jeudi 4 septembre 2008

Auriga 2

This prominent constellation has several identifications in mythology. The most popular interpretation is that he is Erichthonius, a legendary king of Athens. He was the son of Hephaestus the god of fire, better known by his Roman name of Vulcan, but was raised by the goddess Athene, after whom Athens is named. In her honour Erichthonius instituted a festival called the Panathenaea.

Athene taught Erichthonius many skills, including how to tame horses. He became the first person to harness four horses to a chariot, in imitation of the four-horse chariot of the Sun, a bold move which earned him the admiration of Zeus and assured him a place among the stars. There, Erichthonius is depicted at the reins, perhaps participating in the Panathenaic games in which he frequently drove his chariot to victory.
Another identification is that Auriga is really Myrtilus, the charioteer of King Oenomaus of Pisa and son of Hermes. The king had a beautiful daughter, Hippodamia, whom he was determined not to let go. He challenged each of her suitors to a death-or-glory chariot race. They were to speed away with Hippodamia on their chariots, but if Oenomaus caught up with them before they reached Corinth he would kill them. Since he had the swiftest chariot in Greece, skilfully driven by Myrtilus, no man had yet survived the test.
A dozen suitors had been beheaded by the time that Pelops, the handsome son of Tantalus, came to claim Hippodamia’s hand. Hippodamia, falling in love with him on sight, begged Myrtilus to betray the king so that Pelops might win the race. Myrtilus, who was himself secretly in love with Hippodamia, tampered with the pins holding the wheels on Oenomaus’s chariot. During the pursuit of Pelops, the wheels of the king’s chariot fell off and Oenomaus was thrown to his death.
Hippodamia was now left in the company of both Pelops and Myrtilus. Pelops solved the awkward situation by unceremoniously casting Myrtilus into the sea, from where he cursed the house of Pelops as he drowned. Hermes put the image of his son Myrtilus into the sky as the constellation Auriga. Germanicus Caesar supports this identification because, he says, “you will observe that he has no chariot, and, his reins broken, is sorrowful, grieving that Hippodamia has been taken away by the treachery of Pelops”.
A third identification of Auriga is Hippolytus, son of Theseus, whose stepmother Phaedra fell in love with him. When Hippolytus rejected her, she hanged herself in despair. Theseus banished Hippolytus from Athens. As he drove away his chariot was wrecked, killing him. Asclepius the healer brought the blameless Hippolytus back to life again, a deed for which Zeus struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt at the demand of Hades, who was annoyed at losing a valuable soul.
Auriga contains the sixth-brightest star in the sky, Capella, a Roman name meaning ‘she-goat’ (its Greek name was Aix). Ptolemy described this star as being on the charioteer’s left shoulder. According to Aratus it represented the goat Amaltheia, who suckled the infant Zeus on the island of Crete and was placed in the sky as a mark of gratitude, along with the two kids she bore at the same time. The kids, frequently known by their Latin name of Haedi (Eriphi in Greek), are represented by the neighbouring stars Eta and Zeta Aurigae.
An alternative story is that Amaltheia was the nymph who owned the goat. Eratosthenes says that the goat was so ugly that it terrified the Titans who ruled the Earth at that time. When Zeus grew up and challenged the Titans for supremacy, he made a cloak from the goat’s hide, the back of which looked like the head of the Gorgon. This horrible-looking goatskin formed the so-called aegis of Zeus (the word aegis actually means ‘goatskin’). The aegis protected Zeus and scared his enemies, a particular advantage in his fight against the Titans.
Some early writers spoke of the Goat and Kids as a separate constellation, but since the time of Ptolemy they have been awkwardly combined with the Charioteer, the goat resting on the charioteer’s shoulder, with the kids supported on his wrist. There is no legend to explain why the charioteer is so encumbered with livestock.
Greek astronomers regarded one star as being shared by Auriga and Taurus, shown on old star maps as representing the right foot of the charioteer and also the tip of the bull’s left horn. Modern astronomers now assign this star exclusively to Taurus as Beta Tauri.

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