The Constellation Virgin (Virgo - Vir)

We are about to analyze another zodiacal constellation, that is one of the twelve constellations included in a band straddling the imaginary line (the ecliptic) crossed by the Sun on the celestial vault in the course of a year. The constellation is very vast and the Sun crosses it in more than a month and a half.

the Sun in the constellation of Virgin

From the photomontage obtained with Stellarium, we can in fact see that the Sun enters the constellation on September 16th and only comes out on October 30th, bringing its brightest star, Spiga (α Vir), closer in its path. To find this last star and therefore the whole constellation, we suggest to start from the rudder of the Big Dipper (the Big Dipper), follow the arc formed by the three stars to reach a very bright star (Arturo, the α of the constellation of Bootes) and continue with the same arc to reach Spiga. Once we learn this trick, we can also teach it to our friends, to whom we will tell, among other things, why the bright star we meet first is called Arcturus (a fact that always triggers a good hilarity among those present ...): in a few episodes we will meet Bootes, the Guardian of the Bear (which happens to say Arktouros in Greek ...)

The name, the history, the myth

Constellation of the Virgin, mythology

The constellation Virgo is a zodiacal constellation and as such, hosting from time to time Moon, Sun and planets, it is known since very ancient times.

Most of the sources describing Virgo refer to the Assyrian-Babylonian culture. The constellation has always been attributed to the feminine nature and especially associated with the conflictual relationship between fertility and purity, according to threads that paradoxically intertwine in the myth. The Babylonians connected the Virgin to the goddess Ishtar, also known as Ashtoreth or Astarte; the latter is the forerunner of Eostre, Saxon goddess of fertility and spring whose feast is at the origin of our Easter, at a time of year when the Virgin shines high in the evening sky.

A myth about Ishtar tells how the goddess descended into the underworld to find her deceased, the god of masses Tammuz, but remained unjustified there; her absence would have made the earth barren, so much so that the gods would free her. The story recalls the story of the beautiful Persephone (Proserpine for the Romans), kidnapped by Hades (Pluto) and taken to the world of the underworld; in a version of the myth, the mother Demeter (Ceres) destroys the crops, she is represented with an ear in her hand, even if the possible mythological interpretations are varied.

For the Egyptians, the Virgin was the goddess Isis, and Spica, the ear of wheat that the goddess carried with her, whose grains she lost while fleeing from a monster, Typhoon. The grains were dispersed and deposited in the sky, sprouting in the stars that we see every night.

Returning to Greek myths, with the Virgin should identify Erigon, the daughter of King Icarius, who hosted Dionysus who taught him to distil wine, for this myth we refer to the one associated with the constellation of Bootes. Erigon discovered that his father had been murdered, he searched for his body, buried by the murderers under a tree. The poor girl hanged herself from it. The merciless gods then placed her in the sky among the stars.

Nearby stars

In the introduction I had anticipated that in Virgo there are several nearby stars: for this reason it is better to use a table with the distance in light years, the name of the star with the link to the image of Celestia (which allows you to see the Sun standing near the star in question) and finally its spectral class. Let's analyze them starting from the first one, keeping an eye on the table.

Ross 128 (belonging to the Ross catalogue of the nearest stars) is a red dwarf (it seems almost a play on words!) very weak, eleventh magnitude, one-fifth the size of our Sun: vice versa, since our yellow dwarf is 5 times bigger, we can expect it to appear brighter. In fact my friends Centoventottini see it of second magnitude, lost in a zone of sky devoid of other bright stars. Same situation observing the Sun from the pair of stars Gliese 473A and B (also known as Wolf 424A and B): it appears of third magnitude, near Diphda, of our constellation of the Whale.

From the area of the star GL Vir the Sun already appears of fourth magnitude and is seen close to the usual Diphda, but also to better known stars such as Fomalhaut and Alpha Centauri. To emphasize once again that space is three-dimensional and that nearby stars can provide very different perspective alignments, we see that from star 61 Vir the Sun (of fourth magnitude abundant) now has Sirius, and the pair Hamal-Sheratan of Aries, Algenib and Alpheratz as neighbors.
From the stars β Vir, DT Vir and γ Vir instead the Sun is already of fifth magnitude and in the zone of sky we still find Diphda and Fomalhaut, but also Sirius, Altair and Raccoon, these last three very bright and celestial neighbors.

If you want to make comparisons between the star fields visible from these stars, I suggest you to download on your PC the image files to be able to quickly switch from one image to another, to better understand how the stars of the star field move, how some of them disappear in favor of others that appear as if by magic.

I remember that obviously all these are simulations, but they are very close to what you should see in reality, if and when you really have the opportunity to go to each of the stars mentioned above: of course you will have to put yourself at a distance that does not end up roasted in a few nanoseconds.

