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The Mountain Astrologer

Modern Perspectives from Ancient Symbolism: Virgo the Maiden

by Deborah Houlding


"Who criticizes all she sees;
would even analyze a sneeze?
Who hugs and loves her own disease?
It is the Virgo!"1

Virgo often gets a very poor report in modern texts. The lines from the poem above typify the references to Virgo being critical and hypochondriacal that accompany other allusions to Virgo as pedantic, frigid, and shrill. Could it be that these negative associations have attached themselves to a sign that, in reality, is one of such rare understanding and discerning mental vision that the rest of us (lacking these Virgoan traits) are unable to see the finer details of the Maiden's gifts? According to ancient and traditional sources, the benefits of Virgo are that it bestows purity, diplomacy, a mastery of words, a discriminating intellect, a propensity for study, a talent for investigation and analysis, skilful creativity, and a keen appreciation of the mysteries of nature. Being also blessed with modesty (some might say burdened by bashfulness), Virgos hesitate to champion their own cause. Perhaps then, it behoves the rest of us to pay closer attention to the more well-rounded and decidedly admirable qualities of this sign.

Fundamentally, most of the characteristics of Virgo derive from the productive creativity and practicality of the earth element, stimulated by the intellectual ingenuity and rapid movement of the sign's planetary ruler: Mercury. Both element and ruler characterise the sign as "cool and dry," as does the calendrical association with autumn, when nature — having offered up its fruit — recedes into conservation.

As a temporal humour, "dryness" inhibits emotional receptivity. Consequently, many Sun-sign profiles refer to Virgo's reputation for impassionate reactions and cool responses as a character flaw, failing to appreciate that the ability to hold sentiment in check is the requisite for the intellectual clarity that sets this sign apart. Clear reason can only emerge when disentangled from the conflicting ties of emotional attachment; yet, although Virgo has a just reputation for control over its passions, it is neither an unsympathetic sign nor an insensitive one. It is essentially gentle and thoughtful. "Consideration for others" is a pronounced trait which figures strongly on Virgo's limited list of expectations.

OrderIt would also be wrong to think of Virgo as lacking in intuitive recognition. Unlike the water signs, which pick up easily on psychic impressions, often absorbing moods that are poorly comprehended by reason, Virgo forms reliable instinctive impressions through a powerful gut reaction, and this is aided by its ready ability to analyse complexities and penetrate false appearances. The result is a talent for forming good judgement quickly and applying it to practical affairs. Having a sense for simplicity and harmony, Virgos move through their environment effortlessly rearranging, organising, and bringing order to chaos. From the Virgoan housewife who passes through a room picking up the clutter to the business analyst skilled in recognising where communication becomes knotted, Virgos are adept at sorting out the "little things" which accumulate to create big problems, if left unattended.

Coolness as a humour brings passivity and fixity. This is less of a problem for Virgo than it is for the other earth signs, because of the stirring Mercurial influence which lightens movement, adds mental flexibility, and allows a sharper intellectual reaction than can be expected from Taurean and Capricornian colleagues. However, being grounded by the earthy qualities of practicality, hard work, and realism, Virgos have little interest in abstract theories that defy application; for the same reason, they don't tend to strive towards the unrealistic levels of perfection that many accuse them of. As an earth sign, Virgo is ultimately a realist — not an idealist.

If Virgos have acquired a reputation for being perfectionists, it is simply because of their proclivity for diligence and consistency of effort. They tend to be unhappy with slack standards, and since they are predisposed to working long and hard themselves, it is to be expected that they will urge others to do likewise. However, the sign would not have such a reputation for good judgement were it not for the ability to balance ideals against available time and resources. In this, Virgos are particularly gifted and can be relied upon to identify the most satisfactory expectations under any given set of circumstances and to plan efficiently and work appropriately towards fulfilling them.

