Virgo the Maiden
The origin of Virgo is lost in antiquity but among the European and Middle Eastern myths it has always been a symbol of fertility and the production of crops.  It would appear on the eastern horizon in the evening during the northern hemisphere Spring and is setting soon after sunset when the crops are ready to harvest.  Now, due to precession of the equinoxes, it rises a little sooner in the cycle of the seasons but it is still dominates the sky during the northern Summer.  To the inexperienced eye Virgo is a huge patch of nothingness, lit by lonely Spica, but regular stargazers can easily pick out the 'rectangle' that marks the body of this celestial lady.  To amateur astronomers it is famous for it's wealth of galaxies.  In the modern day Virgo is the second largest constellation in the sky in area.

Virgo was drawn in the Egyptian zodiac and was said to represent the goddess Isis.  To the Romans she was Astrea, the goddess of Justice, holding the Scales of Libra in her hand.  Astrea, sickened by the wars of men, was the last of the celestial beings to leave the earth for the heavens, hence she is sometimes depicted with the wings that she used to ascend to the stars.  She has been connected with the Virgin Mary and the goddess Eoster, from where the name of the festival of Easter derives.  The Greeks connected her with Ceres and Persephone, from a well known myth that describes the cycle of the harvest.  Persephone was the daughter of Ceres, who was one day abducted by Hades and taken to his underground world.  Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, was distraught at this, and neglected the world above while she sought her daughter, so that the plants died and withered in the field.  Eventually, Ceres found her with Hades, and demanded her back.  Hades decreed Persephone could return to the world of life one condition - that no food had passed her lips while she had been a captive.  It was revealed that one day as Persephone had quenched her thirst by squeezing a pomegranate into her mouth that a few seeds had slipped in.  So, a compromise was reached, Hades would have Persephone's company as his queen for several months of the year and Ceres would have her daughter for the other months, and the balance of the seasons was restored  

The brightest star of Virgo is Spica, the ear of wheat.  It is a hot blue-white star only 260 light years away.  Porrima, gamma (g) Virginis, is a double star with a known period of 172 years.  At the moment this binary pair is very close and may be difficult to split.  They will be at their closest in 2008.  Vindemiatrix, epsilon (e) Virginis, is "the grape gatherer", an important agricultural activity! 

Mention Virgo to the deep sky enthusiast and immediately it is associated with galaxies.  And indeed it is rich with galaxies, containing within its boundaries what is known as the Virgo Super Cluster.  This is one of a few patches of sky where you can wave your telescope around and find a galaxy without much effort.  The  first quasar ever identified, 3C 273, was found within Virgo and the first asteroid to be found, was also in this constellation; consequently it was named Ceres.


This article is ©2002 Stargazers Astronomy Shop

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