Sunday, 29 July 2018

Star-Gayzing : The Chariot of the Gods

What have Pierre de Coubertin, Tom Waddell, Hercules and Erichthonius all have in common? You may know that Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games, or that Tom Waddell founded the Gay Games. You may even know that Hercules is reputed to be the founder of the ancient Olympic Games, so you may have guessed why I listed Erichthonius. He is said to be the founder of one of Greece’s oldest sporting festivals, one that I wrote about just after starting this blog 7 years ago. I call his games the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece, but the proper name is the Panathenaean Games.

To learn more about the Panathenaean Games go to the first article I wrote on the games here and follow the successive posts. Since I wrote them in 2011 I’ve done more research and am in the process of putting everything together in a book on the games.

In anticipation of the Gay Games in Paris which start a week today I thought it would be appropriate to write about Erichthonius and how he came to found the Panathenaean Games and be honoured by Zeus as the constellation Auriga the charioteer (star map pictured below).
The Panathenaean Games took place every year after the harvest in late July of early August – just around now, in fact. They were expanded, according to legend, by the hero Theseus after his return from defeating the Minotaur when he introduced the larger 4-yearly Greater Panathenaean Games.

Erichthonius was a minor god of ancient Greece. His link to Athens comes through his mother, the warrior goddess Athena, after whom the city is named. She needed some weapons and approached the blacksmith god Hephaestus to make some for her. Hephaestus was smitten with desire and tried to seduce Athena. Athena, protecting her virginity, fought against him. Some of Hephaestus’s semen fell onto her thigh which she wiped off with some wool and flung to the ground. From the ground was born the baby Erichthonius, whose name translates into English as “he came from the earth”.

A side note to this is the theory that this encounter between Hephaestus, who was also the god of fire, and Athena is symbolised in the torch relay that took place on the final day of the Panathenaean Games – the fire of the torch being taken from one of the city gates to Athena’s temple on the Acropolis. The modern Olympic torch relay takes this as its inspiration from which, in its turn, it has influenced the creation of other pre-games relays such as the Queen’s Baton relay at the Commonwealth Games, and the International Rainbow Memorial Run at the Gay Games (the route of Paris run will be given on Friday).

Athena wanted to keep and raise her child, but in order to protect her reputation as a virgin she kept to the baby a secret and raised it in a covered basket. She gave the basket to the safekeeping of the daughters of the king of Athens with the warning that they should never open it (shades of Pandora).

This guardianship of the baby Erichthonius was recreated during the religious procession of the Panathanaean Games. Two girls were given baskets by the priestesses of Athena. The contents of the baskets were kept secret from the girls, who carried them in the procession around Athens and back to the Acropolis. To this day scholars aren’t sure what was in those baskets, if there was anything at all. How one girl who was banned from being a basket carrier led to a gay couple indirectly creating democracy can be read here.

Needless to say, the temptation to open the original basket was too great for the Athenians princesses. What they saw inside drove them mad and they threw themselves off the top of the Acropolis. Various legends say that they saw snakes, or Erichthonius as half-human, half-snake, a common depiction of him, as in the illustration below.
“Erichthonius Released From His Basket” by Antonio Tempesta (1606),
showing the baby Erichthonius as half-man, half-snake.
After the basket was opened Athena chose to raise Erichthonius with her on the Acropolis. She taught him all the skills of a warrior. Naturally he became Athena’s biggest fan and put up a huge wooden statue of her on the Acropolis and started the Panathenaean Games to honour her on her birthday, just after the harvest. Erichthonius overthrew a usurper king of Athens and became king in his place, thus founding a line of legendary rulers.

Whether Erichthonius followed the tradition of being the young lover of an older soldier during his training isn’t likely if he was trained alone by Athena on the Acropolis. Besides, if he was half-serpent, or crippled like his father, as most legends say he was, then he wouldn’t have been admitted to the Athenian gymnasium anyway. Anyone with any visible physical “defect” (as they considered it) would not be allowed to train. Erichthonius may, however, have taken a young lover of his own a few years later. Nothing is recorded to say one way or the other. All we know is that he had a wife, a nymph, by whom he had an only child, his son and successor as king of Athens.

The reason Erichthonius was placed in the night sky as Auriga is because he is the traditional inventor of the 4-horse chariot, the quadriga, the type of chariot you can see on top of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. This he invented because of his physical disadvantage and couldn’t fight on foot. He got the idea from the chariot of the sun god Helios (also known as Apollo is later myths). The supreme god Zeus thought Erichthonius was so skilled with the chariot in both war and sport that he turned him into Auriga.

One interstellar fact of note concerning Auriga is that if you stand on top of the Sun (ouch!) and look at the centre of our galaxy, then turn around 180 degrees, you’ll see Auriga. More precisely you’ll see the point I’ve marked with a cross on the star map above. It marks the direct opposite position in the sky to the galactic centre.

I hope there are clear night skies above Paris during the Gay Games. Athletes will be able to look up at Auriga and give a salute to the para-athlete founder of the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece.

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