Tonight’s chart shows the sky in April high to the south around mid-evening. To the upper left of the constellation Leo the Lion are dozens of very faint stars. They make up the constellation Coma Berenices, otherwise known as Berenice’s Hair. You need a dark sky to appreciate the constellation Coma Berenices. If you have one … it’s very beautiful.
The Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy and others considered these stars the tuft at the end of Leo the Lion’s tail. Coma Berenices remained part of Leo until a few hundred years ago, when it was first listed as a separate constellation.
The story goes that an ancient Egyptian queen, Berenice, feared for her husband’s life as he went into battle. She prayed to Aphrodite, promising to cut off her long, luxurious curls if the king returned safely. He did, and Berenice kept her promise and cut off her hair, placing it as a sacrifice on Aphrodite’s altar.
But the next day the hair was gone!
The king was enraged that the temple priests had not protected the precious locks. A quick-thinking astronomer saved the day, or rather night, by pointing to the cascading stars at the end of Leo’s tail. He told the king that these were the queen’s tresses placed in the sky by Aphrodite for all to see.
The king and queen were appeased, and no priests were beheaded.
Bottom line: The constellation Leo once had a tail, a clump of faint stars. Now these same stars are known as Coma Berenices, the hair of a queen.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.