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This webpage reproduces a section of
Star Names
Their Lore and Meaning

Richard Hinckley Allen

as reprinted
in the Dover edition, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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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 dishevell'd light.

Pope's Rape of the Lock.

Coma Berenices, 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 Πλόκαμος Βερενίκης Ἐυεργέτιδος. But for nearly 2000 years its right to a place among the constellations was unsettled, for it has been the ἀμόρφωτοι 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), the brother and husband of Berenice, whose amber  p169 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 Arsinoë Aphrodite at Zephyrium.​a 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 Βόστρυκος Βερενίκης;​1 and his poem on it, now lost, was imitated 200 years later by Catullus, in one of his most beauti­ful odes [LVI.62‑69; the English that follows here is much abridged], 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 Boötes, who sinks late and reluctantly into the deep ocean.

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, some supposing the saint to have been the Herodian Bernice, — in Latin Beronica, — converted to Christianity through her sympathy for the Saviour's sufferings. Lady Eastlake has fully told this story in her continuation of Mrs. Jameson's History of our Lord.

Hyginus had Βερενίκης πλόκαμος, and Ptolemy, simple πλόκαμος for three of its stars among the ἀμόρφωτοι of Leo, calling it νεφελοειδής συστροφή, 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 graecē, latinē vero cincinnus, hoc est, caesaries & coma virginis, Berenices fortasse crinis qui ā Poeta Calimachoº in astra relatus est. Sed cincinnum barbari tricam vocant. The Almagest of 1515 already had Trica, describing it as nubilosa and luminosa; but Bayer  p170 changed this to Tricas, Tericas, and Triquetras, taking these probably from the Low Greek τρίχες, which doubtless is the origin of our word "tresses."

Pliny wrote in the Historia Naturalis [II.178]: nec [cernit] Canopum Italia et quem vocant 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​b 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, p134, that

It has been suggested by Landseer, Sabaean Researches, p186, 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, p295) 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, 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 Berenice's periwig; while another old-fashioned name has been Berenice's Bush, found in Thomas Hill's Schoole 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 Boötes 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,  p171 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 Ḥauḍ, 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 Ḍafīrah, 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, e, and f, Lang Wei, Official Rank; pLang Tseang, a General, and vShang Tseang, a Higher General;​2 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.

Argelander numbers thirty-six stars here, Heis extending this to seventy; and Chase, of the Yale Observatory, has taken measures of thirty-two of these. The constellation culminates about the middle of May.

Although it is not easy for the casual observer to locate any of the individual stars except the lucida, three have been lettered — α, β, γ — 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 Ḍafīrah, 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 Kissīn, a species of Ivy, Convolvulus (bindweed), or perhaps the climbing Dog-rose. This appeared with Ulug Beg, evidently from Ptolemy's κίσσινος, 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.

 p172  Near Fl. 6 is the Pin-wheel Nebula, NGC 4254, 99 M., one of the pyrotechnics of the sky; while Fl. 31 closely marks the pole of the Milky Way, more exactly in right ascension 12°40′ and north polar distance 28°; the southern pole lying in Cetus.

The Author's Notes:

1 The word Berenice, sometimes Beronice, is from Βερενίκη, the Macedonian form of the purer Greek Φερενίκη, Victory-bearing; and is the Βερνίκη, or 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; Βερενίκη having later become the Low Greek word for amber.

2 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.

Thayer's Notes:

a For a complementary account, see Bevan's The House of Ptolemy, p192.

b It is Allen who makes a mistake, not Holland, whose translation of the passage in Pliny is as correct as that by Bostock and Riley. Allen has clearly relied on a secondary source, since Holland's translation (Plinies Naturall History, II.70) reads

neither hath Italie a sight of Canopus, or that which they name Berenices haire.

Although like everyone else, Philemon Holland occasionally goes wrong of course, he is one of the more accurate translators of Pliny, his translation certainly being better, for example, than that found in the Loeb edition.

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Page updated: 4 Mar 14