With perceptive insight, enviable application, and diplomatic expression, the natives of this sign might be considered exceptionally well equipped for manoeuvring into authoritative positions and gaining an abundance of material success. Yet, they are rarely driven by the accumulation of power or wealth, and for the most part, they take full satisfaction in providing the wind beneath the wings of other highfliers. perfectionismThe dry disposition which feeds their talent for analysis rejects public attention and seeks to avoid centre stage at all costs, in particular because they are aware of their own acute nervous reactions, and this heightens their instinct to plan, prepare, and practice rather than rely upon spontaneous responses. They submit to responsibility but do not like to assume it. Being of a modest nature, they are apt to underestimate their own abilities; they are too cautious to engage in the gambles and devil-may-care risks required of the entrepreneurial spirit and cling to convention, preferring to operate within established frameworks where they can evaluate themselves against predetermined criteria. Virgos are too often dismissed as ideal "secretarial material"; they can and do excel in managerial positions but usually within a large corporate environment where there are established procedures and a higher level of authority to defer to.

Virgos do not necessarily seek out support positions, but they find contentment within them, and they can derive great pride and self-respect from offering themselves in the service of something that appears to play an important role in society. For some, this will be a marriage vow; for others, the principles of parenthood; or it might be an industry, institution, charity, religion, political cause, or area of study. Many outstanding Virgo individuals have risen to prominence using their ability to find fulfilment within the act of service to others; they don't go looking for fame but often have it thrust upon them by the power of their own achievements. Notable examples include Mother Teresa, who felt the call of God and dedicated her life to helping the poor; Leo Tolstoy, who left his mark as one of the greatest novelists of all time and a champion of pacificism, for which he is remembered as Russia's greatest moral authority; and Queen Elizabeth I of England, who achieved great personal glory and held the highest position of command but drew her strength from the Virgoan aspiration of honouring her responsibilities and serving the needs of her country.

So it is with love. We all know the theory: Virgo's cool ardour is the result of such impossibly high romantic ideals that very few would-be lovers are able to rouse this sign to heights of passion. Certainly, this is not a sign to "put it about," and the natural sense of discrimination that most Virgos possess leave them unimpressed by inflated egos or showy personas that gather a lot of attention elsewhere. However, given the right conditions, Virgos are as passionate and openly romantic as the natives of any other sign of the zodiac. The problem is that Virgos usually are decidedly uncomfortable in love affairs that challenge the practicality of their everyday lives and responsibilities. Temptations may be strong and sincere, and painful broken hearts may be involved, but of all the zodiac types, Virgos are least likely to give up everything that defines the structure of their lives in the hope of emotional fulfilment with the partner of their dreams. Like Celia Johnson in the classic romantic drama Brief Encounter, Virgos decline self-indulgence when it conflicts with the duties that they hold in good conscience.

Lacking the will to take inappropriate pleasure when another will suffer discomfort, Virgos will settle for the practical solution that most satisfies the needs of everyone involved. This usually means accepting the burden of self-restraint rather than the distress they would feel pursuing self-centred interests. Here is that "consideration for others" trait again, and it comes from the Virgoan urge for harmony and the understanding that everything is connected. Other zodiac types might be persuaded that we only live once and owe it to ourselves to put our own desires first — but not Virgos. The realisation of being integrally bound to everything around them anchors them, for better or for worse, but usually for the sake of practicality rather than in spite of it.

More romantic signs may view this as a failing or a waste, but harvest upon deeper reflection it can be recognised as the true beauty of this sign and the source of its greatest strength. Virgos are blessed with a natural sense of harmony that could hardly be expressed without an inner motivation towards synchronization. Such recognition also inclines them towards pursuits that call for integration between the mind and the body, fostering a particularly well-suited interest in astrology (where creative intelligence and the cycles of nature are married in the study of heaven and earth), herbalism, natural therapies, and many forms of alternative medicine.

