Are you surprised to discover that the constellation Virgo, who today is synonymous with virginity, was originally a Goddess? By mapping Virgo’s celestial identity throughout the ages this fair maiden blossoms into a complex woman with a rich history. She is so historic that we can link her lineage all the way back to ancient Sumerian culture.
Now, before we travel back across the millennia, let’s begin with who The Maiden is today. The Maiden is Virgo’s symbol and is often referred to as ‘the virgin’ in Astro-culture. Though I do not believe that this maiden was ever meant to be depicted as a chaste, and often shy, girl. Virgo’s virgin is such a commonly known misconstruction that many even interpret the Virgo glyph, or the M with the crossing semi-circle hieroglyphic, to represent the shy maiden’s legs crossing to protect her sacred flower.
From what we know about the evolution of Astrology, this maiden was reinterpreted into Virgo the virgin through centuries of Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic influence. An influence that transitioned many societies from rambunctious forms of polytheism to more reserved traditions of monotheism. Before monotheism, Hellenistic Greece held dominion after it supplanted the astronomers in ancient Mesopotamia, which was the region encompassing Babylon and Sumer where our tale begins.
When this constellation was renamed under the Latin Virgo, of which one definition is virgin, she took on quite a different connotation which I’d argue is more reflective of certain periods in history than the actual maiden herself.
Tracing Virgo Throughout The Ages
The furthest back we find Virgo is as the ancient Sumerian goddess Nisaba, the deity of writing, learning, and the harvest. She was a powerful entity whose connection to writing and learning, not to mention the harvesting of grain, associated her with some of the first historical proof of trade and business that we have in human history. Virgo, in her inception, was a businesswoman.
Scholar Joshua J. Mark describes, “Nisaba, formerly goddess of grain, became associated with writing as records […] regarding grain transactions. She also oversaw the accounts of where it was distributed. Writing developed as trade grew until Nisaba was synonymous with the concept of writing.” Her influence was so substantial that she remained a relevant figure in Mesopotamian culture from 2900–1600 B.C.E. when her name changed to Nabu.
In the 10th Century, B.C. Babylonians began referring to Virgo’s constellation as the furrow which represented their fertility goddess Shala, or Šala, holding an ear of grain. Grain was a very lucrative product in ancient Mesopotamia and a symbol of fertility. The ancient Babylonians and Sumerians got something right too. Grain, to this day, is still associated with fertility. A study released by Harvard in 2016 linked an increase in live birth rates of IVF patients to whole-grain consumption.
I digress, enter the Greek era, which scholars believe to be a very formative period in the development of Astrology. Encompassing the time periods of ancient Greece, the rise and fall of Alexander the Great, and the Greek and Roman era post-Alexander.
What’s interesting to note is most of what Western Astrology uses today is taken from this long era of Greecian Astrology and Astronomy.
During this long stretch of history, Virgo took on many names, but her overlapping themes remained pretty similar. First, I’ll start with the Greek astronomers who associated the Virgo constellation with the legend of Persephone, goddess of spring. She is also referred to as Kone, which means a beautiful maiden. Persephone represents growth while also sharing overlapping agricultural and fertility powers with her mother, the goddess Demeter.
The abridged story of Persephone is as follows:
Demeter, goddess of grain, wheat, and fertility gives birth to her pride and joy Persephone. Persephone grows up to be a beautiful young maiden, who is one day abducted by the god Hades. Madly in love with her, Hades makes Persephone his Queen and co-ruler of The Underworld. Missing the sun and her mother, Persephone goes on a hunger strike, only eating six seeds during her time in the Underworld. (Though according to legend she did fall in love with Hades.)
Demeter, enraged by her daughter's absence, refuses to allow any harvest to flower so long as her daughter remains in captivity. As a compromise, Zeus decreed that Persephone would be allowed to return home each year and help her mother with the harvest. However, since she ate six seeds when she claimed to have eaten nothing, Persephone would be required to spend six months of every year in the underworld with her husband Hades.
This myth was used to explain the cycle of seasons, from prosperous spring to dry winter.
The Virgo constellation became connected to Persephone because, like the spring goddess, Virgo’s stars are most visible six months out of the year. Usually in May.
Really, Persephone’s story is just a reiteration of an ancient Sumerian tale. One day, Sumerian Goddess Ishtar found out that her husband Tammuz, the God of The Harvest, was trapped in the underworld. Ishtar is the goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, and (not to be forgotten) war. A Jacqueline of all trades if there ever was one. Ishtar is also a previous reiteration of Virgo.
Along with these powerful deities is the Egyptian goddess Isis, or The Great Mother, who is another Virgoan predecessor. Isis was one of the most revered deities in antiquity. Worshiped throughout the ancient world so devoutly that she is still relevant in 21st-century folklore and in modern pagan religions. Her name means throne and her divine dexterity lives up to such a name.
