There are many well known chariots and charioteers in ancient Hellenic mythology. All of the Theoi have one, and Helios and Apollo use one to bring light to the world. Hades kidnapped Persephone with His. Pollux and Castor were very skilled at driving the fast, light, open, two-wheeled conveyance drawn by two or more horses. Helios lost a son when he let his son Phaethon (Φαέθων) drive his chariot for its morning track through the sky. Phaethon flew too close to the earth and scorched it all; Zeus then cast him down with a lightning-bolt. Yet, these are not the charioteers the constellation is associated with. In this next installment of the constellation series, we will look at the Divine child the constellation refers to... and a few others, because the constellation Auriga has had many interpretations over the years.
For a very long time, war chariots were pulled by two horses only. The charioteer of the constellation is therefor most likely Erichthonios (Ἐριχθόνιος), child of Hephaestus and Athena, through Gaea, as he invented a chariot pulled by four horses.
As the myth of his birth goes; Athena went to Hephaestus' workshop for weaponry, but Hephaestus--overcome with lust--tried to rape
Her instead. Athena fled, but could not flee fast enough. Hephaestus caught up to Her. Athena fought off Her attacker, but could not prevent Hephaestus from ejaculating on Her thigh. She wiped Hephaestus' semen away with a scrap of wool (ἔριον, erion) and flung it to the earth (χθών, chthôn). From it was born Erichthonios, who was part man, and part snake.
In my post about the many legends of Médousa, I posed the following about Athena and the source of Erichthonius' myth and birth as part-snake:
"Athena's role as a snake and fertility Goddess is still visible in the myth about the child she had with Hephaestus; Erichthonios (Ἐριχθόνιος), who was half man, half snake. It's even posed that in the early days, Athena was married to Hephaestus and had His child willingly. As Athena was stripped of Her roles as a fertility and snake Goddess, Médousa's myth came into being, where Athena distances Herself from sex and snakes, by punishing an epithet of herself (Athena Tritogeneia, perhaps: 'born of Trito', a lake which was supposedly located in Libya), or the Libyan snake Goddess Médousa, who may have still been attached to Her worship. By placing Médousa's head on Her breastplate or shield, Athena's mythology is continuously linked to Her Libyan heritage, but harmlessly so, to Her new image of a virginal warrior."
No matter the source, Erichthonios was born, and placed in a box by Athena. She placed the box in the care of three of Her attendants at the Acropolis
, with clear instructions not to open the box. They did, of course, and were scared so by the sight of either a snake in the box, or Erichthonios' deformities, they cast themselves off
of the Acropolis in terror. Yet, despite his deformities, Erichthonios became king of Athens and ruled it long and well.
He married Praxithea (Πραξιθέα), a naiad, and had a son, Pandion I. He founded the Panathenaiac Festival
in the honor of Athena, and set up a wooden statue
of her on the Acropolis. He taught his people to yoke horses and use them to pull chariots, to smelt silver, and to till the earth with a plough. His deformities and lameness inspired him to invent the quadriga--or four-horse chariot--to get around easier. He was very skilled as a charioteer, and won many games. Zeus was said to have been so impressed with his skill that he raised him to the heavens to become the constellation Auriga after his death.
There are also other charioteers to whom the constellation could refer; Myrtilus (Μυρτίλος), for example, who was Hermes's son and the charioteer of Oenomaus. Myrtilus's chariot was destroyed in a race intended for suitors to win the heart of Oenomaus's daughter Hippodamia. Myrtilus earned his position in the sky when Hippodamia's successful suitor, Pelops (Πέλοψ), killed him, although he helped him win the woman's hand. After his death, Myrtilus's father Hermes placed him in the sky.
The constellation could also represent Theseus's son Hippolytus who was ejected from Athens after he refused the romantic advances of his stepmother Phaedra, who committed suicide as a result. He was killed when his chariot was wrecked, but revived by Asclepius. Another possibility is that the constellation does not represent a whole person at all, but is a limb of Mēdeia's brother
after she killed and dismembered him.
Occasionally, Auriga is also seen as the Charioteer but as Bellerophon (Βελλεροφῶν), the mortal rider of Pegasus who dared to approach Mount Olympus. In this version of the tale, Zeus pitied Bellerophon for his foolishness and placed him in the stars.
Whomever--or whatever--it represents, Auriga reminds us that the chariot had an important place in ancient Hellenic society. As for the constellation, it is visible at latitudes between +90° and −40°, and best visible at 21:00 (9 p.m.) during the month of late February to early March.