second largest of all
the constellations, lies to the south of the Herdsman, Boötes,
in an area of the sky that Edwin Hubble called the Realm
of the Nebulae. Indeed, located within the triangle bounded
by Spica, Denebola in Leo, and Arcturus in Boötes are hundreds
of bright galaxies, members of the Coma-Virgo Cluster.
these are the twin elliptical galaxies M84 and M86, which Conrad
Jung has photographed in the accompanying illustration. M84 is
the westernmost of the two, and is a round, bright diffuse object,
increasing in brightness toward its center. It produced a supernova
in 1957, unusual for elliptical type galaxies. M86 is just 17
arcminutes away. This object actually has another elliptical companion
that is only about 15th magnitude. In all, Virgo is the home for
nine of the Messier objects, including the Sombrero galaxy, which
was found by his colleague Mechain after Messier had finished
his catalog. It was added to the list as M104 in the year 1784.
In Greek mythology, Virgo
is the maiden Astraea, goddess of innocence and purity, who is
the daughter of Themis, the goddess of justice. In our drawing,
the virgin is at her bath and at peace with nature; her innocence
is depicted in the friendship shown her by the birds. In most
early cultures, Virgo was almost universally associated with the
harvest. The bright star Spica is named for the Latin word meaning
wheat. Harvesting of grain was begun when Spica rose just ahead
of the Sun. When Vindemiatrix, Mistress of the Vineyard and northernmost
of Virgo's stars, first rose before the Sun, this was a signal
for the gathering of the grapes.
Few stars in Virgo's coterie
are bright. Spica is the major star, while Porrima, Vindemiatrix,
Delta Virginis and Zavijava complete the list of stars brighter
than magnitude 4. Zaniah is a variable star that shines between
magnitudes 3 and 4; it is called by the Chinese Tien Mun, Heaven's
Gate. It lies almost exactly on the celestial equator.
Continuing with Chinese
lore, we find that the star we know as Spica was the first of
the twenty-eight Houses of the Moon, which constituted the Chinese
lunar Zodiac. This was the home of the God of Long Life, Shou
Hsing. Although a god of the stars, he would come down to Earth
One time, in south China,
lived a youth named Chao Yen. His father learned from a fortune
teller that his son was slated to die before he reached the age
of nineteen. Dismayed when his father told him this news, Chao
Yen, then eighteen, burned incense at the temple and joined with
the priests in their chants of worship, but there seemed no hope,
because it was told that the span of a man's life could not be
changed once it had been written.
Shortly before his birthday,
Chao Yen went into the forest to hunt, and he killed two deer
with his keen aim with bow and arrow. Lying down to rest under
a large oak, he woke to find that nearby were two regally clad
men at a table engrossed in a game of chess. Chao Yen listened
quietly, and heard the proclamations of the men. Thirty-eight,
said one, a reasonable life, though not overlong.
He wrote something on a tablet and continued the game. Twenty-three,
he called after a few minutes, and wrote again. Much too
short! After a while, the older of the two men cried Eighty-nine.
That man will be ever thankful to me for a long life.
Chao Yen realized that
the two were playing for the lives of humans, and he stepped forward
an demanded Who are you? And what strange game is this?
The younger of the two replied in a friendly manner, I am
the spirit of Pei Tou, the Northern Dipper; and my opponent is
Shou Hsing, the God of Longevity, from the southern sky. It is
he who fixes the date of a man's birth, and I fix the date of
Chao Yen then pleaded,
You must help me. Could you not play again for my life,
for I have been told that I must die before my nineteenth birthday?
If you will help, I will be grateful until my last days. I will
bring you fine offerings, such as these two deer that I have taken,
for I am a good hunter. The two men argued, for the time
of life was unalterable, once set. But at last, they agreed to
a compromise. Pei Tou said, I cannot possibly erase the
characters written in the book of death, nor can we gamble again
for the same life, but I can reverse the characters which say
nineteen so that they say ninety, a life
long enough, certainly.
The young man threw himself
on the ground, overcome with gratitude and with joy. When he looked
up, he was alone. Even his deer were gone, and he knew then that
the gods had taken them in token. As darkness came Chao Yen looked
up and saw the stars of Shou Hsing shining brightly, and in the
north the seven stars of Pei Tou were splendid.
The constellation of Virgo
is also the location of the brightest known quasar, 3C273 Virginis,
which was instrumental in the discovery of these objects in the
early 1960s. At 13th magnitude it should be possible to find with
a telescope of above eight inch aperture. Lying three billion
light years away, it is likely the most distant object amateurs
will see in their telescopes.