Coma Berenices

The constellations honor many individual people, almost all of them heroic: Hercules, Perseus, the twins of Gemini, and several others. But only one constellation is named for a real person. And the reason for her ascension to the stars may be a bit of propaganda.

Coma Berenices is high in the eastern sky at nightfall. Its stars are faint. But under a dark sky, they offer one of the prettiest sights in the heavens: streamers of stars that represent the hair of Queen Berenice of Egypt.

Berenice married her cousin, Ptolemy III, in 246 B.C. As king, Ptolemy later went to war. The tale says that to protect her husband, Berenice promised to cut her beautiful hair and offer it to the gods if Ptolemy returned safely. He did, so she did. She placed her locks in a temple, dedicated either to the goddess Aphrodite, or to all the gods, depending on the version of the story.

The hair soon disappeared, though. The court astronomer told the king that the locks had been taken by the gods and placed in the sky — streamers of stars near Leo, the lion.

The story might be true, or might have been created — or at least embellished — to raise the king’s profile.

Even then, Coma Berenices didn’t become a constellation until 1536. And it didn’t enter wide-spread use until 1602, when it was included in an atlas published by Tycho Brahe. Yet it’s filled with some wonderful sights, including the Coma Berenices Cluster. More about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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