Isis was revered as a magical healer who could bring the dead back to life and as a mother almost as powerful as Earth itself.
Her connection to the afterlife was so profound that she was also known as a mourner who would be specifically called upon when it came to the rites of the dead. Daughter of the earth and sky, Isis earned the hearts of humanity because of her fairness and generosity to the Egyptian people. Then, she grew in fame and power through her love and devotion to Osiris. Osiris was King of Egypt until his brother hacked his body to pieces and scattered him all over the land. Isis searched far and wide until she pieced her love back together, using her divine feminine power to breathe life into Osiris.
Legend has it that the only body part Isis couldn’t find was Osiris’ penis. No matter, she is The Great Mother after all. So she simply made him a new one. How is that for a Virgo?
In fact, between ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, this story has been re-worked many, many times. One of love, motherhood, power, violence, and fertility. Then, Virgo added another virtue to her repertoire.
Perhaps Virgo grew tired of the abductions and murder. (If only we could ask one of her famous antecedents!) Or maybe Virgo is just 100% that bitch, but somewhere along the line, Virgo became a Goddess of Justice. At this point, Virgo is referred to as the Greco-Roman Goddess Dike, a diety defined by justice, moral order, and fair judgment.
She also takes on the name Astraea, and here we taste the first sprinkles of chastity.
Astraea is the virgin goddess of innocence, purity, precision, and justice. One of the final gods to live amongst human beings, she leaves mankind when she becomes disturbed by how wicked humanity as become. Once in the heavens, she relaxes into the constellation now called Virgo. Legend has it that Astraea plans to someday return to Earth and bring a golden age with her when she does. However, her story does not end here.
About six-hundred years later Astraea experiences a cultural re-birth during the European Renaissance. It began when the English people began to associate the virgin goddess with their virgin Queen, Elizabeth the First. Only four years after the Queen’s death, french novelist Honoré d’Urfé would begin publishing a very popular series about the deity called L’Astrée. This famous series showered the goddess in admiration from 1607 to 1627. It didn’t end there. Astraea continued to remain culturally relevant until 1667 when John Milton mentioned her in his famous Paradise Lost.
This resurgence would make the ancient goddess pertinent enough to receive cameos in celebrated poems and stories until the 20th century when Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Astræa in 1904.
Astraea, like her divine Virgoan sisters, could not be ignored. Still, her purity began to shape a very specific definition of femininity. It feels like a sharp turn from the deities that came before her, no? After several millennia as a powerful goddess of fertility, strength, justice, and harvest Virgo becomes suddenly chaste.
We can’t blame Astraea, it isn’t her fault us mere mortals liked to talk about her. Nor can we blame her for the fact that only one of her many attributes was singled out so heavily. Actually, if we want to adequately dive into this inquiry we’ll need to shift our history lesson over to the scholarship of etymology, or the study of words, as well as religious influence.
Many famous Greek goddesses are casually referred to as ‘virgins’ today. However, the word for ‘virgin’ in ancient Greece was not used to signify chastity. In modern times, one is hard-pressed to not find the term ‘virgin’ as the dominating definition for this ancient term. However, the ancient word often associated with Greek goddesses actually meant ‘a young, unmarried woman; a maiden.’
The Greek word in question is παρθένος, or parthénos, and in ancient Greece this adjective was actually describing an unmarried maiden. Which would make sense considering the word maiden pops up all throughout Virgo’s rich history, meanwhile virgin only begins to appear around a certain time period.
It is even more convincing when we remember that all of the parthénos women I mentioned, with the exception of Astraea, are goddesses of fertility. Why would a goddess of fertility be a virgin? Moreover, these ancient goddesses really enjoyed sex. Isis literally made her lover a new penis when he lost his old one.
Today, of course, this term is very difficult to trace. In fact, if you look up the etymology of parthénos the only definitions that come up relate to purity, chastity, and virginity. Then, in a small corner there a link to παρθένος, which is how you spell parthénos with the ancient Greek alphabet. Only there does it show how the ancient word’s definition previously meant an unmarried maiden.
Another indicator that the original meaning of parthénos is an unmarried woman comes from the Bible and Torah. These monotheistic traditions overlap with Greek history and were deeply influenced by the preceding polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the Torah, which is also the First Testament of the Bible, the Hebrew word Almah is used to describe many women. It is now highly agreed among scholars that the word almah, which was commonly translated to mean virgin, actually meant an unmarried, young girl.
Then, we are greeted by Latin, which was influenced by the Hebrew before it. Now, keeping with the history lesson we have now jumped from Greek and Roman astronomy to Western Astrology. Western Astrology deviated from the rich history of goddesses. So, sadly, we leave those brilliant maidens behind.
