Friday, 24 August 2012

Star Gayzing - Virgo

You’d have thought that with the name and popular image it has Virgo’s history would be straight forward. In fact, several sexualities or gender identities have a link to this constellation.

Once again we begin with the ancient Babylonians. They represented the constellation as their goddess Sala holding an ear of barley. The appearance of the constellation signalled the beginning of the sowing season, and this idea was continued the by Ancient Greeks. They often depicted Virgo as their own corn goddess Demeter. Other goddesses, including Astraea and Dike, have been assigned to Virgo, but the name of its main star, Spica (which means “ear of grain”), gives away its origin as an agricultural constellation.

Until recently Virgo was usually pictured as a winged woman, very much in the manner of an angel. Our idea of what an angel looks like originated with the Babylonians (via Greece). Last Christmas I explained how angels are non-human, gender-neutral, eternal spirit beings, so having one to depict a constellation whose name means “virgin” seems appropriate considering they never have sex.

One of Virgo’s other stars also has a seasonal agricultural meaning. Positioned on what was once Virgo’s “right wing” (see star map) is the star Vindemiatrix (originally Vindemiator), which means “grape gatherer” and is so-called because its appearance before dawn marks the start of that years’ wine vintage.

The legend behind the name Vindemiatrix involves one pair of the many same-sex lovers in Greek mythology – Dionysos and Ampelos. Their story could easily be told in my Flower Power series, but with its emphasis on grapes and the vine it’s probably more Food and Drink than Flower Power. So I’ll tell you it here instead. It’s a story retold in the epic poem “Dionysaica” by Nonnus. It immediately precedes the story of Kalamos and Karpos. This is how it goes.

As usual it was love at first sight. Dionysos was out hunting when he met Ampelos, a young Phrygian teenager with long curly hair. Some versions of the myth (and some Greek pottery, as seen on the plate pictured below) say Ampelos was a satyr, one of Dionysos’s Pan-like attendants. They spent so much time together, playing sports and games, that the satyrs began to get jealous. When they were apart Dionysos’s heart ached and he dreamt of the boy every night.

The wrestling match between them, given in Nonnus’s “Dionysaica”, rivals the homoerotic bout in “Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence. Ampelos entered into these fun and games enthusiastically, but it was to lead to his death.

There are two different myths concerning Ampelos’s death. The oldest says that he climbed a tree to pick grapes from a vine and fell to his death. From this he earned the name Vinedmaitor and was placed as a star in the night sky by Dionysos. Ampelos is Greek for “vine”, and Vindemiator is Latin for “grape gatherer”. So the myth may have been created to suit the star’s appearance as a sign of the new vintage.

The version given by Nonnus says that Ampelos climbed onto a bull’s back to impress Dionysos with his bravery. In his youthful exuberance he called up to Selene the moon goddess boasting of being her equal in taming cattle (the moon and bulls have always been linked in Greek mythology). Selene decided to teach the boy a lesson and sent a gadfly to sting the bull. Ampelos was thrown high into the air and smashed his skull on hitting the ground. As if that wasn’t enough the bull then gored the body with its horns.

Dionysos went into pangs of deep grief and it was only Eros who could console him by recounting the story of Kalamos and Karpos.

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