The constellation of Virgo conceptually originates in Mesopotamia, where the constellation Šerˀu, ‘the Furrow’ (corresponding to Virgo), was equated with the goddess Šala and her ear of grain (akk. šubultu) in an influential compendium from around 1000 BCE conventionally known as MUL.APIN. The Akkadian name šubultu, now pronounced Šumbulta, is in fact still used for the constellation in the Mandaic language*, and also serves as the name for the eighth month of the Mandaean calendar.
(*Mandaic being the dialect of Aramaic used by the Mandaean community, which is indigenous to Southern Mesopotamia; the language as a result contains significant Akkadian substrate.)
In the Greek tradition, and subsequently many modern languages, it is the most brilliant star in the constellation that is known as ‘ear of grain’ (lat. Spica, gr. Stákhys). The constellation as a whole was in antiquity sometimes explained as Demeter, probably in translation of Šala.
However, the constellation’s name in Aramaic (other than Mandaic), Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and so on is “virgin” (aram. Bathulta, gr. Parthénos, lat. Virgo), which fits neither with Šala nor Demeter. As such, the constellation has its own definite profile regardless of any equations with more prominent deities.
I am not very well-read in astrology or astronomy, so I will leave those aspects of Virgo to others. Here, I translate ancient texts in which she is discussed as a goddess. For now, I restrict myself to Greek and Latin sources, which to a large extent revolve around the astronomical poem Phaenomena, written by Aratus of Soli. He wrote the most prominent mythical account of Virgo, according to which she is the goddess Justice, who once dwelled among humanity, but later removed to the stars when we became too hostile to justice.
(I wanted to say something about the origin of the astrological symbol for Virgo – written as ♍︎ today –, but it is deeply obscure.)
2 A poem about Virgo from 2nd-century Roman Britain
Next to the Lion¹ (Leo) is the Virgin (Virgo) in her celestial seat,²
Holding an ear of grain,³ the inventress of just acts, the foundress of cities.⁴
By their gifts, one can know the gods;
Thus, she is the Mother-of-Gods, Peace, Virtue, Ceres, and
The Syrian Goddess,⁵ weighing life and laws in her scale.⁶
The constellation which is seen in Heaven, Syria handed down
To Libya to be worshipped; and from there, we have all learned of her.⁷
This is what, led by your divine power,
Marcus Caecilius Donatianus has understood,
Who serves as tribune in the post of prefect by gift of the emperor.⁸
1: The constellation Virgo borders that of Leo; perhaps the poet, M. Caecilius Donatianus, is also alluding to iconographic associations of the Mother-of-Gods or (Virgo) Caelestis with the lion.
2: The phrase Virgo caelesti situ calls to mind the name of the goddess Virgo Caelestis. That our poet is equating Virgo the constellation and the goddess Caelestis is spelled out later.
3: The ear of grain is typical of Virgo’s iconography, and ambiguously connects her to goddesses depicted with it, namely Justice, Peace and Ceres. Our poet affirms all these identifications simultaneously, as we will see, and this line can easily be read as being about either Justice (as I do in the following note), the Peace which comes from and brings about Justice, or “law-bringing (lat. legifera) Ceres”, as Vergil calls her. On this Vergilian expression, Servius comments: “because she is said to have invented laws; and her rites are even called thesmophoria (gr. ‘law-bringing’). But the reason for this invention is that before grain was discovered (or ‘invented, revealed’) by Ceres, humans often used to roam without law; this wildness was ended by the discovery of the use of grains, after which laws were created from the division of fields.”
4: Although it may seem redundant to say that Justice discovered or invented justice, “invention” is simply a common way of expressing the relationship between a deity and their domain; a fuller expression may be to say that the goddess Justice is responsible for teaching just action to humanity. Likewise, Justice/Virgo did not literally found cities, but justice (like peace) is foundational to civic life.
5: These identifications with various deities, including the Syrian Goddess, do not reflect a philosophy or cult, nor any local tradition, but rather literary or grammatical learning, as the next sections will make clear. They are an encapsulation of mainstream learning taught in schools across the Greco-Roman world, especially through Aratus, one of the most important poets of the ancient world.
6: The scale (lanx) refers to the balance (libra) that is part of Justice’s iconography. But Virgo is also next to the constellation of Libra, an association surely also being played upon.
7: The constellation Virgo is visible in Heaven, but the worship of the Virgo Caelestis was centered on Roman Africa (here called Libya), i.e., the modern Maghreb countries, and spread from there. The local Punic population traced itself back to Phoenicia (part of Greater Syria), so our poet is probably alluding to Phoenician traditions, where the (more or less) same goddess was called Astarte (unless the reference is again to the Syrian Goddess, who is distinct from Astarte).
8: Perhaps because of this reference to the emperor, this poem has been read to be “really in honour of Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of the Libyan, or African, emperor Septimius Severus” (off-site link). This reading, frankly, is absurd. The poem is about many things at once, to be sure, but not about a human woman, not even one honored as divine.
Text (RIB 1791)
Imminet Leoni Virgo caelesti situ
Spicifera, iusti inventrix, urbium conditrix.