Western Astrology is a horoscopic tradition that focuses on the planets and stars cosmic alignment with our births. If you look up the etymology of the word Virgo, a curious thing happens. First, you’ll find a mantra of virgin, virgin, virgin. Then, tucked away in the history of the word reads another definition. Virgo is also Latin for a young, unmarried girl.
It would be a wildly uncanny coincidence to overlook how ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew, and Latin all have this same co-mingling when it comes to the definition of virgin and a young, unmarried girl. As is common knowledge, religious history has slid over several thousand years from hedonistic to puritanical. So it isn’t a far stretch to see how, ‘young, unmarried girl’ morphed into, ‘virgin’ as traditions changed over the centuries.
It is also important to note the significance of how goddess’s of fertility suddenly became virgins. Being a virgin is quite the opposite experience of being an expert in fertility.
In fact, one could argue that taking a goddess of fertility and re-imagining her as a virgin is akin to neutering a fertility goddess.
Frankly, fertility has a complicated history.
Controlling birth means controlling populations. Mid-wife scholar Phyllis L. Brodsky is just one of many who have traced the decline of women being educated about birth. A societal shift that also led to generations of women being educated out of knowledge about their own bodies. Brodsky explains:
“In past centuries, only women attended women in childbirth. Birthing women were in control, choosing who should attend them and where and how to give birth.”
However, power and ideals shifted over time. So did the people who wanted to be in control of birth and the population. Brodsky continues:
“Eventually, with the medicalization of childbirth, male physicians became involved, introducing new techniques that interfered with the normal birth process.” Women were, “eventually usurped in the early 20th century,” by men who had taken over as the authorities of birth, fertility, and women's bodies.
This trend is slowly reversing, but the virgin-washing of famous deities seemed to be a casualty of this transition.
Looking through all this history we can see a pattern. Latin took over as a dominant language supplanting Hebrew. Hebrew, of course, was one of the founding languages that solidified monotheism and dispelled the Greek traditions of polytheism. Before Hebrew, Greek had replaced the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian languages. Somewhere along the journey parthénos, almah and Virgo became one thing: a virgin.
Regardless, as a lover of Astrology, I must protest. Virgo’s symbol is not the virgin. The natural characteristics of this sign are not purity, innocence, and chastity. Those born between August 23rd and September 22nd do not naturally abstain from pleasure. Nor, do they strive towards ideals of purity.
First and foremost, Virgo’s are independent and self-resilient.
In fact, the Latin meaning of virgin means “to be self-sufficient and self-contained.” It was not always synonymous with sexual abstinence, which is just one way a person can be self-sufficient or self-contained.
This ability to rely on oneself is much more on point with the innate personality of those born under Virgo. It is important for a Virgo to know that she, they, or he can take care of their own needs. That they are, in fact, self-sufficient. Virgos are most empowered when their house (metaphorically) is in order. The stereotype that Virgos are excessively orderly actually refers to their mind. Not their physical space.
A Virgo can live in chaos, and to the untrained eye it may seem like everything is all over the place, but trust, she knows where everything is. Sometimes, of course, Virgos are tidy too.
Either way, Virgos are sturdy in their nature, and that self-sufficiency is important. It is what allows them to be so loyal and giving. Acts of service are a big part of this zodiac’s identity. That same giving yet independent nature makes Virgos some of the most profound creatives and successful entrepreneurs. Many of the greatest artists and leaders in history are Virgos.
Paradoxically, Virgos are often humble, and private. Do not mistake that for purity or innocence though. A fully evolved Virgo who has accepted who they are is arguably the most sexual sign in the zodiac. Yup, they are more sexual than Scorpios, but that article will have to wait for another day.
The Virgo glyph, as I mentioned, is often thought to represent a woman crossing her legs. Actually it is more likely representing the two snakes of the caduceus. Also commonly known as the medical symbol. Virgo’s are ruled by the digestive system. They are naturally drawn to health, wellness, and nutrition. Moreover, Virgos operate out of the sixth house which is strongly associated with health and wellbeing. These themes, not-so-coincidentally, strongly align with the history of goddesses who have shared in Virgo’s celestial identity.
The maiden, an independent yet sturdy wild card. A woman whose cup runneth over with knowledge about health and wellness. A powerful, creative leader. This is the maiden Virgo, and as an autonomous being, she can remain a virgin for as long as she pleases. However, this is in no way indicative of Virgo’s dynamic and thunderous nature.
Nadège is a sexuality scholar and spiritual mentor who uses her knowledge to bring warmth to heavy topics. Stay up to date with all her sexy new discoveries here.