Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC was among the first to make note of this faint group of stars. It is actually a large, loose galactic star cluster some 250 light years away that appears as a faint shimmering patch of light on clear moonless nights.
As a cluster, Coma Berenices is by far at its best in a pair of good binoculars. If, on the other hand, you attempt observation of it with a high-powered telescope the impression of a cluster will become totally lost because of the telescope’s narrower field of view.
The story goes that Berenice sacrificed her beautiful amber tresses and placed them in the temple of Aphrodite at Zephyrium as she vowed to do if her husband returned victorious from his war against Syria. Shortly after the royal couple’s happy reunion, however, the hair mysteriously vanished, apparently stolen from the temple.
But it was Conon of Samos, a court astronomer and mathematician, who eventually convinced the disconsolate queen that the gods had taken the locks and put them up in the sky.
There is yet another variation of this story, in that Conon first points out the stellar gathering to a very angry Ptolemy, who apparently was very fond of his wife’s beautiful hair!
A bad hair night
The story of Berenice’s hair would have likely remained obscure and unknown were it not for the Greek poet, Callimachus, whose poem The Lock of Berenice formed the basis for our understanding of this constellation’s history. Later, after the fall of Athens, The Lock was thankfully preserved by the Roman lyric poet Catullus, who translated it and added it to his own collection of writings (number 66) in the 1st Century BC.
What makes The Lock strange is its angry narrator: Berenice’s hair itself! Apparently, the queen’s golden tresses were none too happy with their new place among the stars:
"Though placed on high, sad absence I deplore,
Condemned to join my lovely queen no
more . . . .
To heaven the goddess raised me, bathed in
An added splendour to the starry spheres."
Such is the story of how the cluster probably received its moniker, though this region of the sky was not generally recognized as the separate constellation of Coma Berenices until the beginning of the 17th Century. Initially, in fact, many of the star atlases of that era did not depict this star cluster as a celestial hairpiece.
Indeed, in various star maps of the late Middle Ages the cluster was identified as a rose-wreath or ivy-wreath, and occasionally as a Sheaf of Wheat held in the hands of the nearby constellation Virgo. Others saw it as the hair of Sampson, not Berenice, while still others regarded it as a tuft at the end of the tail of Leo, the Lion.
Credit is usually given to the astronomer Tycho Brahe for first cataloguing it officially as Coma Berenices in the year 1602. [more]