Getting to know Virgo

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Aside from the smell of roasting green chiles carried on the wind, nothing serves as a harbinger of the coming New Mexico autumn quite like the arrival in astrology of Virgo, the wheat-laden maiden.

Virgo is bookended in the 12-sign zodiac by Leo and Libra but is one of 88 constellations - or patch of the night sky - that make up the map of the cosmos as seen from Earth. Virgo is the second-largest constellation in the whole sky and the largest in the zodiac.

In the astrological zodiac, this year the sun moved from Leo, a fire sign, into the earth sign of Virgo on Wednesday (Aug. 23). The sun will transit Virgo, or work its way through sign, from now until about Sept. 23. (Though the sun will mosey its way across the astronomical constellation until late October).

Virgo, a representation of a maiden with large wings who carries a bundle of ripened grain, has been a star-studded representation of most major female deities but is generally associated with Persephone, who is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and the harvest in Greek mythology. Hades, god of the underworld, abducted Persephone and in doing so caused half of the world to go into icy cold and the other half into deadly heat.

The story signals Virgo's appearance in the night sky during the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere, from April through September.

The brightest star in the Virgo, Spica (or Alpha Virginis), is the guidepost that's easiest to find in the constellation. Follow the arc of the Big Dipper's handle past the constellation Arcturus to find Spica, the maiden's grain. (The "Star Walk" app for smartphones can get you started in navigating the night sky).

That being said, it's worth noting Spica is actually a binary star system, though it appears as one star even in good telescopes. Virgo is also home to thousands of galaxies.

In astrology, Virgo is ruled by Mercury and has all the earthiness of the earth sign it is: hardworking, creative, generous and yet practical. Those born under the sign of Virgo are sometimes thought to be perfectionists, but it's more useful to think of them in terms of the harvest - adequately matured, but with threshing still to be done and seeds still to be saved.

While Virgo will soon disappear from the night sky, just as warm days will soon dissipate from the high desert, the Virgo birthday season is just getting started.

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