The story of Berenice’s hair

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

The bright star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes is rising in the east right now, a sure sign that spring will soon be here and that summer can’t be far behind. Above Arcturus is one of the strangest sights in the sky — a large fuzzy/starry patch that resolves into six or seven stars for the sharp-eyed observer.

The simplest pair of binoculars will reveal even more stars. Astronomers call such associations of stars “clusters.” They look close together in the sky because, they are gravitationally bound together as they travel in tandem around the Milky Way galaxy.

The cluster and its parent constellation both bear the same name, Coma Berenices, Berenice’s Hair.

I confess that I have a great fondness for both the constellation and its famous cluster. Many are the spring mornings that we would stop at the Union 76 truck stop near Mansfield for a life-saving cup or 12 of coffee after a long night of observing galaxies in or near the constellation. One of the waitresses’ names was Bernice. Her hair was tousled and gray, and it was quite clear that she had been handling the night shift for a very, very long time.

“Hey, Bernice! Coffee,” the early-rising truckers would yell. The smell of that coffee and the stolid resolution on her careworn face still linger after 30 years.

By contrast, the constellation is named after a proud Egyptian queen. I know that the connection between a truck-stop waitress and ancient African royalty is a tenuous one. Even the names are pronounced differently. The Greeks would have called her “Bare-a-KNEE-kay” and not Bernice. However, both women bore their lot with patient fortitude, and I still think of both of them when I see the constellation.

Sadly, Coma Berenices is a constellation that had a hard time establishing its identity.

There it sits in the eastern sky in the spring, a simple triangle framed by the Big Dipper to the north, Leo to the southwest, Bootes to the east, and Virgo to the southeast. In such august company, Coma always had a hard time making a name for itself.

In late March and early April, I usually find it by looking high in the southern sky for the constellation Leo. Then I look just to the northeast for the faint patch of about half-a-dozen stars that define the western corner of the triangular shape of Coma.

Find that faint, scattered cluster of naked-eye stars, and you have discovered Berenice’s Hair, which is designated as MEL 111 on most star maps.

In binoculars, it expands to 20 or more stars. The stars look so spread out because MEL 111 is one of the closest star clusters to Earth. It is, of course, in our Milky Way galaxy at a distance of only 280 lights years, or about 1,700 trillion miles. (One light year is equivalent to approximately 6 trillion miles.)

By contrast, the other galaxies that make up our universe are much more distant. Just to the left of the bottom-most star in the cluster is one of the most stunningly beautiful galaxies in the sky, marked as NGC 4565 on a decent star map. It is about 20 million light years away, over 70,000 times more distant than the star cluster.

Galaxies are lens-shaped collections of billions of stars. Seen from the top, they look a lot like a whirlpool or child’s pinwheel. Seen from the side, they look like two plates pressed top to top.

NGC 4565 is the best and brightest example of a galaxy viewed from the side, or “edge-on.” In a large telescope, it is the most beautiful splinter of light you will ever see.

In fact, the whole area is littered with galaxies of various sizes, shapes and brightnesses. Sweep the area carefully with a telescope and you’ll see what I mean.

Most of them are members of the Coma-Virgo Galaxy Cluster, which is about 65 million light years away. That distance begins to sound pretty far away. However, many astronomers believe that our own Milky Way galaxy is part of the Coma-Virgo Cluster. In a sense, we are outliers. We live in the far suburbs of the vast metropolis of which the Coma-Virgo cluster is the central city.

Most of the galaxies in the Coma-Virgo cluster inhabit the confines of Virgo. However, the northern chunk is decidedly in Coma Berenices. Still, most stargazers refer to the galactic cluster as the “Virgo Cluster.” Coma Berenices just can’t seem to get any respect.

Part of its identity crisis is that it has almost always been thought of as part of another constellation.

For the longest time, Berenice’s Hair wasn’t considered a constellation at all. The ancient Greeks hooked the fuzzy patch up with nearby Leo, the Lion. They pictured it as the puff of fur at the end of the lion’s tail. In that regard, Arab astronomers named it Al Dafirah, “the tuft of hair.”

