Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Coma Berenices

Berenice's Hair


Urania's Mirror 1825

The story of Berenice

The constellation, Coma Berenices, refers to a classical story concerning the hair of Berenice II, the wife of Ptolemy Soter III of Egypt. Berenice had beautiful long amber-colored hair. Ptolemy was away at war against the Assyrians, and Berenice was worried. She asked the royal oracle, Conon, what to do [his story here]. Conon advised the queen to offer her hair to Aphrodite for the safe return of her husband. After weeks of waiting and tension Ptolemy returned safe and sound. The nation rejoiced but when Berenice told Ptolemy about her promise to sacrifice her hair, Ptolemy was very upset because it was the crowning glory of his queen; and it had the admiration of the nation, and it gave inspiration to the poets. Nothing, however, would change Berenice's mind. She went to the temple where her beautiful locks were cut off and laid on the altar by the priests.

The next day when the king went to the temple to have a look at his wife's hair, he was furious to find the hair had been stolen. He summoned the priests and would have put them to death then and there had not the court astrologer Conon, intervened: "No, no, your majesty, do not blame the priests, it is not their fault, wait until it is dark and I will show you where your wife's hair is".

So when day turned into night the astronomer took the king to look at the night sky "Look! Dost thou not see the clustered curls of thy queen, too beautiful for a single temple to possess, placed there by the gods for all the world to see? Look! They glitter like a woven net, as golden as they were on Berenice's head".

And there, between Canes Venatici, Bootes, Leo and Virgo, twinkled a mass of very faint stars. The astronomer declared that Jupiter had descended from Heaven the night before to take the golden locks up to the heavens where they could be admired by the whole world, not only by one nation. The king was satisfied with this explanation and Berenice was delighted that Venus had so honored her. [The New Patterns in the Sky, Julius D.W. Staal 1988, p.149].


The coma of Coma Berenices is the Latin word for 'hair of the head' and comes from Greek kome, 'hair of the head', or 'cloud around head of a comet', the word coma is related to comet 'a long-haired star'; "with no apparent cognates in other languages" [1].

There were four queens of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty named Berenice [2], and this constellation refers to Berenike 11, or Berenice 11. The name Berenike is the Macedonian variant of Greek Pherenike, which literally means 'carrying off victory', from Greek pherein, 'to bring, carry', and nike, 'victory'. The Berenices in Coma Berenices is from Greek *beronikhe, bernikhi, from the Lybian town Berenike, Berenice (near Bengasi), where varnish was first used. The town was named after this particular queen, Berenike 11. The city was later given the name Hesperides, in reference to the Hesperides, the guardians of the mythic western paradise [3].

Berenice is related to the Latin name Veronica.

"Aristotle uses kome, the Greek word for 'hair of the head,' to mean 'luminous tail of a comet.' Aristotle then uses the derived word kometes, 'wearing long hair,' as a noun meaning 'comet.' The Greek word was adopted into Latin as cometes, which was refashioned in Late Latin and given the form cometa, furnishing Old English with cometa, the earliest English ancestor of our word comet" [AHD].

“'Long hair' (comae) in the strict sense of the word is hair that has not been cut, and it is a Greek word, for the Greeks call long hair caimos, from being cut, whence they also say keirein for shearing. From this curls (cirrus) derive their name as well, which the Greeks call mallos” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.232.]

Callimachus' poem Berenice's Lock (Catullus 66), is about the constellation Coma Berenices, in which the lock of hair that was cut from Berenice's head speaks as an independent entity. Kristin O. Lord on this webpage comments on the poem: "The Coma Berenices and Ovid both utilize the high rhetoric of mock tragedy, such as hyperbole and anaphora". [There is a resemblance between the word coma and comedy.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Coma Berenice
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
gamma 22VIR30 23VIR53 186 06 43 +28 32 46 +28 24 00 4.56 K3
12 22VIR43 24VIR06 184 59 54 +26 07 24 +25 47 25 4.73 F2
beta 03LIB00 04LIB23 197 23 08 +28 07 52 +32 30 26 4.32 G0
Diadem alpha 07LIB34 08LIB57 196 53 20 +17 47 36 +22 58 49 4.32 F4
Coma1
Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

The streaming tresses of the Egyptian queen.

    —   William Cullen Bryant's The Constellations.

Not Berenice's locks first rose so bright,

The heavens bespangling with disheveli'd light.

    —   Pope's Rape of the Lock.

