Sunday, April 23, 2017

The beautiful and important constellation Coma Berenices

Right now is one of the best times of year to go out at night and try to locate the challenging but extremely beautiful and mythologically-important constellation known as Coma Berenices, or "Berenice's Hair."

The constellation is located just beyond the "outstretched arm" of the constellation Virgo, which is currently sailing across the heavens during the prime viewing hours after sunset and through midnight and beyond -- and when Virgo and hence Coma Berenices are near the highest point on their arc across the sky, they are farthest from the "ground haze" of light and dust and thicker layers of atmosphere that lingers near the horizon, and thus your best opportunities for observing Coma Berenices come when Coma is high in the sky.

Additionally, because Coma is such a challenging constellation to see, finding Coma Berenices is much more difficult (and often impossible) if the moon is anywhere in the sky. As we are now approaching the point of new moon (which will take place on April 26), the best times to try to find Coma Berenices will be up to the point of new moon, as well as the first few nights after new moon (but wait until the new waxing crescent has set -- it will be following the sun very closely for the first few nights after new moon).

The best way to locate Coma Berenices is to get away from any city lights, driving out to the country if possible. Once you know where to find this elusive constellation and have seen it in the heavens for yourself, you actually can find it on a dark night from within the "city limits" of a small town or suburban location, but only if you get away from any street lights and only if the constellation is high in the heavens and no moon is present.

Coma Berenices is made up of very faint stars, but (somewhat akin to the Beehive Cluster), you can almost "sense" it in the heavens when you are looking in the right place, and like the Beehive it does consist of a dazzling cloud of tiny stars, although covering a larger area than does the Beehive Cluster. Berenice's Hair is also not very far from the Beehive in the night sky -- you can see them both at this time of year. The Beehive travels ahead of the mouth of Leo the Lion, and the constellation Virgo (who is reaching up towards Berenice's Hair) follows behind Leo.

Below is a star chart showing the location of Coma Berenices, above the outstretched arm of Virgo and in front of the Herdsman, Bootes.  Bootes is fairly close to the Big Dipper -- his brightest star Arcturus is orange, and can be found by following an "arcing" line from the handle of the Dipper (the old saying says "Follow the 'arc' to Arcturus"):

The easiest way for me to locate Coma Berenices is to follow the line of the upward-reaching arm of the constellation Virgo. Virgo is particularly easy to locate right now, because the jovial planet Jupiter is presently traveling through the constellation. Jupiter is the brightest object in the night sky right now, until Venus rises in the early morning hours ahead of the sun. Of course, when the moon is up, it is brighter than both Venus and Jupiter.

If you follow the outstretched arm of Virgo, you will come immediately to the "handle" of Coma Berenices, which stretches upwards along roughly the same line as Virgo's arm (upwards, that is, for viewers in the northern hemisphere). To the right (or west) of this vertical "handle" you will see the shimmering cloud of stars which make up the "hair" of Berenice.

Here is how groundbreaking author H. A. Rey describes Berenice's Hair in his book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them --
Small and very faint. Contains a group of dim stars, visible only on clear, moonless nights when the constellation is high up. Shown here as a few strands of hair fluttering from a stick between the star Cor Caroli and the Virgin's outstretched arm. 
This constellation owes its name to a theft: Berenice was an Egyptian queen (3rd century BC) who sacrificed her hair to thank Venus for a victory her husband had won in a war. The hair was stolen from the temple but the priests in charge convinced the disconsolate queen that Zeus himself had taken the locks and put them in the sky as a constellation.
Of all our constellations, Berenice's Hair is the one farthest from the Milky Way [I believe he here means, "in terms of its location in the sky," as opposed to "farthest in terms of actual distance in space"]. With the queen's hair overhead you don't see the Milky Way: it [meaning "the Milky Way"] then runs along the horizon, blotted out by the atmosphere near the ground. Thus no hair can ever get into the milk, celestially speaking. Best time: April through August. 36. 
While it may be true that the constellation's present name stretches back to the name of the historical Egyptian queen Berenice (during the Ptolemaic period), the constellation figures prominently in myths around the world, sometimes involving the theft of the hair of a goddess (such as the myth of the theft of the hair of the goddess Sif, in Norse mythology), by which we can know with a great degree of certainty that this constellation and its mythological associations are much older than the 3rd century BC. 