With the urge to do and make as forceful as their urge to think and analyse, Virgos in fact delight in all crafts where they can create something useful or beautiful out of raw materials and the application of ingenuity. This sign has a deep connection with the produce of the earth, and taken as the herald of the harvest, Virgo expresses the principle of gathering and organising the fruits of labour. From the zodiac's origin as a device to record seasonal activity, Virgo has been symbolically attached to the activities that centre around taking stock of resources and planning for the season ahead, based upon the knowledge of what is available and the expectation that there is little or no more to come. Consequently, although the sign abounds in expressed creativity, its essential purpose is to put to good use what is currently accessible rather than to expect an increase. In this way, we can understand the otherwise contradictory element of such a powerfully creative and fruitful symbol (the Maiden of the harvest) being viewed in astrology as a "barren" sign — for example, Virgo is used in decumbiture charts as an indication of infertility. Virgo is a conservative energy, and conservatism is a word that can be applied to every level of Virgoan self-expression. The concern with methodical categorisation is merely a manifest aspect of this, acutely observed by traditional authors who listed objects and places of storage as one of the sign's major themes of signification.

Why, then, if Virgo is such a practical sign, has it acquired a reputation for faddy diets and the kind of delicate sensitivity that makes Virgo bring to mind the word hypochondriac? The answer can be found in the anatomical relationships of traditional astrology, where Virgo, as an earth sign, is denoted as melancholic: a humour that is "seated" in the spleen. The melancholic humour (as we would expect from its cooling and drying qualities) is responsible for condensing and retaining in the body and mind whatever is potentially useful; therefore, melancholic types are expected to have good memories, controlled emotions, an interest in study, and reticent dispositions that incline them to keep their thoughts and experiences to themselves.2 Classical and medieval medicine recognised the spleen as the seat of this humour because the blood in the spleen is so condensed that it appears thick and tarry — due to its filtering action by which it concentrates the solid blood cells and allows the fluid plasma to pass.

Virgo physicalMore specifically, within sign rulerships over body areas, Virgo governs the abdomen, which includes the spleen, and also the diaphragm and the soft tissue that lies beneath the diaphragm, known as the hypochondrium (the term comes from the Greek hupokhondros, meaning "under cartilage"). Cancer then takes the main rulership of the stomach (although Virgo retains some significance here), with Virgo resuming rulership over the organs that lie below the stomach: the belly, bowels, and small intestine. The hypochondrium was believed to be a particularly sensitive emotional area, because it supports the lungs (the seat of the phlegmatic humour), and beneath it lie the spleen on one side and the liver (the seat of the sanguine humour) and the gallbladder (the seat of the choleric humour) on the other. Together with the melancholic tendency towards sluggish digestion, which causes problems like constipation, Virgos are obviously prone to having very sensitive digestive systems and a powerful gut-level instinct and emotion. The modern interpretation of hypochondria is to have a vague sense of illness that cannot be identified or defined, and as applied to Virgos, we should see this as referring to nervous anxieties, emotional tensions, and illnesses that centre themselves around the abdomen, rather than suggesting a groundless conviction that one is likely to become ill when there is no due cause. By the same token, this strong Virgoan emphasis upon the solar plexus region can create vague symptoms, due to the overstimulation of the nerves that lead to the stomach,3 but is also the means by which Virgos draw upon an instinctive sense of "knowing"; this gut-level knowledge is then filtered through their intellectual analysis to effect judgements that are noted for their reliability.4

Dignified Planets

Dignified in Virgo:

Mercury as sign and exaltation ruler
Venus as daytime triplicity ruler. (Although Venus gains some strength in daytime charts, it is still debilitated in Virgo, the sign where it experiences its fall.)
Moon as nighttime triplicity ruler

Debilitated in Virgo:
Jupiter by detriment
Venus by fall

Typical Features

elisabethVirgo is a sign of average height, but since it is ruled by Mercury, the build is slender with straight, angular features. Movement is light and quick; the voice is quiet, becoming high pitched (or shrill) when raised. The Virgo style is neat, discreet, simple, conservative, and understated. Hair is typically dark; the lips are thin, the eyes piercing, the nose a little long, and the forehead high. (Queen Elizabeth I capitalised upon her Virgoan intellectual traits by shaving her hairline to increase the height of her forehead and offer a physiognomical indication of "high intelligence.")

Traditional Rulerships

Direction: All earth signs relate to the south. Virgo describes south by west.

Anatomy: Virgo principally governs the abdomen (including the hypochondrium and spleen) and the organs that lie beneath the stomach: the belly, bowels, and small intestine.

