Modern language sometimes does some very funny things with words and concepts that come from the pre-Christian era. For example, take the Latin word virgo. It’s usually interpreted as virgin, with all its sexual implications. So that the typical Virgo portrayed in popular astrology is virginal, i.e., prudish or inhibited or sexually cool. One need only look at some well-known film personalities born under Virgo, like Sophia Loren and Jacqueline Bisset and Sean Connery, to feel a little silly about equating Virgo with a lack of sexual interest or appeal. But more of that later. Let’s go back to what the word virgo once meant. It had, in fact, nothing to do with sexual virginity, but simply meant intact, self-contained. The great mythical figure that stands behind Virgo is the Great Goddess, the Magna Mater, and she was no virgin. In fact she is often portrayed in myth as the Great Harlot, the fecund one. There is a magnificent statue of the virgin goddess Artemis, one of many names for the Great Goddess, portrayed with fifty breasts to show that she represents the nurturer and giver of life to all of life. But she is virgo in the sense that she is self-possessed, her own person. In early mythology, from which we inherit the figure of the Virgin Goddess, before the Hellene invasion from the north into the agricultural civilizations of the Aegean in around 2000 B.C., the goddess did not owe her powers on her status to a divine husband as we see her in later mythology. She ruled alone, self-contained, husbandless, yet offering her femininity freely as she chose. She was the consort of all life. This is a clue to the deepest meaning of Virgo: the ultimate goal of this apparently humble sign is nothing less than the self-possessed psyche, the person who integrated within himself and can therefore give freely because he need not fear losing himself in another. He can choose life’s experiences from his own place of completeness, rather than because his need for finding himself in another drives him into relationships or situations which destroy him or rule him. Sometimes you see this pattern of becoming one’s own person lived out in the lives of Virgos through the necessity to live alone for a period of time. In fact his seems to be almost a requirement for Virgo to develop himself or herself. Difficult as it is for any person to face loneliness, many Virgos impose it on themselves, not because they don’t need others, but because something in them says that you must learn to be yourself and love you own company before you can allow another person to be himself.
The zodiacal circle of twelve signs is divided into halves. The first half – Aries through Virgo – is often taken to symbolize the stages of individual development. The second half – Libra through Pisces – is often taken to symbolize the individual’s relationship to the larger society, other people, the world.
Virgo is the last of the first half of the zodiac, the cycle of individual development which we mentioned earlier. This means that Virgo in its deepest sense is about the real synthesis and integration of the individual, the refinement and ordering of all the experiences which have come from the first five signs. In an odd way you can see this in Virgo, just as you see it in Pisces, the last sign of the second half of the zodiac. In Pisces, you see the world, for the sign stands at the end of the great round. Pisceans contain the whole of human experience. It’s why they can identify with anybody, sometimes
much to their cost. Virgo contains all the stages of individual development. He’s been through the rash impulsive courage of Aries challenging life. He’s been through the building and acquiring stability of Taurus. He’s been through the curiosity and fascination with ideas of Gemini. He’s been through the need for warmth and family and roots of Cancer. He’s been through the need to be creative and individual in Leo. You can see a sort of matter-of-fact ‘Yes, I’ve done that’ quality in many Virgos when they watch those other signs. It’s as thought it’s stored somewhere in their memory banks. And their job, their business, is about taking all those different stages and kinds of experience and not specializing in one but rather making a refined and well-functioning whole out of it. It’s one of the reasons you find so many Virgos obsessed with health and diet, and equally many obsessed with psychology and self-help. They’re trying hard to knit the whole thing together, to become the efficiently functioning person who can deal with any experience. But because Virgo is the final summation of the first cycle, any experience means any personal encounter, not an encounter with a group. Virgo isn’t ready to go out into the bigger life of society. He keeps himself to himself. That’s Libra’s job. The compulsive self-perfecting that you find in so many Virgos, the endless stream of books and workshops and talks and lessons about how to be healthy, how to learn this, how to master that, all these things have a deep symbolic root. It’s the need to prepare the vessel, to craft it, shape it, refine it, for some vaguely sensed next phase for which Virgo waits without really knowing what it is he’s waiting and preparing for.
All myths are profound, and unless we make a little effort to think on a level of life other than what’s for dinner, and on a level of astrology other than that Virgos make good typists, there’s nowhere out of the snakepit of meaninglessness we have built with out own smallness. As we watch our Virgo friends and lovers and children busily rushing about with their dietary fads, their psychological self-development techniques, their new methods of do-it-yourself house building or auto repair, their obsessions and compulsions, we can see here – as with every other sign – a deep drive and a profound myth trying to express itself. Ashtray-emptying aside, the Goddess as self-contained nurturer of life is a fitting and noble image for this underplayed sign.
Virgo is also connected with the strange picture-language and concepts of medieval alchemy. Every Virgo, in some way, little or big, is an alchemist. Now, medieval alchemy doesn’t really have anything to do with the practice of making gold, any more than Virgo has to do with virginity. If you read old alchemical texts, you’ll hear them constantly saying that alchemical gold isn’t ordinary gold. It’s transmuted substance, inner gold, spiritual gold, creative gold. It’s about purification, of taking something clumsy and crude and base and transforming it so that the real potential shines out of it. Whether it’s his car or his body or his psyche, this laborious process of transmutation goes on throughout Virgo’s life. One way or another, whether it’s himself or other people or the disorderly world, his business, his environment or the products of his skilful hands. Virgo is attempting the alchemical transformation. It isn’t really the outside world he’s trying to order and synthesize. It’s life. And life, ultimately, is himself.