Anyone who reads Star Myths of the World, Volume One will find that Coma Berenices plays an important role in myths found around the globe, including in myths from the Maya, from the cultures of the Pacific Islands, and from the Menri people of the Malay Peninsula. That volume also discusses an aspect of the Isis and Osiris myth from ancient Egypt which also involves Coma Berenices. I would argue that the mythological connotations associated with this particular constellation are so similar in so many different parts of the globe that they constitute more evidence for the possibility that the world's ancient myths may descend from some now-forgotten, extremely ancient common source, one which predates even ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia by thousands of years.

Before we take a look at a few ways in which Coma Berenices appears in myth, let's look at the constellation itself. Below is a "close-up view" of the stars of Coma Berenices as they appear in the sky. The cloud of stars which gives the constellation its name can be seen near the top of the image, about three-quarters of the way across the rectangle:

Below is the exact same screen-shot of the region of the sky containing Coma Berenices, but this time the outlines of the constellation are drawn in and labeled, along with portions of the outlines of the nearby constellations of Virgo and Bootes:

Following the outlining convention suggested by H. A. Rey in his book, four "lines" have been drawn from the top of the "handle" towards the cloud of stars to the right (or west) -- but, as you may be able to see from the diagram, there are actually a lot more stars hovering in the region of the end of these four lines (to the right of the right end of each line, as you look at the image). These stars make the constellation quite beautiful, and extremely satisfying to gaze upon, if you are able to locate it.

Once you have successfully located the constellation under ideal conditions, you may be able to dimly perceive it even from locations that do not have the most ideal sky-viewing conditions, if you know where to look and what you are looking for. However, you will still need a pretty dark night, with no moon, clear skies, and Virgo high in the sky.

From the above images, you will be able to understand that, although the ancient myths do indeed incorporate Coma Berenices as a lock of hair that has been cut off (usually from a figure played by the constellation Virgo -- including Sif from Norse mythology, Isis from ancient Egypt, and the mother of Maui in the Pacific Islands), the constellation Coma will also appear in ancient myth as a torch, a whip, a bunch of flowers, or even as a "feather-duster" or "whisk" of sorts (usually of peacock-feathers).

Many goddesses associated with Virgo the Virgin are depicted in ancient myth and ancient artwork as carrying a torch, which I believe to be associated with Coma Berenices in most or all cases. For example, below is a piece of pottery featuring red-figure artwork, unearthed in the ancient city of Vulci along the northern coast of Italy (Vulci was an important Etruscan culture center in ancient times). In it, we see a goddess who is usually identified as Kore, the Maiden (a name for the goddess Persephone), in the act of sending forth Triptolemus to spread good agricultural seeds and farming practices around the world:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Note that the goddess is holding what appears to be a long torch with some flickering flames turning upwards at the tip (which is pointed downwards in the image). The torch would not really seem to be an integral part of the scene -- it seems to be a little out of place, in fact. I would argue that it is a celestial detail, and that the goddess is associated with the torch because of the relative locations of Virgo and Coma Berenices in the actual night sky.

Note also that the goddess is sending Triptolemus forth in a chariot drawn by winged serpents, which she has loaned him for the task. I believe it is possible that the inspiration for the winged serpents comes from the constellation Hydra in the sky, which is a long serpentine constellation located underneath Virgo and which is also very visible at this time of year (and somewhat easier to see than Coma Berenices). Below is a star chart showing Virgo and Leo, with Hydra stretching beneath them (the head of Hydra is actually "ahead of" or even further west than the front of Leo the Lion, even though Virgo is  "behind" or further east than Leo in the sky):

Note in the above star-chart that the constellation of Crater the Cup, on the back of the serpentine figure of Hydra, could well be envisioned as the "wings" of the winged serpent in this particular instance. Note also that the figure of Virgo in the sky can be envisioned as being "seated" upon a throne or a chariot. Figures associated with Virgo are often depicted as riding on the backs of lions, or in chariots or carts drawn by lions, no doubt due to Virgo's proximity to Leo in the heavens. However, because Hydra is also adjacent to Virgo, sometimes the goddess also has access to a chariot pulled by winged serpents, as in the story of Triptolemus.There are literally hundreds of other myths which feature the constellation Coma Berenices which we could explore -- but what has been discussed already should be enough to establish the fact that Coma is an extremely important constellation in the world's ancient Star Myths. This fact makes finding Coma Berenices in the night sky all the more thrilling, in my opinion. On top of that, however, finding Coma Berenices is an exciting challenge, and once you are able to locate it, the constellation itself is also extremely beautiful, even if faint.For all these reasons, I hope that you will have an opportunity to try to observe Coma Berenices in the night sky over the next few nights -- and the next few months -- if it is at all possible for you to do so. 

image: Wikimedia commons (link).