Look for Auriga on February 21

In the deep midwinter, gaze overhead in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere in the late evening and you will see the constellation we call Auriga the Charioteer. The six brightest stars can form either an irregular hexagon, or an irregular pentagon with one outlier star. The brightest, Capella, lies to the northeast. Capella is actually a combination of two binary systems. What we see as one star is a close association of one of these binaries, two bright yellow stars that revolve around a common center. These are only about 43 light-years away from Earth. Their proximity plus their size and temperature, gives the visible “Capella” a magnitude of 1 (please see the April 2020 issue for a description of magnitude) and the third-brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. More about Capella in a future issue.

Chariots were military vehicles of the first order. They were used as rapidly movable 2-wheeled or 4-wheeled platforms for archers, lancers and soldiers throwing javelins. Chariots were pulled by one to four horses under the control of the chariot driver, with one or more soldiers on the bed of the chariot. The driver was unarmed, but in the days of foot combat, charging horses protected him from the front and the arrows and javelins of the soldiers were quite a deterrent to attacking the chariot from the rear. Contrary to popular thought (and some of the chiseled images recorded in history), the archers probably did not shoot from a moving chariot. It was more likely that the chariot was driven into the fracas and stopped, upon which the soldiers did their best to subdue the enemy, and was then driven off the field at high speed, only to return later.

The constellation Auriga has represented different things to different peoples and cultures. One Amazon tribe saw Auriga as part of a caiman, common to their daily lives. In one Mediterranean myth, the charioteer was Hephaestus of the underworld, who was lame and needed a way to get around. In other myths, Auriga was his son, Erichthoneus, also of the underworld. There are a great number of variations on these accounts. Hindu mythology includes a lame charioteer for the Sun, with a chariot pulled by either four or seven horses. The most common representation of Auriga is that of a shepherd holding the reins of the chariot with a female goat (capella in Latin) over his shoulder and with her kids under his arm. The connection of a war machine to a shepherd has been lost to history, as explained in A Field Book of the Stars by William Tyler Olcott (1911).

Chariots were used in the Eastern Hemisphere during the Bronze Age from about 1800 B.C. They were common among the Chinese, Egyptians, and Central Asians. The battle of Kadesh in 1294 B.C. between Egypt and the Hittite Empire made extensive use of chariots. The Celts used them against the Romans until around the 300s A.D. The very latest military usage of the chariot in the 1800s A.D. was by the Chinese, illustrating the power of the composite bow even in the age of gunpowder.

Even though chariots and their images now live only in museums, the brightest Capella binary stars will take several billion years to become red giants and will eventually collapse to white dwarfs. Humankind will likely not be around to see this.