Deep sky objects

Now instead let's move on to reality, to what the sky shows to the powerful eye of the HST (remember that clicking on each photo you can see the most detailed version): choosing among the many objects visible in a constellation is always very reductive, even more so in the case of the Virgin.

In this constellation there is what is called the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, a gigantic agglomeration of galaxies, which is part of our intergalactic "neighborhood": discovered in 1781, its true nature of a set of distinct galaxies was only proved in 1920. More than 2000 galaxies are part of this cluster, among them several already discovered by Messier (galaxies M49, 58, 59, 60, 61, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 90, 91, 98, 99 and 100). Choosing between these 16 was difficult and I opted for half.

Let's start with M49, an elliptical galaxy that appears to be overexposed...

the galaxy M49

instead M58 shows itself and its spiral structure

the galaxy M58

The M59 object is another elliptical galaxy...

the galaxy M59

as well as the galaxy M60

the galaxy M60

Instead with M61 we finally see a beautiful spiral galaxy, with a central nucleus and arms departing from it.

the galaxy M61

M87, on the other hand, is an elliptical galaxy from which a jet is emitted...

the galaxy M87

M90 is another spiral galaxy seen from an angled perspective.

the galaxy M90

and finally M104, otherwise known as the Sombrero Galaxy, is a beautifully cut galaxy seen

the galaxy M104 Sombrero

Big stars

comparison of the Virgin's stars with other stars

The analysis of the comparative diagram between Virgo's stars and others already encountered along the way, shows that in this constellation there are not very big stars, but rather several stars between 50 and 100 times our Sun, almost all of spectral class M (i.e. red giants) and one of class K3 (65 Vir), while I added two more stars below 50x, just because finally they are not the "usual" red giants: we have in fact 50 Vir of class K5 big 41 times the Sun (yellowish-orange coloration, like Aldebaran) and ι Vir (38 times) of spectral class F7 and therefore white-yellowish coloration.

σ 10 UA Vir

Since it exceeds 100 times our Sun, the star σ Vir is worth a visit, also to greet my colleagues Sigvirgini: from 10 UA (the distance of the Sun from Saturn) this star exceeds 5° in diameter and therefore it is bright and as always threatening to those who get too close. Let's hope my Omegavirian friends won't be offended if I say that their star (ω Vir, almost exactly the same size as the previous one) is practically identical and the photo of Celestia would be almost a useless duplication!

Representations over time

Let us now see the Virgin as she was represented in antiquity and in more recent times. Hevelius (after the usual operation of mirror manipulation of the image) shows a character with a large pair of wings: practically an angel!

the Virgin according to Hevelius

Same thing for the Uranometry, but the angel is seen in front of it.

Virgo in Uranometry

Much younger, prosperous and without wings, appears instead the Virgin according to Stellarium

the Virgin according to Stellarium
the Virgin's stamp

Since we are talking about a constellation belonging to the Zodiac, I also add the 10 lire stamp issued by the Republic of S.Marino in the 70s and concerning the 12 constellations of the Zodiac: in this case the maiden is represented in silhouette, with flowing hair.

Names of the stars

In this case, the names of the stars were inspired mostly by rural, rural motifs...

  • Ear (α Vir): Latin name, the ear of wheat
  • Zavijah (β Vir): the angle, the canton
  • Porrima (γ Vir): name of a Latin goddess who presided over childbirth, where the unborn child would be born in the right position: since the constellation is Virgo, it seems very strange to talk about childbirth...
  • Minelauva (δ Vir): an English text refers to 'the barker', the barker or the barker. I don't know which one to choose...
  • Vindemiatrix (ε Vir): the grape harvester
  • Heze (ζ Vir): unknown meaning
  • Zaniah (η Vir): another corner or canton
  • Syrma (ι Vir): the train of the dress
  • Algafar I and II and φ Vir): the tuft or flake in the lion's mane (which one?)
  • Kambalia (λ Vir): Coptic word which stands for curved claw (maybe of the lion, but which one?).
  • Rigilawwa (72 Vir): the leg of the "barker" from before, who is therefore a barker

What the birth, a barker and a lion (perhaps the one in the constellation next door) have to do with it is not known. But even the two corners are quite mysterious: so much for the rustic names! Anyway, these are the only ones used: the others I found here and there on the internet and they are never used.

The visibility of the Virgin

The constellation of Virgo begins to rise exactly in the East, at 9 p.m., in the first days of February, culminating in the South at the beginning of August.
It ends its cycle of visibility in the summer sky around the beginning of September, when its last stars (the maiden's feet) are low on the western horizon.

Audio Video The Constellation Virgin (Virgo - Vir)
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