Coma, As In Hair, Not Sleep

I like the mythological stories connected to the constellations of Earth’s sky. Often enough, some mortal gets rewarded for some effort of derring-do and in death ascends to the night sky to be admired and imitated by future generations. What to make of the faint collection of stars known by the Latin name Coma Berenices? Did the lady slumber? From the Greek, κῶμα is indeed deep sleep. But in Latin, it refers to hair.

Berenike IIQueen Berenike II of Egypt (in gold, left) didn’t make it to the heavens. But her hair did, supposedly. As the story goes, she worried when her husband went off to war and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite for his safety, making a vow to cut off her hair if he came home safe. He did. So she did. After leaving her tresses at the altar, they had disappeared by the next morning.

(Gold coin image credit)

King Ptolemy III Euergetes was most displeased by the disappearance, so the court astronomer pointed out a faint cluster of stars and convinced his sovereign that the goddess so approved of the offering, she placed it in the sky to honor the queen.

daniel in the denGood thing they didn’t have many (any?) astronomy charts in those days, as that collection of stars had indeed been noticed by earlier skygazers, who saw it as the tuft of a lion’s tail. Leo, in fact.

(Daniel and friends image credit)

Good thing the king didn’t know he was being sold a big cat’s end to calm him down. Care to speculate if the king found out whether his flunky would end up like Daniel, above, or with something as tame as a black eye, below left?

Black Eye GalaxyThe reality is, tail or tresses, Coma Berenices is a fairly faint constellation. I guess blondes don’t have more fun in space. This region of the sky does have some significant sights, though nothing much can be seen in it unless the observer is well beyond city lights. The north pole of the galaxy is here. That doesn’t sound significant for our small planet, but it means minimal galactic dust for deep sky viewing.

(galaxy image credit)

If you have a telescope or a collection of images, go to Coma for other galaxies (like the Black Eye Galaxy). There is also a minor meteor shower emanating from this constellation in the last days of Advent.

Check the star map below. CB is near Leo and Virgo from the zodiac, and a bit south of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major). Here in the northern hemisphere, you can see these stars just about year round–but only in dark rural skies.

Coma-Berenices-constellation-map

That ancient Egyptian astronomer had to wait for the promotion from tail to hair. It wasn’t until Tycho Brahe in the early 1600’s that Berenike’s hair was promoted from an asterism (think Big Dipper) to a real constellation (think Ursa Major), recognized scientifically. Like today, I guess geeks go for blondes, even four long centuries ago.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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