Sky Archive

Leo loses his tail. We gain a constellation

The chart above shows the sky in April, high to the south around mid-evening. The chart points out the constellation Coma Berenices, otherwise known as Berenice’s Hair, in relationship to another nearby constellation, Leo the Lion. You need a dark sky to appreciate Coma Berenices. If you have one … it’s very beautiful. The Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, and others, considered these stars as the tuft at the end of Leo’s tail. Coma Berenices remained part of Leo until a few hundred years ago, when it was first listed as a separate constellation with its own distinct legend in the lore of the sky.

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 hair of the queen. A quick-thinking astronomer saved the day, by pointing to the cascading stars at the end of Leo’s tail. It’s said that he told the king that these were the queen’s tresses, placed in the sky by Aphrodite – goddess of love – to honor the queen’s sacrifice.

The king and queen were appeased, and no priests were beheaded. And, today, Coma Berenices – or Berenice’s Hair – is one of the 88 official constellations.

Star chart with stars in black on white background.
View larger. | The constellation Coma Berenices.

Bottom line: The constellation Leo once had a tail, a clump of faint stars. Now these same stars are known as Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair.

Star-hop from Leo to the Coma star cluster

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April 9, 2021
Sky Archive

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