Which Virgin?

There is much pagan mythology connected to the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky. If any of you readers indulge your “horrorscope” you might recognize Virgo, designated a virgin. Perhaps regrettably, this rather large grouping of stars does not represent the Blessed Virgin Mary. Not in any original sense.

This is the time of year when you can gaze up at the dark sky and see Virgo pretty much all night long. If that matches the designation of May as Mary’s month, take heart with that fact.

It is fairly easy to locate this constellation. It has a particularly bright star, Spica. And there’s a helpful motto to find it if you can locate the Big Dipper. (And I’ll assume your skies are not cloudy all night, so you Northerners can do this.)

Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica.

If you live south of the equator, you’ll need to find a different way, but Virgo is still visible to you.

See the source imageThat collection of stars around Spica is the constellation of Virgo, depicted in astronomy maps (black dot/stars on white background, presumably to save on ink) like so:

Map credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) – [1], CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15412504

Some notes on the map … The passage of that blue line, the ecliptic, designates the sun’s path through the sky. Green lines are only imaginative, connecting the brightest stars in the designated area known as “Virgo.” Dimmer stars unconnected are still considered Virgos, but they are more likely to have designations from the end of the Greek alphabet or even Arabic numbers instead of names. The red ovals are galaxies. There are uncounted billions of stars in each one. Total number of nearby galaxies in Virgo is about two-thousand. Did you know galaxies can form clusters? Like stars, these great bodies are bound together by gravity. If you extended your hand into the sky and spread out your fingers, that’s about how big the Virgo Cluster appears from Earth. However, the light from about a hundred quintillion miles away is so diffuse, you’ll need a telescope and a long-term photographic exposure to actually see them.

So, if Virgo isn’t Mary of Nazareth, who is she? It’s interesting that many cultures saw a woman in this pattern of stars. Three millennia ago, the Babylonians envisioned the goddess Shala holding an ear of grain. Perhaps something like the more modern Virgo as illustrated in 19th century Britain on this instructional card:

No idea about the wings, though.

The Greeks had a related idea. They saw Demeter in these stars. She was the mother-in-law of a more famous god, Hades, aka Pluto to the Romans. She was also associated with wheat, being the patron of agriculture. In fact, the name of the brightest star is derived from Latin for “grain of wheat.” The ancient culture of India saw similar things in these stars: a virgin goddess and wheat.

For Catholics, May is not only the month of Mary, but of celebrations of First Communion. Not so much the latter this year, I guess. But most every year. At root, Virgo is not a Christian constellation, but if any collection of stars could be coopted by Catholics, I guess this is the one.

I’ll leave off with an image of the cluster of galaxies: ESO-M87.jpg

The dark spots are where stars from our own galaxy have been edited out. So every spot of light here is millions of light years away. The largest and brightest are among the two-thousand “island universes” of the cluster. The dim ones are either small satellite galaxies of the big ones, or even more distant celestial bodies.

Pretty immense, eh?

Image credit: By Chris Mihos (Case Western Reserve University)/ESO – http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso0919a/Compare also to WikiSky DSS2 image at: http://www.wikisky.org/?ra=12.430147459292154&de=12.871871317009594&zoom=7&show_grid=1&show_constellation_lines=1&show_constellation_boundaries=1&show_const_names=0&show_galaxies=1&show_box=1&box_ra=12.513722&box_de=12.391111&box_width=50&box_height=50&img_source=DSS2Deep Virgo: Markarian’s Chain: http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=1779, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9649205

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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