Who’s Virgo?

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending April 26, 2014

Virgo is up all night in late April. She’s not the only female in the zodiac, but she’s the only one who is an entire constellation. The Pleiades and Hyades are star clusters representing females of legend in Taurus, but they aren’t considered constellations themselves. So Virgo has a distinction they don’t. Who is Virgo? It depends on whom you ask.

To the ancient Babylonians, she was the fertility goddess Ishtar.

The Egyptians called her Isis. To them, she was a goddess of nature.

Demeter to the Greeks and Ceres to the Romans, Virgo also represented a goddess of agriculture. In some stories, she was Demeter’s daughter Persephone.

Some Roman accounts attribute the stars of Virgo to Astraea, a goddess of justice. In ancient Greece, she was Dike. It’s appropriate that Libra, the scales often used to represent justice, is nearby.

Still other Roman stories refer to Virgo as a moon goddess. The Greeks also sometimes saw a moon goddess, Artemis.

Sometimes the stars were Athena, a goddess of wisdom, war, and the arts to the Greeks. Or for the Romans telling of the same things, they were Minerva.

Urania was a Greek muse of astronomy also seen in Virgo.

Star names in Virgo don’t link the constellation so clearly to goddesses or women. Spica is Latin for ear of wheat. Artists like to depict Virgo holding a wheat spike. Two star names, Zavijava and Zaniah, come from Arabic words for angle or corner. They describe a place where barking dogs are housed. Vindemiatrix is Latin for grape gatherer. About 2,500 years ago, the sun was close to this place in the sky when grapes were in season. And Porrima was a Roman goddess of prophecy.

Someone with a telescope and a dark sky can enjoy galaxy hunting in Virgo. Part of the Virgo Cluster of more than a thousand galaxies is in the constellation. One galaxy we see edge-on looks somewhat like a hat and is named the Sombrero Galaxy. Two colliding galaxies form the Butterfly Galaxies.

Mars entered Virgo in November. It’s currently close to Porrima. Its motion will bring it very close to Spica in July. The red planet leaves Virgo for Libra in August.

Have a good view. ¡SkyCaramba!