As late as 150 CE, Ptolemy, the greatest of the Greek astronomers, refers to the stars as “a nebulous mass, called the lock,” i.e., of hair.

However, even earlier, around 200 BCE, the Greek scientist and writer Eratosthenes identified the cluster of stars as “Berenice’s Hair” in his famous work on constellation science and mythology called The Catasterisms.

Both astronomers worked in Alexandria, the great seat of ancient scholarship at the mouth of the Nile River in northern Egypt. The Berenices in question must surely be Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who lived during the third century BCE, just before Eratosthenes wrote his book.

By the first century CE, the designation was set forever by the Roman poet Hyginus in his Poetic Astronomy, even though he still considered the star patch as part of Leo.

It took another 1,500 years for the stellar grouping to become a constellation in its own right. In 1551, the Dutch star mapper Gerardus Mercator grabbed a few nearby stars and combined them with the fuzzy patch to form the official constellation Coma Berenices. In the process, the lion finally lost its tail.

The real mystery is how the stars got to be associated with the hair of an ancient Egyptian queen in the first place.

An astrologer by the name of Conon (with an “o” — no relation to the famous barbarian) is mostly to blame. Since Conon, Coma Berenices has become forever famous as the patron constellation of liars and con men the world over.

About Queen Berenice little is known. During the third century BCE, she was first the sister and then the wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy III Euergetes. (The pharaohs often married their close relatives to keep the royal bloodline pure.)

Berenice was something of a warrior and horsewoman, distinguishing herself in battle before she married Ptolemy around 240 BCE.

Ptolemy was always traipsing off to some war or another. The former-warrior Berenice was forced to sit around at home worrying about him.

According to Hyginus, Ptolemy left his new wife just a few days after their nuptials to make war somewhere in Asia. Berenices vowed to the gods to cut off her long, beautiful hair and offer it to the Greek goddess of beauty Aphrodite (called Venus by the Romans) if her husband returned home safely.

Her offer had to be considered a major sacrifice. She was apparently quite attached to her long, amber-colored tresses.

At the pharaoh’s safe return, the now-hairless Berenice placed her hair on the altar of the temple dedicated to her mother Arsinoe and to the goddess Aphrodite.

The next day, the hair was gone. Most obviously, Berenice’s hair had been stolen. The temple priests clearly had some serious explaining to do to a very angry pharaoh and a very bald queen.

Their wrath fell upon court astrologer and mathematician Conon, whose responsibility it must have been to keep the “amber tresses” safe. Luckily, the luckless courtier came up with an ingenious solution.

Let’s transport back to 240 BCE and imagine the scene.

Setting: Conon, Ptolemy, and Berenice are standing just outside the temple of Aphrodite at Zephyrium. It is a brilliant starlit night in early spring.

Berenice: Where’s my hair, dude. The bald look won’t come in for at least 2,000 years.

Conon: Er, ah, um.

Ptolemy: (pensively, to himself) Now let’s see … tortures … hmmm.

Berenice: It had better not be stolen, Conon, baby. I don’t want locks of my hair sold in glass paperweights with “Souvenir of your glorious trip down the Nile” stamped all over them.

Ptolemy: The rack? No, not painful enough. Water torture? Too messy. Iron maiden? No, that hasn’t been invented yet.

Conon: (rolls his eyes up to heaven and has an inspiration) Well, of course, there’s your hair, my queen. Up in the sky, just to the west of Bootes, the herdsman. Yeah, that’s it. That patch of stars. Aphrodite so loved your sacrifice that she took your amber tresses and put them among the stars. Yeah, star cluster. Hair. That’s the ticket.

So, Conon saved his skin, and Berenice became the only real, non-mythological person to have a constellation named after her.

The only one who should be unhappy about the story is proud Leo. He lost the tuft of hair at the end of his tail.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.