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Romans Invented Constellation Libra to Symbolize Justice

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Certain principles found among all political, cultural and religious systems are just too important not to be represented in the sky. This seems to be the case with the precept of justice, represented by Libra, the Scales, a constellation, formed by dim stars, that was almost left out of the sky.

Libra is the only constellation of the zodiac that represents an inanimate object. Since classical times it has been shown as a pair of balance-beam scales, located between the constellations Virgo and Scorpius. Its small dim stars would be difficult to find without reference to its adjacent neighbors. Furthermore, its history is nebulous. Indeed, as near as we can tell from recorded history, it is not one of the really old constellations. Apparently early Greeks considered these stars to be part of Scorpius, located where one would expect the claws of the Scorpion to be. Some say, however, that Greeks made it part of Virgo, sometimes viewed as Astraea, goddess of justice. Perhaps it was this idea that caused the Romans to invent Libra during the time of Julius Caesar and place it right between Virgo and Scorpius.

When the Romans put Libra in the sky the autumnal equinox resided among these dim stars. Thus, when the Sun reached this part of the zodiac, the world experienced equilibrium between day and night. This was one of two times each year when the Sun rose directly east and set directly west, seeming to be balanced between the upper world of day and the dark underworld.

The idea caught on in different guise with the Egyptians who saw Libra as equalizing the Nile flood to the level most desirable for fertile lands and abundant crops. They abstracted the concept further to indicate that Libra, overseen by the resurrection god Osiris, was used to weigh the hearts of men after death. Hearts on one side of the scales and a feather on the other determined human destiny in the afterworld: if the balance went over to the feather, the deceased was admitted to the place of the gods, but if hearts were heaviest their owners dropped into the depths of the underworld, never again to see the light of Ra. With this in mind, some Egyptians portrayed Libra as a feather rather than a set of scales.

Explaining how to locate Libra gives us cause to review our zodiacal constellation of last month and preview Scorpius, the one for June: you are not apt to find Libra without reference to one or both of these. Recall that you can spot Virgo by starting with the Great Dipper of Ursa Major, currently nearly overhead in our evening sky. Follow the arc of the handle of the Dipper downward toward the south and come first to bright and reddish Arcturus, in Bootes, then continue the arc to the next bright star, Spica in Virgo. Now look along the horizon eastward and lower, about the same apparent distance as between Arcturus and Spica and attempt to see four dim stars in a rough diamond shape, the primary stars of Libra. This alone would make Libra difficult to recognize, but if you continue eastward along the southern horizon you should be able to locate three stars in a close row aimed down toward the horizon. These three are the top of Scorpius. Just to the lower left of the three stars, in the southeast, bright Antares rises upward. The name Antares means "rival of Aries," or "rival of Mars," since Aries is the Greek name for the planet more commonly known by its Roman name. You will easily note that Antares is one of the reddest stars in the sky.

I hope you will go out and look around at the beautiful spring sky to find the Scales among the stars. Finding Libra is worth the effort, for it has come to represent one of our most cherished values. What would our lives be like without agreement among us for social controls offering justice to all citizens, to be exercised in all aspects of our lives. At work, in our homes, in school, at our places of worship--indeed, wherever we might find ourselves, we need the comfort of knowing that we will be treated justly by our fellows. Ironical, isn't it, that such a critical factor is so dimly portrayed in the starry heavens. Sometimes it is difficult to find on earth as well. Certainly we must keep it shining brightly here on Earth if we expect to find it anywhere in the great beyond.

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