Coma Berenice, Berenice's Hair, the Chevelure of the French, Chioma of the Italians, and the Haupthaar of the Germans, lies southwest from Cor Caroli. It seems to have been first alluded to by Eratosthenes as Ariadne’s Hair in his description of Ariadne's Crown; although subsequently, in his account of Leo, he mentioned the group as Plokamos Berenikes Euergetidos [Plokamos is Greek for a lock of hair. The Euergetidos relates to Berenice as the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes, the ruler of Egypt]. But for nearly 2000 years its right to a place among the constellations was unsettled, for it has been the amorphotoi behind the Lion's tail, or connected with Virgo, or partly recognized as an asterism by itself. Tycho, however, set the question at rest in 1602 by cataloguing it separately, adopting the early title as we have it now.

Aratos, perhaps, alluded to it, although indefinitely, in the 146th line of the Phainomena:

Each after each, ungrouped, unnamed, revolve;

but, of course, did not give its name, for he wrote under the 2nd Ptolemy (Philadelphus), whereas it was not known till about 243 B.C., in the reign of the 3rd (Euergetes, Ptolemy III Euergetes, the ruler of Egypt), the brother and husband of Berenice, whose amber {Page 169} hair we now see in the sky figure. It was the happy invention of this constellation by Conon that consoled the royal pair after the theft of the tresses; from the temple of Arsinoe Aphrodite at Zephyrium. Some versions of the story turned the lady's hair into a hair-star, or comet.

The scholiast on Aratos, however, referred to it, as did Callimachus, the latter calling Bostrukhos Berenikes and his poem on it, now lost, was imitated 200 years later by Catullus, in one of his most beautiful odes, describing it as the consecrated spoils of Berenice's yellow head, which the divine Venus placed, a new constellation, among the ancient ones, preceding the slow Bootes, who sinks late and reluctantly into the deep ocean.

[Allen notes at end of page 169: The word Berenice, sometimes Beronice, is from Bernikhe the Macedonian form of the purer Greek pherenike, Victory-bearing (the phere- 'to bear', -nike 'victory'); and is the Bernice, of the New Testament, the name of the notorious daughter and wife of the Agrippas. From it some philologists derive the Italian Vernice, the French Vernis, the Spanish Barniz, and our varnish, all from the similar amber color of the lady's hair; Berenikhe having later become the Low Greek word for amber.]  [Greek Berenice becomes Veronica in Latin ("v" changes to "b")]

The beautiful and touching legend of the Sudarium of Veronica with its vera icon, has been associated with our constellation from the similarity in words (Allen refers to Sextans, Sudarium Veronicae, the sacred handkerchief of Saint Veronica), some supposing the saint to have been the Herodian Bernice, — in Latin Beronica, — converted to Christianity through her sympathy for the Savior's sufferings. Lady Eastlake has fully told this story in her continuation of Mrs. Jameson's History of our Lord.

Hyginus had Berenikes plokamos, and Ptolemy, simple plokamos (Greek for a lock of hair); for three of its stars among the amorphotoi of Leo, calling it nepheloeides, a cloudy condensation. This was rendered Al Atha by Reduan, or, as Golius printed it, Al Ultha, literally a Mixture.

Manilius did not mention Coma, although he wrote 250 years after Conon; nor of course did the versifiers of Aratos, at least by name, as the figure is not distinctly specified in the Phainomena.

Crines and Crines Berenices are found in classical times; Flamsteed has the plural Comae Berenices, and La Lande Capilli. Cincinnus appears on Mercator's globe of 1551, but there consists of only one star and two nebulae; and the Latin Almagest of the same year wrote

Convolutio nubilosa quae cincinnus vocatur,

with this marginal note, all for Coma's stars as informes of Leo:

Plocamos graece, latine vero cincinnus, hoc est, caesaries & coma virginis, Berenices fortasse crinis qui a Poeta Calimacho in astra relatus est. Sed cincinnum barbari tricam vacant.

The Almagest of 1515 already had Trica, describing it as nubilosa and luminosa gamma but Bayer {Page 170} changed this to Tricas, Tericas, and Triquetras, taking these probably from the Low Greek trikhes, which doubtless is the origin of our word "tresses."

Pliny wrote in the Historia Naturalis: nec (cernif) Canopum Italia et quem vacant Berenices crinem, which Bostock and Riley correctly translated, in 1855, "nor can we, in Italy, see the star Canopus, or Berenice's Hair"; but Holland had rendered this, in 1601, "neither hath Italy a sight of Canopus, named also Berenices Hair," from which mistranslation it was long inferred that the southern heavens contained another sky group bearing this same title. And this blunder has been perpetuated, even in Doctor Murray's New English Dictionary, which defines the word as the name "formerly of the southern star Canopus," citing as authority the foregoing passage from Holland. Pliny's statement as to the invisibility of Coma from Italy of course was incorrect then as now.

Julius Schiller asserted that the constellation represented the Flagellum Christi.