Ex quis muneribus nosse contigit deos;
Ergo eadem Mater Divum, Pax, Virtus, Ceres,
Dea Syria, lance vitam et iura pensitans.
In caelo visum Syria sidus edidit
Libyae colendum: inde cuncti didicimus.
Ita intellexit, numine inductus tuo,
Marcus Caecilius Donatianus, militans
Tribunus in praefecto, dono principis.
3 Virgo in the Catasterisms ascribed to Eratosthenes and the Astronomica ascribed to Hyginus
From the Catasterisms (‘making-into-constellations’), chapter 1.9, a work in Greek (a Latin translation is contained in one strand of the so-called Germanicus scholia):
“Of Virgo (Parthénou).
“Hesiod, in the Theogony, said that she is the daughter of Zeus and Themis, and that she is called Dike (Justice); and Aratus, who took the account (historía) from him, says that she was (already) immortal before (she became a constellation), and lived on Earth with humans, and they used to call her Dike; but when they changed and no longer kept to what is just, she was no longer with them, and withdrew from them into the mountains. Then, when there were civil conflicts and wars among them, she left for Heaven out of her complete hatred for injustice.
“But there are also many other accounts (lógoi) about her; for some say that she is Demeter, since she holds an ear of grain, others Isis, some Atargatis, others again Tyche (Fortune); for that reason they also configure her as headless.
“She contains the following stars: 1 dim one on her head; 1 on either shoulder; 2 in either wing – and the one in the right wing, between the shoulder and the highest point of the wing, is called Vindemiatrix (Protrygētḗr); 1 on either elbow; one at either far point of her hand – and the bright one, on the left, is called Spica (Stákhys, ‘ear of grain’); six dim ones at the bottom of her tunic; 1 dim one [words lost]; 1 on either foot; 20 in all.”
From Astronomica 2.25, a Latin work:
“Hesiod says she is the daughter of Jupiter and Themis; but Aratus, that she is considered the daughter of Astraeus and Aurora (Dawn); she lived at the time of the Golden Age of humanity, and he shows that she was their ruler. Because of her diligence and equity, she was called Justice (lat. Iustitita). At that time, no foreign nations were attacked by people, nor did anyone use a ship, but they were in the habit of spending their lives in tending to the fields. But those who were born after the death of these, people were less dutiful, and began to become more covetous, which is why Justice had less dealings with people. She remained in that state until the time when the Bronze Age of humanity began. Then, she could no longer bear it and flew up to the stars.
“But others have called her Fortune, others Ceres, and there is especially no agreement among them, because her head appears very dim. Some have said that she is Erigone, the daughter of Icarus, about whom we have spoken above (in the section about Boötes, Astronomica 2.4). But others say that she was the daughter of Apollo and Chrysothemis, and that she was called by the name Parthenos (‘virgin, i.e., Virgo’) from infancy; and because she died when still little, she was placed among the stars by Apollo.”
4 Virgo in the Phaenomena of Aratus and the scholia
[introducion; discuss Arabic testimony of Biruni
Hesiod, Works and Days 172ff
Ovid, Met. 1.148ff; Valerius Flaccus, Statius, Nonnus]
5 Aratus, Phaenomena 96–136
6 Germanicus, Aratea 96–146
7 Avienius, Phaenomena 273–366
8 Latin scholia (Basileensia)
9 Greek scholia on Aratus
Scholia on lines 96–97
Scholium #1 (MDΔKVUAS)
“Virgo.” Under the two feet of Boötes is Virgo; Spica (Stákhys) is on her left hand, first in size, when he also (calls it) “dazzling”.
Scholium #2 (S)
Virgo fills her own twelfth (of the zodiac), and in addition has her feet in the house of the Claws (i.e., Libra).
Scholium #3 (MKVUAS)
Why does she hold an ear of grain? Because agriculture is most pious.
Scholium #4 (Q)
Scholium #5 (MQDΔKVUA)
About Virgo. “Virgo.” […]
Scholium #6 (Q)
Scholium #7 (Q)
Scholium #8 (Q Aratus Latinus)
Scholium #9 (Q)
Scholium #10 (Q)
Scholium #11 (Q)
Others give the myth that she is Tyche (Fortune), because she bears a dim star on her head;¹ others, Demeter, because she especially holds an ear of grain in her head.
1: Because Fortune is obscure and unforeseeable?
Scholium #12 (S)
Hesiod says in the Theogony that she is the daughter of Zeus and Themis,¹ and that she is called Dike. But Aratus, who took this account from him, says that was (already) immortal before (she became a constellation), and lived on Earth with humans. She could not be seen by men, but only by women.² But there are also different account accounts about her. Some says she is Demeter, others Isis, others again Tyche; for that reason they also configure her as headless.
She has the following stars: 1 dim one on her head; 2 on either wing; 1 on either elbow; 6 on the bottom of her tunic; 1 on either foot.
1: The manuscripts have Artemis, obviously a scribal error.
2: This is not in Aratus.
Scholia on line 97
Scholium #1 (MDΔKVUA)
“In her hands she holds Spica (‘an ear of grain’).” […]
Scholium #2 (Q)
Scholium #3 (S)