Coma Berenices

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending May 9, 2015

From the era when the Greeks ruled parts of Egypt comes the story of a war, a sacrifice, a theft, and some quick thinking that saved lives. The story of Berenice’s Hair is part of western star lore. It’s not clear how much of the story is true. But here’s how it goes.

Ancient coin showing Queen Berenice II with long straight hair. She was admired for her tresses.About 243 BC, Berenice II married King Ptolemy III. The newlywed queen, admired throughout the kingdom for her beautifully golden hair, loved her husband very much. She worried that he wouldn’t return from a battle in Syria where he would avenge his sister’s death. So Berenice prayed to Aphrodite for his safe return.

Ptolemy did return. So Berenice had an offering to make to the goddess. She cut off her locks and placed them in Aprohodite’s temple. Ptolemy admired Berenice’s hair as much as everyone else did, so he didn’t want her to do it. But he agreed as long as everyone else could visit the temple where they would see her hair lovely by itself but now even more splendid as a gift to a goddess.

But during the night, someone stole Berenice’s hair. Ptolemy blamed the temple’s priests. He prepared to have them rounded up and killed. His astronomer, Conon, saved their lives by explaining that no one stole his wife’s beautiful locks. Rather, Aphrodite had accepted them as an offering so fitting they couldn’t be left in the temple.

Photo of the constellation Coma Berenices taken from the International Space Station in 2003Conon pointed to a dim yet somehow majestic looking group of stars near Leo the lion. He explained that Aphrodite so appreciated the sacrifice but so understood how admired Berenice’s hair was, the goddess placed it on the celestial dome. Everyone in the world, not just those in an near the kingdom, could now admire it. A pacified Ptolemy let the priests live.

How much of this story is true is hard to judge. The Greeks did build temples and make offerings to the various legendary gods and goddesses in those times. It’s certainly possible that an ancient king knew a lot about war but not much about the stars and could have been persuaded that a new star group had appeared. It’s also possible that the king, queen, and their supporters told this story to promote the royal family as having a clear sense of moral duty and having the approval of the gods and goddesses.

Whether any of it is true or not, Queen Berenice II is still remembered for her lovely hair every time anyone looks at the constellation named for it. Berenice’s Hair or Coma Berenices is between Leo and Boötes. It’s high overhead for northern hemisphere sky watchers during the early evening hours of May. Several galaxies in this constellation have become known as the Coma Cluster.