Illnesses: Virgos have a sensitive digestive system, but their natural interest in herbal remedies and dietary intake generally makes them well equipped to understand their bodily needs and to self-medicate accordingly. A disturbed digestive system will have a strong effect upon their all-round physical health, and if they are suffering from worry, anxiety, or illness, then disease will manifest most readily through ailments connected to the abdomen and bowels: belly ache, stomach ulcers, wind/colic, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and obstruction of the bowel. Nicholas Culpeper attributes "hardening of the spleen" as a medical problem associated with Virgo (the spleen is seen as the seat of the melancholic humour and associated with the retentive virtue), and Virgo is also traditionally associated with dysentery and worms in the guts (and internal parasites, generally). All earth signs, being of the melancholic humour, suffer from retentive illnesses such as constipation and melancholy hypochondria, which results in depression, lethargy, and heightened anxiety that may be difficult to identify from physical symptoms alone.

Places: Like all the earth signs, Virgo governs places that are low and near to the floor. It also rules places and objects connected with agriculture, harvest, and agricultural storage — in particular dairies, granaries, malt-houses (and breweries), cornfields, hayricks, greenhouses, places connected to barley, wheat, or peas and where cheese and butter is churned or stored.

Inside the house, it signifies areas and objects used for study, accountancy, or storage. The former includes libraries, bookcases, or places where books, pens, and reading/writing instruments are kept (typewriters, word processors, and computers), study halls, office areas, and items used for bookkeeping. Storage areas include cupboards, pantries, closets, cabinets, drawers, and medicine cupboards.

Virgo will also signify objects or areas that serve a purely utilitarian purpose — places or things that are used to store, restore, or repair, such as sewing instruments and machines (also knitting and spinning equipment), tools, and servants' quarters.

Modern authors also associate the sign with places connected with pets, small animals, and veterinary services.

Countries and cities: These traditionally include Turkey, southern Greece, Athens, Iraq and Baghdad, Croatia, Africa, Jerusalem, Rhodes, southwest France, Toulouse, Paris, Lyons, Heidelberg in Germany, Basle in Switzerland, and Brindisi in Italy.

Colours: William Lilly associates Virgo with the colour black speckled with blue. Other authors have associated it with white. In general, Virgos avoid strong dynamic colours in decor and personal attire, preferring subtle hues and muted greys and earthy tones.

Stones and Metals: Stones and metals fall under the rulership of planets, not signs, but through its association with Mercury, Virgo is often linked with agate, sardonyx, and stones of diverse colours. Agate seems particularly suitable, since its metaphysical property is said to aid digestion and offer eloquence in writing.

Traditional Definitions

Humane: Humane signs are those represented by human figures: Gemini, Virgo, Libra, and Aquarius (Libra is included on the assumption that the scales are held by a human hand). These signs are renowned for their social graces, leanings towards diplomacy, and intellectual skills. They are also referred to as "manly" or "courteous" signs.

Double-bodied: Double-bodied or bi-corporeal signs are those represented by two figures. All the mutable signs are double-bodied — Gemini: a pair of twins; Virgo: maiden and bird; Sagittarius: man and horse; Pisces: two fishes. These signs are associated with the months that join the seasons and signify a dualistic nature that is easily adaptable and can move between extremes. For this reason, the mutable signs are referred to as "common signs" in traditional terminology.

Barren: The barren signs are Gemini, Leo, and Virgo. These suggest difficulty in conceiving children or few children, when placed on the cusp of the 5th house. Aries, Sagittarius, and Aquarius are also considered rather barren.

