Myths of The Zodiac: Virgo
Virgo, taken from the Latin for virgin, is the largest of the 12 Zodiacal constellations. Originally associated with wheat fields and fertile land, over the years this pattern of stars came to signal human fertility and stories of virginity and purity. The brightest star in Virgo, Spica, bears elements of this past as its name is derived from the Latin for ‘grain’. In modern astrology, Virgos are born between August 23rd and September 22nd. It is considered to be an Earth sign, meaning those born under it are more likely to be practical, analytical and hard-working.
The first recorded name given to the stars in this particular patch of sky, comes from the Babylonian civilisation of Ancient Mesopotamia around 12,000 years ago. In fact, the Babylonians split this large constellation into two parts – one as a furrowed field for growing crops and the other as a fertility goddess holding a palm frond. This second image survived for thousands of years and depictions of Virgo as a woman holding some kind of plant are still created in modern times.
In Classical mythology Virgo was often associated with the story of Dionysus and Icarius. As the god of wine, sexual promiscuity and more, Dionysus encouraged his followers to share wine amongst their peers at every suitable opportunity and so it was that his zealous devotee Icarius, plied his latest shepherd recruits with drink. The group had never been drunk before, and after becoming intoxicated they assumed that Icarius has poisoned them. Growing vengeful, they beat Icarius to death. Days later his daughter, Erigone, hanged herself over Icarius’ grave.
The angry Dionysus wrought a plague on the Athenians for several years, and then put the souls of Erigone and Icarius into heaven for all eternity where they became the constellations Virgo and Bootes respectively.
Virgo was also sometimes considered alongside the fertility and nature goddess Persephone, who married the king of the underworld Hades and stood for virility but was also a virgin (Greek Gods are weird). This idea of the virgin Earth returning to be reflowered anew in Spring is a recurring one all over the world, and one that is often paired with the constellation Virgo. This led the constellation to become associated with Christianity and the Virgin Mary throughout the Middle Ages in Europe.
Modern astronomical techniques have allowed us to discover a lot about the physical makeup of this constellation. Virgo, covering a large patch of the night sky, contains many bright stars and a whole host of other deep sky objects. For example, the first (and brightest) quasar ever discovered lies within the boundaries of Virgo. At an absolute magnitude of 26.7, Quasar 3C273 is an estimated four trillion times more luminous than the Sun.
So packed full of astronomical significance is Virgo that it even has its own galactic cluster named after it, The Virgo Cluster. Containing untold billions of stars, spread over several thousand galaxies, that are around 53 million light years away.
Now that’s a distance even the Greek Gods might have been surprised at!