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Myth Monday: Who Is the Virgo?

By September 10, 2012

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Planispheric view of the constellations of the northern sky, related to the labors of Hercules.]
Planispheric view of the constellations of the northern sky, related to the labors of Hercules.
© NYPL Digital Gallery

Liking a political pundit's quotation seems to be the current boundary ritual for new friends on social media, like Facebook, but not too long ago, the opening was "What's your sign?" People would then say things like, "Oh! you're a Pisces, no wonder you're always soaking wet." The 11th Doctor Who recently claimed he must be a Sagittarius because he's observant. Some expect a creative streak from a Virgo, which is the current sun sign. It may not surprise you to know that the figure behind Virgo comes from Classical mythology.

If you've been reading the Myth Mondays for a while, it should also come as no surprise that there is more than one possible Virgo. Virgo is connected with a major Greek god, but whether it's Demeter, Apollo, or Dionysus depends on the tradition. Probably the most popular is that it's the grain goddess Demeter or her daughter Kore/Persephone. In this connection, she is said to be holding a grain sheaf. Apollo put a girl named Parthenos (Maiden) who died too young, among the stars. The most interesting story is connected with Dionysus.

You may remember that when Dionysus arrived at his familial homeland in Thebes, his family refused to believe the story of his godhood and wouldn't honor him as was his due. His response was extremely violent. His aunts used their bare hands to tear apart his cousin, Pentheus, the ruling king. One of those aunts was Pentheus' own mother. They didn't know what they were doing because he filled them with Dionysiac ecstasy and so they weren't themselves. That didn't exonerate the mortals, of course. [See Myth Monday - Dionysus, Dismemberment, and the Origin of Humans.]

Dionysus didn't stick around long at Thebes. He went to Athens where he found welcome in the home of Icarius. Icarius had a daughter named Erigone. The pair and their dog were close. Icarios was kind to the visiting god, in return for which, the guest god taught him how to make wine.

Icarius wished to share his gift with his friends and neighbors, so he gave them some of it. They didn't know wine needed diluting, as the ancient Greeks and Romans would from then on do, so they drank it neat. You can predict the results. Inexperienced in intoxication, they couldn't understand what was happening to them. They thought he had poisoned them. Since they were drunk, they couldn't reason clearly, but angrily stoned Icarius to death.

When the neighbors regained their senses the following morning, they buried their friend. When Erigone and the dog saw what had happened, she hanged herself and the dog jumped in a well. Dionysus resurrected them as constellations: Erigone the Virgin, Icarius Bo÷tes or Arcturus, and Maera the dog-star.

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca (Greek mythographer c. 2nd century A.D.):

"Pandion became king [of Athens]. It was during his reign that Demeter and Dionysos came to Attika. Keleus welcomed Demeter to Eleusis, and Ikarios received Dionysos, who gave him a vine-cutting and taught him the art of making wine. Ikarios was eager to share the god's kindness with mankind, so he went to some shepherds, who, when they had tasted the drink and then delightedly and recklessly gulped it down undiluted, thought they had been poisoned and slew Ikarios. But in the daylight they regained their senses and buried him. As his daughter was looking for him, a dog named Maira, who had been Ikarios' faithful companion, unearthed the corpse; and Erigone, in the act of mourning her father, hanged herself."

What happened to the townspeople? Pseudo-Hyginus provides the following:
"Because of this, Father Liber [Dionysos] afflicted the daughters of the Athenians with alike punishment. They asked an oracular response from Apollo concerning this, and he told them they had neglected he deaths of Icarius and Erigone. At this reply they exacted punishment from the shepherds, and in honour of Erigone instituted a festival day of swinging because of the affliction, decreeing that through the grape-harvest they should pour libations to Icarius and Erigone."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 130


Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena


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