A Famous Virgo: Great Garbo

Swedish-born screen goddess Greta Garbo had her Sun and Ascendant-ruler Mercury in Virgo (see Chart), and it was her typically Virgoan sharp features, garbo chart intellectual approach to her art, and sense of emotional reserve that helped to define her legendary ice-maiden status. A review of one of her first MGM movies described her as "strangely attractive, though not at all beautiful,"5 a curious remark which appears to echo William Lilly's description of Virgo as "well favoured or lovely, but no beautiful creature."6 Virgo rarely creates a good first impression but reveals its beauty in the details. The finer details of Garbo's performances developed her reputation as the most flawless and technically gifted actress of her generation. With the Virgo emphasis falling upon the 6th house and the Moon highlighting 12th-house themes of seclusion and withdrawal, Garbo was never comfortable in her self-created limelight, but her reticence towards exposing herself in public served only to generate a mystique that fuelled further interest from her fans. Ten years after that first review, Garbo fulfilled the Virgoan quest for perfection by being critically acclaimed as the actress who brought the most "beauty and magnificence of form" within her generation and was described as "the closest thing to the vision of ideal loveliness that is destined to be vouchsafed to us in this world."7 Her natural reserve meant that there was always something untouchable about Garbo, an aloofness that exaggerated the allure. As "the unbreakable icon of idealized beauty,"8 she became a legend even in her own lifetime, laying bare the irony of that early review when she was declared "the most beautiful woman who ever lived" by The Guinness Book of World Records.9

With her thin lips, slightly long nose, high forehead, and Greta Garbo piercing eyes, Garbo's face did not initially suit the fashion of the times. Jupiter rises on her Ascendant, typically adding height and flesh to the body, and there was also concern that, at 5'7'' and weighing 127 pounds, her statistics were unsuitable for portraying sexiness in a leading lady. But underneath her reserve, there was always something indefinably magnetic and mesmerising about her performances, which were evaluated as technically faultless and dramatic in their understatement. One way or another, Virgos build their strengths upon the employment of intellectual analysis, and this was the talent that the reviewers recognised in Garbo from the start. One early review, entitled "Greta Garbo's Intelligent Acting," declared that her style was "all the more pleasing because of her restraint and her understanding of the part she plays. Miss Garbo may lift her head the fraction of an inch, and it means more than John Gilbert's artificial smile or his wide-eyed expression."10

Much of her attention to detail was focussed upon her facial expressions. Naturally shy and uneasy under scrutiny, as most Virgos are, she admitted to being far too nervous to ever appear on stage in front of an audience 11, saying "If I am by myself, my face can do things I cannot do with it otherwise."12 To encourage her to relax, a black screen was placed around Garbo and the camera, to protect her from the gaze of anyone other than the director and cameraman. Thereafter, Garbo's expectation of the same degree of privacy off-camera also grew to legendary proportions. She refused to mingle with the public or with other actors, never signed autographs or attended premieres, and so rarely entertained the press that her last known recorded interview commanded full-page coverage despite consisting of no more than a four-word exchange: The interviewer began "I wonder …," to which she interjected "why wonder?" and left.13

The Moon, exalted in Taurus and located in the 12th house, is obviously a very telling planet in Garbo's chart, pointing to her need for seclusion and yet supporting her ability to create an image of mysterious beauty, by its exact square to its dispositor, Venus, which is powerfully placed in the 5th house.14 This gives the impression that the glamour revealed is merely the intriguing tip of the iceberg, but with the Moon ruling the 4th house, this also hints at deep insecurities instilled in childhood. Garbo is reported to have been very close to her alcoholic father, a lowly street cleaner whose death when she was 14 forced her to take up work and endure a strained relationship with her mother. Very little is known of her childhood experiences, but her inner conflict is revealed in letters published since her death which show that, when she left Sweden for Hollywood in 1925, she was intrinsically self-obsessed and depressive and "ashamed of her latrine-cleaner father."15 The exposure of her private letters has also revealed that Garbo never did "want to be alone" but spent much of her life trapped in that typically 12th-house state because of her "great secret" — a lifelong, unfulfilled love for the Swedish actress Mimi Pollak.16

Chart data:
Greta Garbo, September 18, 1905; 7:30 p.m. CET (–1:00); Stockholm, Sweden (59°N20', 18°E03'); AA: birth certificate.

