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Symbol of Virtue, Innocence and Prosperity

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

It is fascinating and astonishing to look up at the sky and fathom the ways history has been written in the stars. Throughout the world, through all human time, people have implanted their thinking upon the patterns of stars that constantly wheel over our heads. The best known constellations, the "classical" ones, have stories attached to them that have come down to us over the centuries, many of them traversing through manifold cultures and countries, undergoing modifications all along the way. For most constellations, it is impossible to establish the exact place and time of origin of the stories that became associated with particular patterns of stars, and the tales continue their morphology as they circulate through human minds.

Consider, for example, the constellation Virgo, the Virgin. This is one of three illustrious women to be found in the star-speckled sky. The other two, Cassiopeia and Andromeda are from the same family. Virgo, representing innocence, virtue, fertility and feminine royalty, has been associated with many of the famous mythological women of classic times. She is usually depicted holding a sheaf of grain in her left hand, marked by the bright star Spica, and sometimes she holds a palm branch in her right hand.

Some say Virgo originated in Egypt as much as 15,000 years ago when the spring equinox was among those stars with the Sun passing through them at the time of the Egyptian harvest. Perhaps this is how Virgo became known as the Maiden of the Wheat-field, pictured with a sickle and sheaves of grain in her arms. Also for Egyptians she was associated with the goddess Isis, portrayed with wheat in her hand. It is said that when the monster Typhon pursued her, she dropped the sheaf, scattering wheat across the sky to become the glittering Milky Way. Egyptians worshiped Virgo's brightest star, Spica, the stellar symbol of the wheat she holds. They constructed temples to the star which, for them, represented prosperity. Indeed, it is said that during a time of famine Greeks went into Egypt to obtain wheat, they returned with more than food: the Egyptians shared a portion of their religion with the advice that if the Greeks would pay homage to Spica they would never want for grain again. Another Egyptian image of Virgo has her holding the young Horus, the infant Sun god, last of the divine Egyptian kings. Later, this effigy was transformed into the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus.

Perhaps the earliest, certainly the most enduring, image of Virgo is that of the Sphinx, which some scholars claim consists of the combination of the constellations the Sun moved through during the inundation of the Nile during ancient Egyptian times. The stately figure lying in the desert, they say, has the body of Leo the Lion with the head of the maiden Virgo.

There are many additional images people have imagined among the stars of Virgo. For the Semites, for example, she was Ishtar, Queen of the Stars, a concept that migrated through Greece to become attached to the brightest of the planets known as Aphrodite to the Greeks and Venus to the Romans. But the Greeks knew Virgo as Astraea, daughter of Zeus and Themis. She was Goddess of Justice, living on earth with the other gods during the Golden Age. As time went on and men grew wicked, Astraea fled to the starry zodiac where she still resides right next to the Scales of Justice, the constellation Libra. In some of the old sky atlases Virgo is pictured holding Libra, the scales of justice. This portrait suggests this column's zodiacal coming attraction, the story of justice symbolized in the sky by the constellation Libra.

The figure of Virgo is difficult to make out in the starry sky, with most of her stars being rather dim. You can, however, be sure you have found her by locating the sparkling spike, or ear of wheat she holds, the bright star Spica. Most people do it this way. First locate the Great Dipper in Ursa Major, currently high overhead in the evening sky. Follow the curve of the handle of the dipper and continue it down to the southeast until you come to the brilliant star Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes. Continue that same arc to the next bright star, lower and farther to the south. This is Spica. Arcturus has a slightly orange color and Spica is very white. Let me repeat the method of finding it: "follow the arc to Arcturus, then speed on to Spica." This little statement, known well to those who love the sky, might help you connect and remember these stars.

Once you have located Spica, notice that there is currently another stellar arc involving Spica. If you look higher into the south at eventide, you will see very bright ruddy Mars. Continue the arc from Spica through Mars up and toward the west and you will come to Regulus, brightest star of Leo the Lion, marking the heart of the Lion. Regulus and Spica look about the same in brightness and color. The wandering Mars, of course, is just passing through this portion of the sky.

During the past six months we have, in this column, considered half of the constellations of the zodiac. These six now lie clear across our very early evening sky. We are losing Aries and Taurus, setting in the sunset glow to the north of west. Gemini is still easy to see, the Twins standing upright on the west horizon with the stars Castor and Pollux marking their heads. Dim Cancer lies between Gemini and Leo. The great Lion runs high in the south as it gets dark. Virgo, low in the southeast, has become prominent for our evening enjoyment. We will continue to add one constellation of the zodiac for each of the next six months to complete the celestial highway of the planets.

There is no better time than late April to go out and look around at the heavens. Brilliant stars, including Orion and Canis Major, make their exit in the west where we can still see Comet Hale-Bopp, now on its journey outward into the depths of space, not to return to our vicinity for thousands of years. The Great Dipper rides high in the evening and can be used to locate many stars, including Virgo, symbol of innocence, virtue, fertility, abundance, prosperity and justice. Stories from earth project ancient ghostly motion pictures across the heavens, illuminated by the sparkling stars.

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