Astronomy: A vision of spring


I am writing the last of these words on my birthday. It is an odd experience indeed to have reached 65 full trips of planet Earth around its home star.

On one level, I feel fortunate to have reached 65 revolutions. If I had been born just 100 revolutions ago, I would surely have been born into poverty. I never would have had the opportunity to go to college. I never would have been teaching and prospering at Ohio Wesleyan University.

And, most importantly, I would surely have been dead a long time ago from disease, poor diet, grinding work, or the quiet despair that many in our society feel to this very day.

I have always felt particularly fortunate that I was born in the spring. Earth is alive with new life on my birthday every year, and I gain increasingly comfort from that as the years pass.

This spring hasn’t been the best of my 65 revolutions. The cold winds and rain of April still infect this day. Clear skies for stargazing have been few and far between this May.

Still, I know it must be springtime — and not from looking at the calendar or the pretty posies that inhabit my yard.

This I know because Virgo is rising in the evening sky, and with her comes the promise of new birth and burgeoning life.

Virgo, the Virgin — or “Maiden,” if you prefer ­— was called Persephone by the ancient Greeks. Her story begins in a mythic time of continuous peace and plenty, when the gods lived openly among humans.

Persephone was the young daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest, goddess of life, fertility, and growth.

One tragic day, Hades, the god who ruled the realm of the dead, kidnapped the maiden and carried her down to his underworld lair. There she was to become queen to the dark god.

Persephone knew that her chances of escape were small, but she had one hope. She would be trapped in Hades forever if she in any way partook of the hospitality of the dark lord. She must not eat a single bite of food and hope that her mother could somehow find her and rescue her from Pluto’s cold embrace.

As Persephone lay weak and hungry, Demeter was so filled with grief that she left Earth to search the universe for her daughter. Demeter’s presence on the planet made the crops grow. In her absence, not a single seed sprouted, and an unending winter encompassed Earth.

Humans were desperate and starving, but that didn’t bother Zeus very much. He kind of enjoyed watching humans suffer. He was more upset by the lack of agricultural tribute. Humans had no food to sacrifice at his temples.

Zeus thus undertook Persephone’s rescue, but the attempt was doomed. In a moment of weakness, she had eaten six tiny pomegranate seeds and was now yoked to Pluto forever.

So Zeus arranged a compromise. For three months out of every year, Persephone must remain with Pluto in unholy wedlock.

During those months, Virgo remains below the horizon. Because Demeter is paralyzed by grief during that time, winter spreads over the land. As Virgo rises in the spring and rejoins her mother, Demeter is filled with joy and allows the dormant plant life to awaken.

For the ancients, the golden age of innocence was over. The virgin had been ravished. The long, long age of winter was upon us. The gods now lived among the cold stars of heaven.

But spring still comes in fits and starts as the sad pain of the goddess Demeter is replaced by unspeakable joy.

I tell these old constellation stories so often that some folks accuse me of being the last Zeus worshiper. Just for the record, I don’t believe in Zeus. I do believe that the old tales tell us something about the way humans have attempted to explain the vagaries of the harsh and beautiful natural world around them.

When we didn’t understand the rules that govern nature, we assumed that the seeming chaos around us was the result of intervention by gods who were much like us. They were sometimes cruel and sometimes kind. As their moods changed, so did the state of human affairs. The same, it seems, can be said of our secular gods today.

So go on out and watch Virgo rising in the east some clear night. Feel for a moment how Demeter must have felt as her precious daughter rises from the cold realm of death into the blessed promise of spring.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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