References and Notes:
1. H. E. Wedeck, The Dictionary of Astrology: Astrological Concepts, Techniques, and Theories, Citadel Press, 1973, p. 138.
2. The 17th-century astrological physician, Nicholas Culpeper, writes:
"Melancholy is the sediment of blood, cold and dry in quality, fortifying the retentive faculty, and memory; makes men sober, solid, and staid, fit for study; stays the unbridled joys of lustful blood, stays the wandering thoughts, and reduces them home to the centre: its receptacle is in the spleen, and it is governed by Saturn." This quote is from "An Astrologo-Physical discourse of the Human Virtues in the Body of Man; both Principal and Administering," The English Physician and Family Dispensatory, Peter Cole (London), 1653.
3. In medical terminology, the solar plexus is traditionally known as the coeliac plexus ("coeliac" derives from the Greek koiliakós, meaning "abdomen/bowels"). The Penguin Medical Encyclopedia, compiled by Peter Wingate, defines it as the "network of nerves behind the stomach, derived from the sympathetic and vagus nerves, supplying branches to regulate the stomach, intestine and other internal organs" (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972, p. 108).
4. The Solar Plexus Chakra is said to be "the centre of etheric-psychic intuition: a vague or non-specific, sensual sense of knowing; a vague sense of size, shape, and intent of being" (Barbara Ann Brennan, Hands of Light, Bantam, 1987, p. 173).
5. Hollis Alpert, "Saga of Greta Lovisa Gustafsson — Saga of Greta Garbo," New York Times, September 5, 1965. The review was for her role in The Torrent, 1926.
6. William Lilly, Christian Astrology (London, 1647, reproduced in facsimile by Regulus Reprints, London, 1985), p. 96.
7. Alpert, "Saga of Greta Garbo." The review was by Richard Watts of The Herald Tribune for her role in Anna Karenina, 1935.
8. Vincent Canby, "Garbo: Illusion Was All," New York Times, April 22, 1990.
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Garbo (accessed 4/13/07).
10. Mordaunt Hall, "Greta Garbo's Intelligent Acting," New York Times, December 4, 1927.
11. "Greta Garbo Consents to 10-Minute interview," New York Times, December 4, 1927. Questioned as to whether she would go on the stage, she replied: "I'm so terribly nervous. I'll never go on the stage because of that."
12. Alpert, "Saga of Greta Garbo."
13. The interview was conducted by Paul Callan, who met Garbo at the Cannes film festival on behalf of the Daily Mail. Managers of the Daily Mail computed the expense claim for the interview as the highest ever filed per word used — by a factor of several million percent. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Callan#Celebrity_interviews (accessed on 4/13/07)
14. Venus is the dispositor of the Moon because it governs Taurus, the sign where the Moon is located. In traditional astrology, a square aspect to a dispositor is more powerful and productive because the aspect is "received," allowing a positive connection between the dispositor and the planet situated in its territory. Venus is itself powerfully placed in the 5th house because this is its "house of joy," traditionally reputed to be the area where the qualities of Venus are most comfortably expressed.
15. Alex Duval Smith, "Lonely Garbo's love secret is exposed," The Observer, September 11, 2005.
16. Wikipedia records Mimi Pollak's birth date as April 9, 1903 in a Swedish municipality in Värmland. Amongst the striking synastry contacts, Mimi's noon chart shows her Venus at 19°23' Taurus, tightly conjunct Garbo's 12th-house Moon.

Image sources:
Virgo constellation with stars: Fernando Gallego (http://mysticmedusa.com/tag/astrology-history/) - public domain
Virgo physical: [Public domain]
Elisabeth I: Nicholas Hilliard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Greta Garbo in "Inspiration": By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
All other images: public domain via pixabay.com

First published in: The Mountain Astrologer, Aug/Sep 2007

Deborah Houlding Deborah Houlding has been an active researcher and astrological practitioner for more than 25 years. Past editor of The Traditional Astrologer magazine and author of The Houses: Temples of the Sky (Wessex Astrologer, Bournemouth, U.K., 2006), she currently runs the Skyscript astrology Web site at http://www.skyscript.co.uk. Deborah has been teaching astrology around the world through seminars, workshops, and correspondence courses since 1990. She is the principal of the School of Traditional Astrology (STA), which teaches horary astrology.

© 2007 Deborah Houlding - first published by The Mountain Astrologer

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