05 July 2021

Fun Facts

1. Auriga means ‘the charioteer’ in Latin
2. The constellation is almost circumpolar and is thus visible year-round in the northern hemisphere
3. Hosts the galactic anti-center, which is the point in the night sky that lies opposite of the Milky Way Galaxy’s center
4. It is the 21st biggest constellation in the earth’s night sky
5. Contained in the constellation are three Messier objects, which are some of the brightest astronomical objects observable from earth

An overview

The constellation of Auriga makes up a beautiful pentagon that supposedly depicts a man driving a chariot, though the notion can sometimes be difficult to reconcile with. The constellation consists of five main stars, with the brightest being Capella, a yellow binary system that is the 6th brightest star in the earth’s night sky.

The constellation is one of the ancient constellations catalogued by Ptolemy, and is most visible in the northern hemisphere from February to March.

The myth

The king of Athens, Erichthonius, who was also the son of the fire god, Hephaestus, was raised by the goddess Athena. The goddess had taught Erichthonius many skills that he would never have learned of or acquired otherwise, and soon became the first man to tame and harness four horses to a chariot. Upon seeing this, Zeus was greatly impressed by Erichthonius, and had immortalized his great deed among the stars as the constellation, Auriga.

But that is just one of the two popular myths. In another, the charioteer is the son of Hermes, Myrtilus. Hermes was a god that served the King of Pisa, Oenomaus, who himself had a beautiful daughter, Hippodamia. The King was determined to never give away his daughter’s hand to any of her suitors, and often challenged each of them to a chariot race with a unique rule added: if he were to catch up with them before they arrive at Corinth, he had the right to slay them there and then.

Myrtilus was the one that drove the king’s chariot, and none of Hippodamia’s suitors were capable of outracing him; none until Pelops, son of Tantalus. Pelops had bravely asked King Oenomaus for his daughter’s hand, and Hippodamia herself had fallen in love with Pelops at first sight.

The princess thus asked Myrtilus to intentionally lose the race. The charioteer, who was also madly in love with Hippodamia, agreed and tampered with the chariot’s wheels. This resulted in the King’s death, and Pelops, thinking Myrtilus as his rival, casted the charioteer into the sea to die as well. His father, Hermes, immortalized Myrtilus amongst the stars in his grief.

The constellation

The constellation of Auriga is situated in the northern sky’s first quadrant, and is visible between latitudes -40 to +90 degrees. It neighbors the constellations of Camelopardalis, Gemini, Lynx, Perseus, and Taurus.

Of the five main stars it consists, there exists three celestial bodies of note: Capella, a yellow star 42 lightyears away from our solar system and the sixth brightest star in our earth’s night sky; Mahasim, a binary system consisting of a white dwarf 263 times more luminous than our sun; and Menkalinan, a triple-star system of which two brightest components often partially eclipse one another.

Want to learn about other constellations aside from Auriga? Find out more about Cassiopeia or Andromeda. Alternatively, you can simply click here for a full list of constellations.