By Mike Lynch
One of the strangest constellations in the Everett winter heavens is Auriga, the chariot driver with goats on his shoulder.
So what does a constellation named after chariot driver with goats on his shoulder have to do with Thanksgiving? Actually not a lot except that this is the time of year we begin to see it in the early evening in the low eastern sky.
Auriga is part of my favorite group of constellations I call “Orion and his gang” that dominate the winter heavens. Auriga is one of the constellations that leads in the winter shiners. It resembles a giant lopsided pentagon with the bright star Capella at one of the corners.
How you can make a lopsided pentagon into a chariot driver hauling a mama goat with her baby kid goats? People would see a formation or group of stars that approximately matched the character of a particular story and then named that constellation after the character. Different civilizations would have different characters and constellations. The Greeks named Auriga.
According to one of the Greek legends, there once was a mighty king named Oenomaus who was a ruler of a mighty kingdom. He had a beautiful daughter, Hippodameia, who had many suitors who wished to marry her.
King Oenemaus wanted them all killed. He arranged chariot races with all the suitors. The first suitor to beat him in a race would win the hand of his daughter but if he lost the race he would be killed. Oenemaus had the fastest horses in the land and slayed the suitors one by one.
The one suitor left, Pelops, son of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, was given a chariot that would sprout golden wings. He also paid off Oenmaus’ chariot driver, Myrtilus, to betray the king, promising half the kingdom to Myrtilus after the king lost the race and was killed.
When the race began Oenmaus was able to keep up with Pelops but right on schedule the golden wings popped out of the crooked suitor’s chariot. The king was left in a cloud of dust and dragged to his death.
Pelops proceeded to marry Hippodamia and live happily ever after with the queen of the kingdom. Myrtilus demanded his share, but Pelops, with his inherited godly powers, kicked Mytilus so hard that he went flying in the heavens and magically became the constellation we know today as Auriga.
Look for Auriga the charioteer turned goat farmer in the low eastern evening sky. See if you can spot the dim triangle of stars that make the baby goats to the lower right of Capella.
For early morning risers there’s a really great celestial hugging coming on in the low eastern sky. The bright planets Venus and Saturn start out this coming week less than 10 degrees apart, which is about the width of your clenched fist held at arm’s length.
Venus is the brighter of the two to the upper right of Saturn. Next week, the last week of November, Venus and Jupiter will almost be touching.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.”
The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. See www.everettastro.org.