Thompson writes in his Glossary, p. 134, that

"It has been suggested by Landseer, Sabaean Researches, p. 186, from the study of an Assyrian symbolic monument, that the stars which Conon converted into the Coma Berenice, (Hygin. P. A. ii, 24, cf. Ideler, Sternnamen, p. 295) and which lie in Leo opposite to the Pleiades in Taurus, were originally constellated as a Dove; and that this constellation, whose first stars rise with the latest of those of Argo, and whose last rise simultaneously with the hand of the Husbandman, links better than the Pleiad into the astronomical Deluge-myth. The case rests on very little evidence, and indeed is an illustration of the conflicting difficulties of such hypotheses: but it is deserving of investigation, were it only for the reason that the Coma Berenices contains seven visible stars (Hygin.), and the Pleiad six, a faint hint at a possible explanation of the lost Pleiad".

Serviss (Garrett Putnam Serviss, American astronomer and writer), who has some beautiful stellar similes, says that it is a

"curious twinkling, as if gossamers spangled with dewdrops were entangled there. One might think the old woman of the nursery rhyme who went to sweep the cobwebs out of the sky had skipped this corner, or else that its delicate beauty had preserved it even from her housewifely instinct".

In Hudibras the constellation was Berenices periwig; while another old-fashioned name has been Berenices Bush, found in Thomas Hill's Schools of Skil of 1599, but even then rendered classic in its use by Chaucer and Spenser; and Smyth says that there has been a name still homelier.

Bayer also mentioned Rosa, a Rose, or a Rose Wreath; but he figured it on his plate of Bootes as a Sheaf of Wheat, in reference to the Virgo Ceres close by; indeed, Karsten Niebuhr, at Cairo in 1762, heard it called Al Huzmat, the Arabic term for that object, or for a Pile of Fruit, Grain, {Page 171} or Wood. The Dresden globe has it as an Ivy Wreath, or, just as probably, a Distaff held in the Virgin's hand, which has been designated Fusus vel Colus, Fila et Stamina, the Distaff, Thread, and Woof; or perhaps the Caduceus of Mercury, placed here when Coma was a part of Virgo and this latter constellation the astrological house of that planet.

But very differently in early Arabia it was Al Haud, the Pond, into which the Gazelle, our Leo Minor, sprang when frightened at the lashing of the Lion's tail; although some of the Desert observers claimed that this Pond lay among the stars of the neck, breast, and knees of the Greater Bear (Ursa Major); and Lach substituted it for the Gazelle in our location of Leo Minor. The Arabian astronomers knew Coma as Al Halbah, or Al Dafirah, the Coarse Hair, or Tuft, in the tail of the Lion of the zodiac, thus extending that figure beyond its present termination at the star Denebola.

Coma probably was known in early Egypt as the Many Stars.

The Chinese had several names here; the lucida being Hing Chin; u and w in the Reeves list, Chow Ting, the Imperial Caldron of the Chow dynasty; a small group toward Virgo, Woo Choo How; a, b, c, d, epsilon, and f, Lang Wei, Official Rank; p, Lang Tseang, a General, and upsilon (?), Shang Tseang, a Higher General; [Some of these letters maybe from Flamsteed, as he applied a, b, c, d, e, f, g, and h to a small portion — the centre — of the constellation; but Baily, his editor, has rejected them as being only a temporary arrangement.] while Tsae Ching, the Favorite Vassal, was the title for Bode's 2629. This abundant nomenclature, in so faint a figure, shows great interest on the part of the Chinese in this beautiful little group.

Although it is not easy for the casual observer to locate any of the individual stars except the lucida, three have been lettered — alpha, beta, gamma — that Baily claimed for Flamsteed's 7, 15, and 23. Of these Fl. 15, an orange star, is generally supposed to be the Arabian Al Dafirah, from Ulug Beg's name for the whole that he located among the informes of Leo. Hyde cited some ancient codices as applying to Fl. 21, toward the south, the title Kissin, a species of Ivy, Convolvulus (bindweed), or perhaps the climbing Dog-rose. This appeared with Ulug Beg, evidently from Ptolemy's kissinos (from Greek kissos, ivy), but Ideler said that it was intended to mark c, g, and h, and Baily, that it was for Fl. 21 or 23.

There evidently is much uncertainty as to the lettering and numbering of Coma's stars; and it seems remarkable that such minute objects should bear individual names.

{Page 172} Near Fl. 6 is the Pin-wheel Nebula, N. G. C, 4254, 99 M., one of the pyrotechnics of the sky; while Fl. 31 closely marks the (north) pole of the Milky Way, more exactly in right ascension 12° 40' and north polar distance 28°; the southern pole lying in Cetus (the south pole is believed to be in the adjacent Sculptor).

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]