During the Golden Age, Greek mythology tells us, the immortals and humans lived together on Earth. As time passed, and the Bronze and Iron Ages came, humans became less moral, and finally during the Iron Age (according to Ovid) Astraea, the only Immortal who still lived on Earth, fled to the heavens:
“Last [of the Ages of Men] came the Race of Iron (Proles Ferro). In that hard age of baser vein all evil straight broke out, and honour fled and truth and loyalty, replaced by fraud, deceit and treachery and violence and wicked greed for gain . . . Honour and love lay vanquished, Astraea, virgin divine, the last of the immortals, fled away.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses I. 148)
According to Pseudo-Hyginus’ Astronomica (2. 25) she went into the sky as the constellation Virgo, her brightest star, Spica, a symbol of her own purity and a promise of her return when the new Golden Age should come:
Hesiod says this figure is Themis, the daughter of Jupiter, but Aratus says she is the daughter of Astraeus and Aurora, and that she reigned over the human race during the Golden Age of mankind. Because of her diligence and fairness she was called Iustica [“Justice”]. At that time no neighbouring nations were provoked to war by others, nor was any transport utilized, since the human race cultivated the fields for its livelihood. But after the death of that generation, those who were born became less dutiful and more greedy. And so Justice withdrew from among men. Finally, the calamity came to such a point that the bronze race of men was born. And she, unable to bear any more, flew up to the stars. (Condos: 206)
Note that this version has Astraea leave during the Bronze Age, unlike Ovid’s version.
The constellation next to hers, Libra the Scales, was the symbol of another goddess, Dike or Justica, who was closely associated with Astraea. The Wikipedia entry says that the Justice card in the Tarot represents Astraea, but I think that the Star, showing a naked woman pouring water on earth and sea, is much closer to her symbolism, her star a symbol of hope and her nakedness of the innocence and purity of Astraea. (Perhaps we could see Justice as Astraea/Dike now, clothed and judging, while the Star shows her in the new Golden Age.)
Like most Greek deities, Astraea has several origins. She is the daughter of either Zeus and Themis, which would make her parents the divine judge and the goddess of divine order. Another version names the dawn-goddess Eos and another stellar god, Astreus as her parents. (There is another star-goddess, Asteria, who was Hecate’s mother. As you might expect, she is a very different personality and I will cover her in another post.)
Like the astrological sign, Astraea is a virgin goddess, although as the fifth sign of the zodiac she rules the harvest season: Aug. 23 and Sept. 22. The other goddesses suggested for Virgo, Persephone and Erigone, were also maidens, so presumably this was normal in the Classical world.
Nor is Astraea alone in her starry abode: 26 exoplanets, 20 stars, and 12 or more Messier objects make up the constellation Virgo. Spica, its brightest star, means “ear of wheat” and Virgo is usually shown holding one in her hand. (And yes, Spica is another one of those double stars.)
PS – To find Spica in the sky, look for the Big Dipper (or Plough) and sight from the end of its handle to the bright star Arcturus, and follow this arc over to Spica.
Condos, Theony 1997: Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook, Phanes Press.
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