The "Lady Y" in the Sky

In the West, designating ownership has always been a straightforward affair: you own it, you brand it. Letters and shapes emblazoned on countless bovine rumps told a rancher what was his—and earned many a careless rustler an appointment with a rope.

Nobody owns the sky, but we also find emblazoned there any number of patterns that would make dandy brands. There’s the “Crooked W” (Cassiopeia) in the north, and the “Burly H” (Hercules) appearing in summer; the “Bar 3” (Orion’s Belt) shows up in winter, and the “Box High” (the Great Square of Pegasus) in the fall. Spring’s brand is the “Lazy Y,” but we might better call it the “Lady Y,” for this pattern of stars, nicely seen in the southeast by the middle evenings of middle spring, is none other than Virgo the Virgin and a proper lady to boot.

Her stars are modestly bright except for one. You can find it by tracing the arc of the Big Dipper’s crooked handle to the bright star Arcturus in Bootes (the “Crazy Kite”) and then continuing the arc to a bright star below it. This is Spica, a blue-white sun considerably bigger and brighter than our own located some 260 light years distant. Spica marks the bottom of the Y-shape; trace the pattern of stars up the stem to the open arms, and you’ve got the letter. The right arm of the “Y” marks Virgo’s head and neck; the left arm of the letter traces one of the lady’s arms, and the stem traces her other arm with Spica at her hand. Find some stars extending out leftward from the “Y” to make Virgo’s dress, and there you have her: the lady of the springtime sky.

To the Greeks, she was Dike, the goddess of justice who lived on the Earth among humans during the fabled Golden Age of the world, a time of endless springtime and peace. But when the Silver Age arrived and humankind began to take a turn for the worse, Dike turned her back on them to dwell in the mountains. By the time the boorish Bronze Age arrived and then the violent Iron, Dike gave up on Earth-dwellers altogether and fled into the heavens, where she can be seen today among the stars of Virgo, shaking her head and fiddling the scales of justice with her toes—for Libra the scales lies just eastward at her feet.

The Greeks also gave Virgo another role to play: that of Persephone, the lovely daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. It seems that one bright day, while Persephone was gathering flowers in a meadow, she was spied by Hades, god of the Underworld, out on his morning chariot ride. Infatuated, Hades snatched Persephone from among the daisies and carried her below to his realm. Demeter was considerably put out by this, and when Hades refused to return his prize, she retired to her palace and sulked, neglecting her duties. Soon the weeds, pests, and vagaries of weather took over and the crops began to fail.

At that point, Zeus, king of the gods, intervened and asked his brother Hades to put Persephone back where he’d found her. But once a body ate something in the Underworld, it seemed that they couldn’t permanently return above ground. As it happened, Persephone, feeling peckish after her abduction, had snacked on some pomegranate seeds—and rules were rules. But in a Solomon-like effort, Zeus struck a bargain among the aggrieved parties: for six months of the year, Persephone would have to stay in the Underworld with her husband Hades; for the other six months, she could return to the world above to be with her mother. And the agreement is still in place today.

From March through August, we can find Persephone/Virgo in the evening sky—above ground and with her mother, who’s happy then and tends her Earthly garden, bringing spring and summer. But for the other half of the year when Virgo can’t be seen in the evening, she’s below with Hades. Then Demeter is sad, and the land withers and sleeps its fall and winter sleep.

As Virgo goes, so go the seasons, the “Lady Y” stamping her brand on the endless cycle of renewal on the Earth. This particular spring, Jupiter (Zeus) sits at her shoulder in the middle of the “Y,” as if to make sure that the bargain still holds. It does, and with Virgo’s appearance comes the promise of spring. Enjoy!