Location and Appearance

Virgo is the largest of the zodiac constellations, yet it is hard to visualize. Its brightest star, Spica can be found by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to the bright star Arcturus, then continue on to Spica. In star-watching we say “follow the arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica”. Spica can also be found to the left of the distinct constellation Corvus, marked by 4 stars in the south forming a lopsided square. Finally, Spica forms an equilateral triangle with Arcturus and Denebola, the star marking the tail of Leo. The rest of Virgo extends above Spica in a dim Y shape.

Mythology of Virgo: An Overview

In the lands around the Mediterranean, these stars represent a woman dressed in flowing robes, with a palm branch in one hand, and an ear of corn or spike of wheat in her other hand. She represents the progression of growth from spring to autumn, starting as a virgin and developing into a virtuous matron. These stars have been an emblem of the Great Mother who symbolized the cycle of birth-growth-death-rebirth. Her virginity was renewed at each new moon. She taught agriculture to mankind and presided over the autumn harvest.

Virgo in the ancient Mid-East

The Assyrians called her Beltis, a harlot goddess whose rites were orgiastic. To the Babylonians she was Ishtar, Queen of Stars. In Egypt, she was Isis, the thousand-named goddess holding the sun-god Horus in her hands. One day while fleeing a monster she dropped the wheat heads she had been carrying. They scattered across the sky to become the Milky Way.

Virgo in Greek and Roman Mythology

To the Greeks, these stars represented many deities, including Demeter (“Earth Mother”), Rhea (daughter of sky and earth and mother of Zeus), and Astraea (“starry one”). Astraea was the virgin goddess of justice, symbolizing innocence and purity. As blind justice, she weighed the good and evil deeds of mankind with the scales of justice, represented by nearby Libra. She was the last of all the deities to return to heaven, being offended by the increasing wickedness of mankind.

In Roman mythology, the names were changed. Demeter became Ceres, Astraea became Justitia, and Rhea became Cybele. An original Italian nature goddess seen in these stars was Fortuna (“Lady Luck”), who ruled over the harvest and shaped the destinies of women in childbirth.

Virgo in the later Mid-East

In Arabia, where it was forbidden to draw the human form by Islamic law, these stars were called “The Corner of the Barking Dogs”, who yap at their neighbor Leo. Later, with European influence, they were called “The Innocent Maiden”. The Jews associated these stars with Bethulah and abundance in harvest. This constellation was also assigned by the Rabbis to the tribe of Asher, of whom Jacob declared “his bread shall be fat.” To Christians she represented the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus in her lap. The observance of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15, the same day that Spica set in the time of early Christianity. Her birth is celebrated on September 8, the same day as the heliacal rising of Spica in those times.

Virgo around the globe

To the Hindus, Virgo was represented by Kannae, mother of Krishna. In China these stars were first a serpent, and later with Jesuit influence they became a frigid maiden. In Peru the natives knew these stars as the “Magic Mother” and celebrated a festival dedicated to maize and Woman. Certain natives in southern California called Spica a Sky Chief. The Zuni called it the “Left Elbow of the Chief”, a huge figure spanning most of the sky.

The astronomy of Virgo

The autumn equinox has been located among the stars of Virgo since about 700 BCE and will be there for about another 500 years. This apparent motion is caused by precession. Hipparchus in the second century BCE is credited with the discovery of this motion. He compared his observations of Spica and Regulus with ancient observations. This motion was probably known to earlier people, however Hipparchus was able to confirm and measure it.

Virgo is also known as the location of a massive galaxy cluster of over 2500 members. Our own Milky Way is an outer member of this cluster. This is the closest galaxy cluster at about 60 million light-years.

Observing Virgo

Virgo is the second largest constellation with 1294 square degrees. It has 26 stars of magnitude 4.8 or brighter, 20 of these are in the Zodiac. It is seen from early April to late July, and is at its best in late May. Its astrological days are August 23 to September 22, a total of 31 days. The astronomical dates are September 17 to October 31, a span of 45 days.

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