dazzlingly white Venus. Above it is much fainter Mars, which should look slightly orange or red.

Above Mars is bright Jupiter with its slightly yellowish cast.

Above Jupiter is the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo, the Lion.

As you stare at this wondrous alignment, consider this. The light from Jupiter took about 50 minutes to get from the planet to your eyes. By contrast, the light from Regulus took 78 years to travel the 470 trillion miles between there and here.

Note to myself: On your 78th birthday, go out and look at Regulus and realize that the light entering my eyes started on its long journey around the day that I was born.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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