Ancient maiden speaks to us today


Our ancient forebears put their gods in the sky. From there, they controlled the natural forces below. Virgo, the Virgin — or “Maiden,” if you prefer — epitomizes that connection between Earth and sky.

The springtime constellation looks a bit like a wine glass with a deep bowl of stars at the top and a thin stem of stars below.

Seventeenth and 18th century star maps depict her standing upright with angelic wings. She bears a sheaf of wheat or sometimes an ear of corn in her left hand.

Virgo rises in the early evening during spring and is up all night. It spends the cold months below the horizon and the warmer months above it.

Accordingly, the ancient Greeks blamed the constellation for the cold of winter and praised it for the warmth of summer.

As a result, Virgo and her mother, Demeter, the corn goddess, are responsible for the growth of crops.

That connection is immortalized in the Roman story of the woeful lives of Persephone and Demeter.

Early in the first century CE, the Roman poet Ovid wrote the definitive versions of the myth in his masterworks, the Fasti and Metamorphoses.

However, it was not always so. Storytellers have associated Virgo with a wide variety of maidens throughout the millennia. Because of her presence in the springtime, she is almost always connected to warm spring rains and the bounty of grains they produce.

A small fragment of a late Babylonian star catalog (BM 46083) describes Spica, Virgo’s brightest star, as “the bright star of the barley-stalk.”

The Egyptians associated the constellation with their principal goddess Isis. Among her many achievements, she created the Milky Way by scattering an abundance of glittering wheat grains across the sky.

In another version of the story, the monster Typhon pursues Isis across the sky. In her haste, she drops a sheaf of corn she was carrying. In the melee that followed, the kernels of corn scattered across the sky, and the Milky Way was born.

As Isis worship spread across the Greco-Roman world, so too did the association of Virgo with the springtime’s bounty of grain.

Eratosthenes, the Greek poet, astronomer, and mathematician of the third century BCE, speculates that Virgo might be Atargatis, the Syrian goddess of fertility. Atargatis was sometimes depicted by the Syrians holding an ear of corn.

In his Poetic Astronomy, the Roman poet Hyginus (1st century CE) writes that Virgo represents Erigone, the daughter of Icarus of Athens.

Icarus shared a large quantity of wine with a group of local shepherds. Unfortunately, the shepherds were unfamiliar with the effects of wine.

As a result, they suspected that Icarus had poisoned them. So they killed him. When Erigone discovered his body, she hanged herself.

Icarus became the constellation Boötes, just to the north of Virgo. Maera, Icarus’s loyal dog, is transformed into the star Procyon in Canis Minor.

Perhaps the most influential interpretation of Virgo comes from Eudoxus of Cnidus, a Greek mathematician who wrote during the flowering of Greek civilization during the 4th century BCE. Sadly, his descriptions of the constellations have been lost and exist only in fragments.

Around 277 BCE, the Greek poet Aratus rewrote Eudoxus’s work in poetic form. And Aratus spends more time telling the Virgo story than any of the other constellations.

In Aratus’s telling of the tale, Virgo becomes the goddess Justice.

Her literary origins are somewhat clouded. In one myth, she is the goddess Dike (pronounced (DEE-kay), daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Themis, goddess of wisdom. Themis interpreted the gods’ will for the human race.

Aratus called her Astraeia, daughter of Astraeus, father of the stars, and Aurora, goddess of the dawn. For the sake of simplicity, I will call her Justice as I tell Aratus’s somewhat didactic tale.

Before the ascendency of the gods, the Titans ruled the world. Their king was Chronos, who led with wise beneficence. Under his reign, called the Golden Age, humans lived in perpetual springtime.

During that Golden Age, Justice deigned to dwell with mortals. She spoke to humans about the laws that must govern them, and they freely lived by those precepts.

As a result, humans lived long lives of peace and prosperity.

After the gods defeated the Titans for control of the Earth and sky, humans descended into violence and chaos. During that Silver Age, Zeus shortened the springtime, and the cold days of winter swept across the Earth.

Justice loved humans well enough that she gathered them together and issued a stern warning. If they did not mend their “degenerate” ways and honor the gods and their just laws, “then shall wars and then shall hateful bloodshed be among men.”

At first, she sought refuge in the mountains. From there, she witnessed the increasing violence and cruelty among humans.

At last, she could stand it no longer. She abandoned Earth and its people and rose to live among the stars as the constellation we call Virgo. She stands holding her Scales of Justice, memorialized in the nearby Libra.

As influential as Aratus’s story is, people like me prefer to tell Ovid’s tale of Persephone and Demeter to this very day.

As in the Justice myth, Persephone’s story begins during the Golden Age, that 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, 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 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 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. Not a single seed sprouted in her absence, and a seemingly unending winter encompassed Earth.

Humans were desperate and starving, but Zeus didn’t care. He 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.

Most scholars consider the pomegranate seed consumption symbolic. Let’s just say that in one way or another, Persephone had consummated the marriage.

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 in the “underworld,” so to speak. Because grief paralyzes Demeter during that time, winter spreads over the land.

As Virgo rises in the spring and rejoins her mother, Demeter is filled with joy. She 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 anguish of Demeter transforms into unspeakable joy.

Just for the record, I don’t believe in Zeus. And I don’t believe that the old stories provide any sort of scientific explanation for the changes of the seasons.

I don’t believe that Justice has abandoned us. I must confess that in my darker moods, I believe that we have abandoned Justice.

And I do believe that the old tales tell us something about how humans have attempted to explain the vagaries of the harsh and beautiful natural world around them.

When we didn’t understand nature’s laws, we assumed that the seeming chaos around us resulted from the intervention of gods who shared many of our frailties.

The gods were sometimes cruel and sometimes kind. As their moods changed, so did the state of human affairs. It’s a more satisfying explanation for human cruelty than the possibility that cruelty is built into human nature.

But all is not lost if we can listen to those old stories.

So go on out and watch Virgo rising in the east some clear spring night.

Feel for a moment how Justice must have felt as humans abandoned the simple rules of kindness and decency.

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.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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